Gallery artist Sara Cwynar was interviewed by Siobhan Bohnacker for The New Yorker.
“As part of our ongoing Emerging Photographers series, today we’re highlighting the work of Sara Cwynar, a Vancouver native who lives and works in Brooklyn. I have been following her work for a while, and was drawn in particular to the monochromatic “Color Studies” as well as the series “Accidental Archives”—both of which drew on a confluence of literature, kitsch, and photographic tropes, which she cites as inspirations. Most recently, Cwynar has been preparing for her solo show, opening this week, at the Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto, where she will début a new collection of photographs called “Flat Death” (a reference to Roland Barthes). I caught up with Cwynar to find out more about the exhibition and her latest work.
You’ve described your work to me before as relating to “vernacular photography.” Does this apply to “Flat Death”?
Definitely! The process behind this work involves reprinting and scanning found images and reworking them in the studio, mixing them with new objects and materials—taking them out of the shared-image world and into a space for personal, often very obsessive intervention. Most of the reference images come from a huge personal archive I have of vernacular, pop-culture images.
I am interested in the steady stream of images that comes at us from different channels in everyday life, how these have helped to build and reinforce a shared view of the world. The pictures I have made are, in a sense, trompe-l’oeils. I am trying to foreground the experience in which the photo reveals itself to the viewer, where you unpack what the image is actually showing you. This happens with all the vernacular photos you see every day, but it happens too quickly to notice it. In this work, what might appear to be three-dimensional is flat, what might seem “beautiful” or “sophisticated” is made up of junk, and what might look old is new. The intention is to confuse the reading of the picture.
Is the history of studio photography something you consider?
Yes. I am interested in recreating certain familiar aspects of product shots and commercial still-lives. The reproduction of detail, for example, or a specific style of lighting. I take a lot of inspiration from old studio photos and how what is once fashionable or forward-looking can come to look absurd with changing styles.
Equally, I am interested in contemporary studio photography; the hyper-real, retouched images that we see everywhere. I want everything in my pictures to be intentionally unpolished, filled with mistakes, and tactile: the opposite of a clean, commercial image.
I like the idea of reinvesting the personal into a highly produced still-life image of the sort that would normally be used to sell something, and using objects that everyone has filling their junk drawers—lost or valueless objects—and presenting them as having artistic value.
Do you approach the categorization of objects in a pragmatic or theoretical sense? Or are the objects selected based purely on their aesthetic value?
Much of my work involves systems of categorization, particularly in relation to failed modernist ideas of obtaining and organizing the world, especially the idea that you could document everything through photography, which was a really prevalent idea at the medium’s beginning—that cameras would allow us to obtain the whole world in a sense, get the whole thing “objectively” on film. Organizing and manipulating my archive of saved materials in the studio is a way of controlling the world through images, organizing chaos, taking a small slice of the world and reworking it under my own terms.
Color plays a large role in your images. What informs the color choice?
I am really drawn to the way that colors morph—faded pinks on printed matter or colors in plastic (there is a great Roland Barthes essay about the way that plastic always fails to replicate natural color) and how scanning can warp colors and bring out new ones. I like colors that have been messed up by time and process.
Lastly, what are you particularly excited to share in the exhibition?
Maybe because it’s the last one I made, I’m really excited about the gold picture, “Gold—NYT April 22, 1979.” I love the way that fake gold photographs. Gold is a quality of surface that remains a recognizable color when it is captured in a photograph. In this image, I loved the number of different iterations of gold alphabet stickers that I was able to find, and how the photo has a false value to it because it is made up of cheap materials but reflects one of the few things in our world that retains its value. I printed it on metallic paper so it really glows, and the surface is very tricky to read.”
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