An ACP Interview With Sandra-Lee Phipps

June 4th, 2013
(This interview between Sandra-Lee Phipps and Michael David Murphy took place in a cafe on Peachtree over a couple of iced coffees. Sandra, who teaches at SCAD, has a current exhibition at Whitespace called "Safe", and will be giving an artist's talk at the gallery on Thursday, June 6th, at 7pm.)
MDM: What does it mean to explore the idea of safe and safety-ness in a place that feels particularly safe like rural Maine? SLP: Is it 'particularly safe'? MDM: It's both, right? It's safe from other people, but it's dangerous from the elements and Big Bad Nature. SLP: Living in a place like that, you definitely experience nature -- trees falling down and not being able to leave the house. It snowed once and we couldn't open the front door. It took hours of shoveling to just get into the house. People would drive across the ice on the lake. It felt very remote; we didn't have a lot of neighbors -- it felt safe to be taking the pictures, in the poncho, by the river.
MDM: Last week we were talking about Todd Haynes and "Safe" and Julianne Moore in the lead role in that film -- in that movie, she has an internalized feeling of danger about the external environment. Safety now, especially with terrorism, is that the problem is internal, it's within us, and we externalize it as a problem. SLP: We always want to point at something else, other than ourselves. And that movie is kind of about that. Things that seem safe -- like the scene at the birthday party, when she's sitting there and gets a bloody nose. To most, the suburbs are a safe environment. The whole point is that she was having this allergic reaction to everything that was supposed to be sterile and safe. it's exactly what I'm thinking about in these pictures: the unknown of protection. That you can build walls to protect yourself, when you really can't. That what you're trying to deal with comes from within your society -- people are praying to be protected rather than praying to be brave and deal with the danger at hand. I'm not trying to put up walls, I'm just trying to experience the landscape -- in my transparent wardrobe.
MDM: How does being a mom play into your ideas about the potentiality of safety and procection and danger? SLP: When you have kids, your whole idea of what is safe and how much you can protect people from anything changes. I was pregnant on 9/11, and that's a whole part of where this came from -- raising children in this environment of fear started to affect me. I started thinking about it too much. They asked, "how come when we get here we have to take our shoes off -- and what are they looking for?" Most of my daughters best friends in Brooklyn were in their first day of elementary school on that day right underneath the WTC. All of those kids saw those buildings come down. The war began the year my son was born. I was stuck at home, watching this war unfold in front of me, and this whole idea was "this is going to make us safe?" To be attacking countries. If we call it Code Orange, we're suddenly safe. MDM: All you need is an orange slicker! SLP: That'll do it! Yeah, on 9/11 we were on our way to NYC for amniocentesis, that day, and I was informed that we weren't going to be able to get there - that Manhattan was closed, and my daughter wanted to know what happened, and I told her. I told her in the way you can tell a kid at that age. It was terrifying. We knew people that were there and affected by it. Everyone I knew in Maine said, "don't tell your children anything..." And I learned a little bit about expressing the reality of fear to children -- you have to be careful, but at the same time, they know. Her friends had seen it happen. In Maine, you feel protected, and people move there to feel that, but there's no protection. MDM: And being naked in a slicker isn't going to protect you from the backwoods, either.
MDM: There's a feeling that the subjects in your pictures aren't rooted in time, or place, or face even. There's something about how they're performative -- that there's a superhero-ness to them. That they're our Safety Ambassadors. SLP: I feel like there's a braveness to putting on the cloak, or membrane, and going out into the world anyway. With just that to protect you. MDM: It's like high fashion with the see-through raincoat. SLP: Yeah, there's bravery there, and I wanted to see what would happen if I did this with something else, and gave the poncho to these girls, these identical twins. I gave the girls the outfits, and they did things in unison. We did the project over years, and these girls always wanted the same poncho, they didn't want to switch, it was theirs. MDM: There's safety in the same over time, regardless of how everything changes. Whether it's the landscape, or us that's changing, at least we have the same damn coat we had in high school. SLP: I still have the poncho in my car! One in the gallery and one in my car!
SLP: There are pictures in the installation that are scans of the poncho, and I did them on the morning they captured Bin Laden, and they look like shrouds. They have faces in them. MDM: Oh, boy. SLP: Yeah! It's really strange that they have faces that are really there, and the headlines the next day were "We Got Him!", and I thought, "really?" MDM: Yeah, let's go party in Lafayette Park! SLP: We got him! Why would you celebrate that? I don't know. But the videos in the closet at whitespace have an element to them that women see related to the deep struggle of childbirth.
MDM: Your work is very much an exploration of an idea of safeness, even the ridiculousness of safety. SLP: What's funny is trying to experience that feeling when you're out with the poncho on, and you're nude in the forest, you begin to feel what it's like to be exposed in that way. MDM: I like the idea of the thinnest of membranes that keep us psychologically feeling like everything's alright. Whether it's the poncho, or whether it's the idea that America's #1 and can't be beat. That's what this thing's about, right? SLP: Definitely! I don't mean it directly, but it's also about birth, and moving through one thing to another. Seeing one side to the other. Even then, there's no safety in the womb.
MDM: And your talk is on Thursday? SLP: I've never done that before. MDM: Come on, you've never talked about your work before? SLP: No! I do with my students; I tell them my life story! I talk about the documentary work in the city first. But this is such a different thing. I shot some of this work in a documentary style, but I want to keep pushing how you can take photographs conceptually, without direction, where you set-up a scenario and just let it go. MDM: Isn't it the issue between the beauty in something that's staid and perfectly arranged, versus a situation where you have the arena, the players, and anything might happen? SLP: Yeah, I'm going to have my orange membrane and I was fighting-off goats and sheep the whole time I was shooting.
MDM: What did you learn from Sylvia Plachy and Larry Fink? SLP: That you gotta keep going out and taking pictures. If you're not willing to keep doing it... You can't call it in. Every time I see either one of them, they have their camera(s) out. My one goal when I moved from Athens to NYC was to work for the Voice, and it was because of Sylvia's pictures. I wanted to learn from her and she taught me so much indirectly, as a human being. She's wise. You have to keep going out and doing it -- and if you don't, it's hard to stay relevant as a photographer.

