Monday, January 25, 2010

Photo Essay: Sarah Small


Interviewed by Anthony Rhoades

/One/: You often explore dissociation in your photographs.

Sarah Small: Yes, I’m fascinated by themes or characters that are entirely separate from each other brought together into the same space. I contrive scenarios that combine people with distinctive visual personalities and then look for the tensions between the ordinary and the implausible. I photograph a lot of animals, too, particularly in close interactions with humans. This ongoing series of work is titled The Delirium Constructions. Usually I work with sets of models who might never meet in real life—constructing unsettling fantasies, like the elderly with people in their physical prime—who are experiencing one another’s presence in an intimate context for the first time as I shoot and direct them together. When my perception of a scene shifts all around without landing, when I see an undetermined dynamic that seems endlessly explorable, I know an image has been made. I enjoy dynamics that are hilarious and serious simultaneously. I’ve experimented with this dynamic—this feeling that cannot quite be identified—in still photography, singing, and in performance in a recent Tableau Vivant, held last winter. I brought 35 models together in various states of undress and in interactive narratives as a centerpiece for a party.


/One/: What makes this an interesting subject for you?

SS: Thinking about my upbringing, much of what occupied everyday family conversation was observing and analyzing all the absurd and mysterious contrasts within the human condition. And to this day, most casual family conversations revolve around this topic. Ideas and human themes that can contain both seriousness and silliness are endless sources of empathetic connection and laughter in my family dynamic. My mother’s father was a psychoanalyst and she grew up on the grounds of a mental institution. Through her observations in these surroundings, as well as her immersion in her own immediate and extended family, she has countless stories that are at once tragic, mysterious, and hilarious. My father’s family upbringing was also unique. His mother was a jazz pianist and his father was a colonel in the army as well as an opera fanatic. My parents are both musicians, my dad a pianist/modern composer and my mom a Renaissance lutenist. I grew up with few emotional boundaries but a long list of structural and practical rules that made little sense to me but had to be followed. I was taught by my mom to be deeply empathetic to all humans around me and not to judge anyone, while simultaneously I was offered the tools to make light of everyone and everything around me. We love to laugh. We also tend to study our surroundings closely.


/One/: What about the human condition inspires you when making photographs?


SS: Humans are unpredictable and layered with surprises at every turn. I very much enjoy working with the passion and unpredictability of human subjects. Unlike some photographers who use storyboards, I do not work with preconceived ideas. Instead my work is created through improvisation and unpredictable outcome. With or without a camera, this is what I enjoy most about being around people. I love navigating the search for truth and being a witness to all the in-betweens. I love observing people on the subway or on the streets. And I also love watching people watching other people. This is where I gain most of my personal and photographic inspiration and this is one of the reasons I love New York so much.

When shooting, my subjects and I theatrically improvise, collaborate, and experiment together. I talk a lot—sometimes nonstop—and ask a lot from my models. It is important for me to create a playful environment so that experimentation in any form is emotionally cushioned and safe. I direct models into spontaneous interactions and try to encourage the idea that anything goes. I move my subjects and myself around in the space until something sparks my attention. When an experiment takes life I start to shoot faster. The rhythm of my shoots tend to go in waves, moving from slow and deliberate to fast and frenetic, and back again.

I am just as interested in graphic expressions in humans as I am in thematic ones. I love working with models with unique facial or body structures, interesting skin textures or other textural elements which to explore.



/One/: If you weren’t an image maker, what might you be doing?

SS: I actually do spend quite a bit of time not being an image maker, and I don’t think I’d feel happy or complete without creating both photography and music. When I’m not photographing, I spend my time singing, performing, and composing vocal arrangements with my a cappella quartet, Black Sea Hotel. When I discovered Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares in college, I became entranced immediately and started playing the one album I had all the time. Shortly after moving to New York, I saw an ad on Craigslist about auditions being held that same day for a start-up Bulgarian Women’s Choir. I was the last remaining founding member of that choir before forming into my current band, Black Sea Hotel. Now we rehearse out of my kitchen and perform at rock venues, bars, parks, and the occasional concert hall. We create contemporary arrangements of traditional Balkan folk songs (mostly Bulgarian, but some Macedonian, Romanian, and Greek). I recently realized that my sonic compositions are not so far away in intent from my visual constructions in photography—uneasy, sensual, and on the edge of dissonance, while also being simultaneously playful and densely harmonic.

