12.15.2011

Interview: Sarah Girner



From Transience of Things series © Sarah Girner

Katie Young: What originally sparked your artistic interest in photography?

Sarah Girner: My interest was sparked very early on: When I was eight years old my mother took me to the darkroom of an Arts Center and I watched her expose pieces of paper to light and carefully place them in the developer tray where the images would appear ever so slowly, so that initially I thought I was imagining it. It was like watching a magic show. I remember the awe I felt and the silence of the darkroom. I still feel that way today.

KY: I am constantly looking at and inspired by various photographers’ work. Which photographers or artists are currently or have always inspired your work?

SG: This may be a bit of a predictable answer but as a color photographer I have always studied and admired the work of William Eggleston. His concept of photographing democratically, of rejecting canonical images and instilling a sense of importance in the most mundane situations resonates with me. When I look at his images I see a part of a story. Sometimes it feels like the message of the image lies just outside the frame - just beyond the viewer’s grasp and that can be equally frustrating and wonderful. I also keep going back to the work of Rinko Kawauchi. When I look at her pictures I feel like I know her - like she’s a friend sharing all these intimate details about her inner and outer life with me. Her new book Illuminance is beautiful.


From Transience of Things series © Sarah Girner

Kelly Peloza: Was photography an instinct or a choice for you? Did the concepts and personal elements of your work precede your career as a photographer or become fully realized as you worked? Are you still questioning these ideas?

SG: Photography was definitely a choice, though it wasn’t as immediate as I would have liked. I went to university and studied history and political science and then started working as an editorial assistant at a German magazine. But somehow there was this creative void and I realized that photography was a way of filling it.

I am never happier than when I am creating images. I feel like my head can be a noisy place but when I am shooting there’s nothing but silence and an all-pervasive calm. I think that calm permeates my photographs. The act of photographing slows me down. I shoot with my grandfather’s 1953 Rolleiflex, which to me is a nice continuation of family history and tradition. Opa Franz loved his camera. He shot the wedding of my parents with it. And there isn’t a day that I don’t think of him and my family when I am looking at the ground glass. It reminds me equally of where I come from and where I want to go.


From Away series © Sarah Girner

KP: Is your self-described sense of rootlessness a driving factor for your travels or have your travels and experience instilled this state of mind about the transience of place? What are your feelings toward your current place of residence and the idea of having a permanent home?

SG: I moved a lot when I was younger. I was born in Germany but moved to the United States when I was six years old. I assimilated, learned the language, adapted to the culture and started identifying with this new nationality. Ten years later I moved back to Germany with my family - again feeling a sense of displacement. I spent the following decade repeating this pattern and skipping from country to country – from Ireland, to Spain, to Austria and finally back to New York, which has evolved into a permanent place of residence in the last five years. Today I’m married to a wonderful man who moved even more than I did and we try to anchor each other. But that doesn’t mean that the restless feeling ever goes away. So I travel.

My photographs have always been about coming to terms with my personal concept of home – it’s a confusing and loaded term for me. I think it was Graciela Iturbide that said “The unconscious obsession we photographers have is that wherever we go we want to find the theme we carry inside ourselves.” This is true for me. It doesn’t matter where I go, the images I make there always form a dialogue between these two cultures I carry inside myself. They are defined by a sense of geographical suspension and a slew of questions about my sense of belonging in this world.


From Away series © Sarah Girner

KY: There is a sense of transience or constant moving within the theme of your work. What is the relationship between you and the places you photograph?

SG: In my series The Transience of Things I focused on estate sale houses in the suburbs of Westchester County. This is where I grew up from the age of six to sixteen and the series is a study of the final moments of a home. I was very curious about this place – it always felt full of secrets and lies and regrets. The suburbs are so iconically American and stand for all the values and family traditions of the middle class that are now quietly eroding. When I walk through the houses and photograph I am confronted with so many memories. It’s odd, because they are not necessarily my memories but they nevertheless feel tangible. I can relate to them and I want to communicate this to the people that look at my photographs.

My other series Away works differently. There is no real place anchoring the project. It’s really only about my memories and the way a certain place may make me feel. It’s more of a reflection on myself and a way to communicate in images what I feel but cannot express in words.

KP: While the places and scenes in the photographs on your website are real, the concepts photographed are surreal and ephemeral. Do you explore fantasies to uncover truth or to further create an imagined interpretation of reality?

SG: I consider myself a documentary photographer. None of my images are set up or arranged: Everything that I photograph already exists in its own state and each photograph that I take is a document of a real place or an object in its physical environment. However, all of my photographs are made to communicate on an emotional level as well. I’m a chronic daydreamer and I find this is evident in my images. Places and objects can trigger so many different memories and associations in different people. Each image is equally a document of a reality and a construct of a memory. I think photography lends itself to this beautifully.


From Transience of Things series © Sarah Girner

KP: Could the same ideas you explore be expressed through writing, painting, or other media? Do you work solely with photographs?

It would be difficult for me to express the ideas and sentiments that I hope to communicate in my photographs through any other medium. If I sat in front of a canvas and had to come up with all of the elements I would want to include on it, I’d sit there for the rest of my life. The same goes for writing. I do love to write and keep a blog where I accompany my images with text that sometimes pertains to the image and sometimes tries to convey a thought that came to mind while looking at or making the image. However, I could never exclusively express myself through writing.

I love photography. I love the process - the analog process, that is. Making the image, then waiting to get the negatives back from the lab, spending hours in the darkroom making contact sheets and later work prints… All of these aspects are a very important part of my creative process. Analog photography continues to teach me about patience and slowing myself down in this world where everything keeps getting faster and faster.

KY: What would your advice be to young photographers wanting to get their work out into the world?

SG: Be persistent. Listen to and take criticism but also stand your ground. Believe in and respect the images you make. Don’t rush things.


From Transience of Things series © Sarah Girner

KY: Are you currently working on any future projects?

SG: I have been trying to get a project I’m really excited about off the ground for the last eight months (and as I mentioned before… patience is not my strong suit) and hope to begin shooting at the beginning of next year. But I am superstitious and fear that if I talk about it now I might jinx it. So… ask me again in March of 2012!




More work can be seen at Sarah's website: sarahgirner.com

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