Big Shots: Andy Warhol’s Polaroid Portraits, an Interview

September 19th, 2008
As part of ACP's collaboration with Art Relish, here's an interview with Margaret Shufeldt, Curator of Works on Paper at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, discussing "Big Shots: Andy Warhol's Polaroid Portraits," showing now through December 14.

Here are more ACP interviews! (Thanks, Art Relish!)

ACP 10 Lecture Series Interview w/ Christopher Bucklow

September 18th, 2008
We were able to spend a few minutes with Christopher Bucklow before his lecture at Woodruff Arts Center last week. This video is in collaboration with the fine folks at Art Relish. And don't forget to check out other ACP Interviews!

Robert Glenn Ketchum Interview

January 30th, 2008
Last Thursday, before Robert Glenn Ketchum's presentation at the Carter Center, ACP had the chance to sit down with him and find out more about his work. Ketchum has an exhibition at the Carter Center through April 13th, and his show will be at Lumiere Gallery through March 1st. This image is of a loom weaving that was four years in the making, a collaboration between Ketchum and the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute in China.

Press the pink play button to listen to the interview, in three parts.

Robert Glenn Ketchum Interview © "Loom Weaving", Robert Glenn Ketchum

On the 60s, Eliot Porter, Glen Canyon, advocacy, spiritual doors, the Hudson River.

On Alaska's importance, old-growth, legislation, living the adventure, embroideries, digital manipulation, collaboration, textures with textile, avant-garde schooling, photo-realistic textile, Hockney's rugs, Nixon, textile guilds and negative space.

Choose Joy, 2006
© "Choose Joy", Robert Glenn Ketchum, 2006

On how to turn reflected light on water (in a photograph) into a weaving.