If I wasn’t image or music making, I think I would be doing some form of social work or psychology. No matter what, I’m sure it would involve interacting and collaborating with other people in some capacity. I have also considered acting. I took an improv class last year, but it was more challenging that I could have ever expected. I was sort of terrified in class, trying to come up with catchy methods on the spot for captivating myself and those around me. I thought I’d be great at it because I’m rarely nervous around people in real life, but I was wrong. If I wanted to go into acting, that would be a vastly different professional trajectory.


/One/: I’ve read that you go into a photo session with only a vague idea of what you wish to get out of it. Essentially creating an atmosphere, setting the stage so something interesting may transpire. In the end, how much is you and how much is the collaboration of your subjects and the environment that you’ve created for them to interact in?


SS: It really is a collaboration. I create the environment in which to explore my models interacting and I set the tone through a combination of directing and simply waiting and watching.

I love my models so much. It is their trust in me and our trust in our collaboration that make my work possible. And the more I work with the same subject, the more synergistic our collaborations become. Generally my repeat models become close friends.


/One/: Your parents are artists and musicians. Do you think that your upbringing has had an effect on your art, or exposed you to a side life, so to speak? If you were raised by an accountant and an insurance salesman, how might your images be different?

SS: I’m sure my images would be totally different had I been raised by different parents. I may not have even become an image maker or musician. They instilled in me curiosity about people and generated in me an openness to endlessly explore human behavior. Also, my mom and grandmother were both photographers, so maybe the passion is in the genes, too. I think my mom is an amazing photographer and wish she still took as many pictures now as she did when I was growing up. Like me, she loves observing people and capturing emotional moments.

It’s funny to think of someone in my family as an insurance salesman. I don’t know anyone who does work like that in my entire extended family. I kind of wish I did… I think.



/One/: Tell us something we don’t know about Sarah Small.


SS: In Fall 2010, I will again bring to life The Delirium Constructions as a living, breathing image. This will be my second Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions, preceded by several work-in-progress mini tableaus with question and answer sessions. etc. for which to workshop the final vision.  As referenced above, last spring, I arrayed 35 models in various stages of undress into interactive narratives on platforms as a centerpiece for a party I threw in Brooklyn.

I brought the models together into improbable, close interactions to examine the social and graphic contrasts of youth and experience, hysteria and discipline, tragedy and hilarity, and sexuality and desexualization. The next tableau vivant will continue on the same path but will be on a grander scale and with new axes of experimentation. Tableau II will feature 120 models, a larger audience, and will introduce musical elements in collaboration with singer Shara Worden and my a cappella group, Black Sea Hotel. Using original vocal arrangements, we will provide live soundscapes interplaying harmony and dissonance within the visual experience. I am so thrilled for this event.

I wear black and gray mostly but I have a bubblegum-pink bedroom with a chandelier and frilly pink things everywhere. My sister Rachel has red hair and freckles and is going to school for forensic mental heath counseling. I’m kind of scared of dogs but love cats. I will travel to Tanzania at the end of the month. I dream about bears a lot and collect them around my house. I’ve taken a self-portrait Polaroid every day for 13 years.


Sarah Small

Sarah Small

Sarah Small was born in Washington DC in 1979 into a family of musicians and writers. She fell in love with photography when she was 13. In 2001, Small graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently lives and work in Brooklyn, photographing, singing, and teaching at Parsons School of Design.

The Delirium Constructions is her current and ongoing body of still photographs exploring disassociated characters brought together into the same space. Small brings her models into improbable, close interactions to examine the social and graphic contrasts of youth and experience, hysteria and discipline, tragedy and hilarity, and sexuality and desexualization.(

In Fall 2010, she will gather together 120 models in various stages of undress into suspended interactions to create a large scale Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions. (

Since 1997, Small has taken a Polaroid of herself everyday. She plans to pursue this project for life.

Her work has appeared in publications including Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. It has been exhibited at Exit Art, The Corcoran Gallery, and The Australian Center for Photography. Small has also been the recipient of several awards and was recently named by American Photo as one of the “ Top 13 Emerging Photographers” working today.

When she is not photographing, Small sings, arranges music and performs in Brooklyn’s Balkan Vocal Quartet, Black Sea Hotel (

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