sarahconaway_interview03

Sarah Conaway received her MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001. Her work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in the US and abroad, including Weird Walks Into A (Comma) with Lisa Williamson at The Box, Los Angeles; Project Space, Bellwether Gallery, New York; Opposition is Essential, Julia Friedman Gallery, New York; New Symmetrical Works, Julia Friedman Gallery, Chicago; Post Rose: Artists In and Out of Hazard Park, Galerie Christian Nagel, Berlin (curated by Sterling Ruby); I Am Eyebeam, Gallery 400, Chicago (curated by Melanie Schiff and Lorelei Stewart); and When Darkness Falls, Midway Gallery of Contemporary Art, Minneapolis. She has also curated numerous exhibitions under the auspices of Destroyer, Inc. in Los Angeles and Chicago. Conaway currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.


X, 2011
C-Print, 17 x 22 in.
© Sarah Conaway

Lucas Blalock: Lately I’ve been interested in the way that photography relates to jokes. I don’t mean this in terms of humor (though that can be a part of it), but in the way that a photograph I am excited about is immediate, or that this excitement itself is a feeling of immediacy, and it isn’t until later that I begin to unpack it. In the playbill you composed with Lisa Williamson, titled Keep Off Death, the two of you have a discussion in very similar terms about an artwork being “Alive” or “Dead.” Does this relate to your thinking about photography?

Sarah Conaway: If you can pick apart the contents, structure or motivation too quickly then usually the work doesn’t add up to much. So yes, I do think that a photograph should engage you immediately — it has to overwhelm you at first or why bother? Of course this need for an immediate reaction can be applied to painting or sculpture as well. One other thing; in talking about art work we are often compelled to explain what is going on, but no one really asks Louis C.K., “So, can you tell me a little bit more about what is going on in that joke you just told?”

LB: Ha! Very true… though I do think jokes specifically relate to photographs because of the way that a photograph can be understood as the product of a single decision (pushing the shutter), which is an act of timing or delivery. Although this is obviously only one in an extended set of decisions involved in a photograph’s production, I think this idea of a gestalt turn makes the photograph rather joke-like. 

On the other hand, I think that this is something that has been destabilized in the digital era. Photographs, it seems, are now perceived to be more manufactured than captured (a characteristic underpinned by the shift from a chemical burn technology to that of a text based code) but it doesn’t feel to me that this older understanding has receded as of yet.

When I look at your pictures, this question of the digital doesn’t really even enter my mind. I feel like there is something vaudevillian about the way they carry the history of photography with them into the present. I don’t mean in a referential way but in a living, breathing way. Do you feel the work in relation to these things? Is photography with a capital ‘P’ important to you?


IX, 2011
C-Print, 17 x 22 in.
© Sarah Conaway

SC:  In my work I think that I am using photography to get at something larger, but I suppose that it is the discussions surrounding the medium of photography that make it such an interesting place to work; you can reference film, performance, drawing, painting. I get bored really fast with arguments about the “truth” or “reality” of photography, if the argument is only about the material of film or how the digital has changed all that. So I am walking a tight-rope, and trying to have my cake and eat it too!
 
It’s interesting that we are using performance as a metaphor in this conversation as I do think that there is a performative aspect to the way I work. I also think that an important working idea for me, which you have nicely picked up on, is that I am trying to inhabit whatever it is that I am doing in front of the camera and breathe life into it. In my photographs I am trying to create a sense of objectness within the pictures – I play around with set-ups, using “real” objects. One major problem with all of my vaudevillian maneuvering is that I could end up old-timey and washed up.

LB: I don’t think so at all! I feel like working with such simple materials already foregrounds a kind of failure or limit in the pictures. Not to say that acknowledging a limit makes it less real, but I think that there is a generosity to acting on such a human scale. In my own work I think often about the stand-in or ‘body double’ as a metaphor and I was wondering if you could talk more about “performing” in your pictures? Are you thinking about photography as a theatrical situation? 


III, 2011
C-Print, 17 x 22 in.
© Sarah Conaway

SC: When I started using Polaroid 55 to make some of my black and white pictures, my photographic process seemed to become much more performative. I was shooting in my studio, usually against a gray paper backdrop, and I would play around with different objects and set-ups in my studio. With that particular film you would get a positive Polaroid and a negative, so I could instantly see what I had and could adjust things. It began to feel like a more performative process for me, but not theatrical so much… the objects aren’t actors.

LB: For the most part you make your pictures in black and white. Could you talk a little about why?

SC: Well, it’s funny because for a while I was totally against using black and white. I was only interested in color. But at some point when I started doing set-ups in my studio I always ended up working against a black background, and at that point it seemed like I was trying to rob things of color. I remembered that in grad school I had also done a series that was shot on color film where I was shooting scenes and images that were predominantly black and white. But my return to black and white was also dictated by my starting to use Polaroid 55 (which has now been discontinued!). I was using that film and shooting against a gray background, and it really felt like I was gaining access to another space, a gray space. So using black and white feels to me like an intuitive rather than a conscious choice to champion black and white, and I can’t seem to get out of it now. I keep making small attempts…


II, 2011
C-Print, 17 x 22 in.
© Sarah Conaway

LB: When I first saw your work it was on the Bellwether website from a show you did there in 2007 (which feels like a precursor to a lot of things going on right now). The works on the site were divided between independent pieces with titles and a suite called “Ten Large Photographs” titled with Roman numerals. I was wondering if you could talk about how you title your pieces and also how you structure a body of work? 

SC: The images that are titled on the Bellwether site are the ones that were in the show. I really like playing with words and titles; sometimes my titles are very matter of fact, and sometimes they are a little more poetic. I do like to give the works some context. I did a separate series which I called “Ten Large Photographs,” of which there are a few examples on the gallery site. This set of ten is really the most structured set of images that I have ever done. When I was working on them I had very specific goals: there would be ten, they would be a certain size, they would be presented in a specific order, I had to finish by a certain date, etc.

I ended up titling them with Roman numerals because I wanted to make the order clear and I wanted them to be seen as a set. More recently I had a two person show with the artist Lisa Williamson at The Box here in Los Angeles, and again I used Roman numerals to title those pieces because I wanted them to remain a bit structural and opaque.


IV, 2011
C-Print, 17 x 22 in.
© Sarah Conaway

LB: Before I let you go could you say a little about what you are working on now?

SC: I have been working on a new book project, and for my most recent photography I have been looking at a lots of paintings of battlegrounds, decorative Japanese screens, and religious icons. I will just have to see where that takes me.

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