Street Life @ the High Museum (with mp3)

January 1st, 2008
The High Museum quietly opened a great show of vintage photography during the holidays. Julian Cox, the High Museum's head curator of photography, led ACP on a walk-thru of "Street Life" the morning it opened. The exhibition contains work from four photographers who were mining the documentary tradition in the 60s and 70s. Photographs include a large section of Garry Winogrand's "Women Are Beautiful", photographs from Danny Lyon's "The Bikeriders", Susan Meiselas' "Carnival Strippers", and Dennis Carlyle Darling's photographs of biker gangs in Chicago.
Darling Dennis Carlyle Darling Meiselas Susan Meiselas
Lyon Danny Lyon
According to Julian, the show is the direct result of donor-based acquisition, in which specific patrons enabled the High to purchase "monographic strength" work from these four photographers.I want to specifically thank Julian for his time and for the chance to record his thoughts about the show while we walked through the rooms. There's an mp3 segment of our chat below. "Street Life" occupies the ground-floor gallery reserved for Works on Paper, and will be up until April 20th, 2008. Download mp3.

Joel Meyerowitz Interview

December 2nd, 2007
Joel Meyerowitz, JOEL MEYEROWITZ Laundry, Cape Cod, 1982who currently has a show at Jackson Fine Art, chatted with ACP last week about the nature of his work.

From the energetic bustle of NYC's Fifth Avenue in the 60s, to the dusty-colored evenings of Truro, Massachusetts in the 70s, and most recently the rolling hills of Tuscany, Mr. Meyerowitz artfully presents the world as he sees it. His most recent book, Aftermath charts nine months of clean-up at Ground Zero, a photographic project that has become part of the permanent record of the City of New York. Simply, Mr. Meyerowitz's accomplishments are legendary. Many thanks to the Meyerowitz Studio & Jackson Fine Art for setting-up this interview, and to Joel Meyerowitz for his time.

ACP: You have your Cape Light era pictures up at Jackson Fine Art, and I'm curious as to what the transition was like for you, from your earlier street work to the large format photographs on Cape Cod? Were you finding a limitation in the 35mm work? Did you want to step back, take more in, and describe as clearly as possible what you were seeing?

MEYEROWITZ: That's exactly, precisely what it was for me. In that particular period of the 70s, when John Szarkowski was at MOMA, some of the underlying themes of his philosophy dealt with description. Description was what photography did - first and foremost. You press the button and the camera describes what it's pointing at. That's all it really does. It's what you point it at, and how consistent you are, and how interesting you find subject matter that gives your work a dimension, and a shape, and a reason for being. But in the beginning, all the camera does is describe what's in front of you. You can't make it more than it is; it just is what it is.

I think my generation probably were influenced by this kind of thinking and expression, so I started making 35mm pictures that let go of the subject in the center of the picture, and I moved to a more overall take on things. And that led me, when I saw the space in that kind of photograph, to the view camera. I could make pictures of very deep space, and have incredible resolution all through the space. So I talked myself into working with the large format camera, to gain this description, but of course I lost a certain amount of mobility in the exchange. The hybrid was interesting to me, because I tried to keep the camera like the 35mm - open and ready for use, rather than packed-up in a box, and I worked as quickly as I could. So, that, in a sense is what the difference is, and I've always felt that all the years I spent out on the street were very instructive to me, when I became a large format photographer. Incredibly helpful really. And then I think that the work I did with the large format also illuminated for me new options with the 35mm. It re-seeded itself, it nourished me in a new way.

ACP: In looking at your work, it's not that you made the transition and stayed with one or stuck with another, or disavowed what you did in the past -- there's a very fluid way of working with these multiple formats, and that's why I was asking what that relationship has been for you.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, what's interesting about it is if you think about music, 35mm is jazz. So, the riff, the spontaneous and immediate riff on something that comes out of nowhere is what that instrument does well, and the view camera is a more classical approach. It's slower, more meditative, it has a different way of showing its content, and yet you can be a jazz musician and play classically, like Keith Jarrett, or you can be a classical musician and love jazz. In a way, each form illuminates a quality in the other one, and so for me, it opens me up to be a more meditative and reflective photographer, rather than someone who's working out of pure intuition and immediacy. So, I liked the additional knowledge of slowing down. I didn't know about slowing down when I was only working in 35mm, but once I worked with the other camera, I learned something about stillness and spaciousness and contemplativeness, so those things have reinforced themselves and given me a new way of considering things. And it's also a language. It feels as if I enlarged my capacity for language by changing tools.

ACP: You've been talking about your artistic relationship to the tool that you chose to express yourself; have you found that your styles of working have influenced your personality as well, or have you been personally in the center, and worked with both ends of the spectrum - the quick and fast of the 35mm on one end, and the slow, meditative view camera on the other?

MEYEROWITZ: I think it has changed me, for the better. I've noticed over the years (I've been shooting the view camera now for thirty-one years) and I've had many people say to me, in response to the view camera work, how Buddhist it is, how meditative it is, and often, if I've given a public lecture, frequently, someone will come to me afterwards and say, "are you a practicing Buddhist?" and I realize, in some ways, whatever has happened to me through using that camera, and its slowness, and the studied, reflective quality of it, has quieted me down. I still have some of my street humor. I can feel it come out when I'm in front of an audience and doing whatever I do, I'm always having a good time, but I can also feel this other side - and I realize that yeah, I am - and maybe we're all this way, that we have various aspects of our personality, but we don't develop them always. Because something doesn't call us to explore that particular area. So I feel lucky that I stumbled through this doorway of description, and landed on the other side where there was this meadow of contemplation in it. So on one hand, there's the street, with all this noise and jazz and energy, and on the other side, there's this long walk. And I'm in the long walk space now, in ways I didn't know I could have been.

ACP: Your current show that's up at Jackson Fine Art. As we did the walk-thru, we were talking a lot about the archival pigment printing of the pictures that are up there. On the camera and enthusiast side of things, digital is definitely remaking photography in many ways. I'm curious what you see as happening in photography in terms of interest, and the art market that didn't exist for photography back in the 60s has exploded - where do you see all of these things going?

MEYEROWITZ: Photography's always been a very democratic medium. In a sense that the camera's the same. It used to be 35mm, and now it's digital. The camera's the same, though - people pick it up and use it, like a fountain pen. Everybody writes something with it; a check, a story, a prescription. It's writing. And photography's the same - it's democratic in that way. Everyone can use it, but not everyone makes art. I think what's happened digitally, is that there's been this huge explosion of access to imagery because you can print them at home. Or you can put them up on flickr and share pictures this way. So it both expands the market, and not necessarily makes it that much more interesting or better or artful, but it brings more and more people into it, so there's a greater possibility of someone discovering their voice.

ACP: There's definitely an explosion, not just of digital, but in these little subsections, of even something like street photography, people are looking backwards and seeing what's been done, and looking ahead and trying to figure out how they can go about making work that knows its past and moves forward. There's a lot of it going on right now, it's an exciting time.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, it is! It's been enriched. The potential for more interesting artists, just like it is for filmmakers - if you can put together a movie with iMovie and your little digital camera, you might discover the meaning of film for the next generation, and make a contribution toward pushing the language along. And the same is true about photography. It both lowers the quality on one hand, and it expands the universe of workers, especially because you can make prints and slideshows and all that stuff! It used to be that you had to borrow a slide projector, because not everyone owned a slide projector.

ACP: You were talking about cameras and pictures as a language, and being able to say things and shape them. In your own work, are you more interested in saying things that might be poems, or saying things that might tell stories? Where do you fall on that?

MEYEROWITZ: I don't fall into the story realm myself, because I don't think in storylines. I think that photography is probably closest to poetry and music. I see very often a kind of musical notation when I put pictures together. I think of it in some kind of lyrical form. And I think individual pictures are closer to poetry in the way they're read and the meaning they shed. I've always found them to be non-narrative objects. That's why they always had to have captions underneath them. Nobody could figure out what was going on.

ACP: Or that's why "the run" can come together, because you can't have a run of things that immediately make sense on their own, necessarily.

MEYEROWITZ: Right. So they're little fragments of poetry and they make you feel a certain way, and you put ten of them together, by the time you get to the tenth one, you have a dark emotion, or you feel lighthearted, or you feel something's working.

All images above © Joel Meyerowitz

ACP 9 Lecture Series: Alec Soth

October 29th, 2007
Magnum photographer and large-format portraitist Alec Soth drove down from Minneapolis to Atlanta for the ACP Lecture Series at the High Museum. We were fortunate that Alec was willing to have a quick chat before his presentation, and doubly fortunate our friends from SCAD (and were willing to shoot, edit, add a soundtrack, credits, and upload for us! Thanks, all. ACP is excited about continuing to shoot more interviews (with our SCAD friends) and ACP-oriented videos for this blog, so stay tuned!

ACP Sponsors