by Steve Bisson

© Sophie Barbasch from the series 'Queen City of the Plain'

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

Sophie Barbasch (SB): The very first photo I took was of my dad when I was three. It’s a little blurry. The first photographs I remember were from a trip when I was seven. I took 24 crooked frames inside the plane of the seat and the window. I’ve always taken a lot of pictures and a lot of boring pictures! This is still my process. I like translating whatever is going through my mind into the mini-motion of pressing the shutter.

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

SB: Often, my process is about wandering and finding. It is almost a non-research. For better or worse I am resistant to knowing beforehand what I am going to shoot—at least I was until recently. Now I also stage things. But my favorite thing to do is to go out without a plan. In one of my first photo classes, I was working through some ideas, and the teacher said, “maybe it’s about not knowing. Maybe your thing is not-knowing.” I don’t think she meant it as a compliment, but I have come to embrace it. I also think it’s true of most photographers. If we knew exactly what we wanted and why, we wouldn’t do it.

Tell us about your educational path. What are your best memories of your studies?

SB: I studied art at Brown during undergrad and got my MFA in photography at RISD. In grad school we scanned and edited our images in a very tiny room. I hated the room. I spent many 12+ hour days in it. It felt crowded when there were more than 2 people. But now I miss the room. I miss the specificity of the activity, of the goal, and of sharing it with those people. I miss going out for burgers afterward. It’s hard to describe how glorious the burger seemed after a day in there.

© Sophie Barbasch from the series 'The Source of Heat'

About your work now. How would you describe your personal research in general?

SB: I make work in different media about a range of subjects. But there are a few things that fascinate me no matter what: I am obsessed with the tension between structure and dissolution. I am also compelled by the mechanics of belief and of how we become convinced of something. I like images that obstruct knowledge—that involve a covering up, a turning away, a negation of some sort. I try to understand duality. It might be a formal duality or a strange contradiction or a subject that is in between two places or two mental states. Because these themes can surface within any subject matter, I am constantly scanning my life to see if there are any potential ideas to pursue.

Books. What about your particular editions? What are the main thoughts behind them? And what about the dialogue between words and images?

SB: I have different kinds of books: one project involves making a photo book every month. So far I have done 3 years. I also make handmade books with images and image/text combinations. But the majority of my books have to do with craigslist.

For the past five years, I have been asking men on craigslist questions about love, loneliness, and regret. When I receive their emailed replies, I compile them into books. I edit them, but only very lightly. Each hardcover book has a theme. For example: I ask men, "please write me a love letter" or "tell me about a mistake you made" or "what do you do about heartbreak? or "is it normal to be lonely?" I then compile the books into a set. The first set of 10 books I made is titled 'Training to be a Girl'.

© 'Training to be a girl', set of 10 hardcover books

The second set of six books is titled 'Hello I am Lonely'. These pieces function like pseudo-textbooks for the longing, lovesick or merely curious reader. I see myself as an editor of these voices that emerge from the void of the internet. I ask questions that I really need answered. The replies soothe my anxieties and make me feel less alone. I think it does the same for the people who write to me, and that is the reason why they respond. Each book is a series of fragmented voices that join each other, decontextualized, abstracted, like an improbable poem.

© 'Hello I am lonely', set of 6 hardcover books

While the project serves me personally, I also have an agenda. For example, in 'Tell me why I'm a good girl' I explore antiquated notions of femininity. By having men voice problematic stereotypes as though they are in fact positive, I bring to light some of the hidden, everyday misogyny that is so familiar to women and yet so subtle and difficult to describe. In 'Please send me a picture of your bed' I play with photographic tropes about intimacy; the beds become portraits of the men, and yet it also becomes clear that a photograph is never truly informative--that it can never really bring us close enough to the subject.

© '2015', set of 12 hardcover books

This distance between having information about these men and yet never knowing who they really are is at the heart of my work. The men tell me about everything, from love to heartbreak, incest to robbery, cheating to numbing loneliness--and yet I barely know anything about them--the reader knows nothing about them. Where do they live? What are their names? How old are they? We don't know. The tension between intimacy and anonymity is essential to the project. It reflects not only the reality of Internet culture but also something fundamental about the struggle to find true connection with another person. 

Tell us about your latest series 'Fault Line'...

SB: 'Fault Line' is an in-progress series of photographs about my family. Like many people, I have a lot of restlessness and pain when it comes to family. There are a lot of conflicts and a lot of unresolved issues. There are also a lot of related images in my mind that I wanted to create. Some of these images are from real events and some are imagined. My goal with the series is to create a world where everyone is isolated in the middle of the wilderness. When people come together, it is strange and ambiguous.

© Sophie Barbasch from the series 'Fault Line'

In some of your works prevails a narrative force that seems intended to bring out the sense of a place. People are mostly captured acting in their natural state of belonging. What are your main intentions in documenting situations such as in 'Queen City of the Plains' and 'Tornado Season'?

SB:I shot these projects in Peoria, IL and Nebraska City, NE during two different artist residencies. As someone who was raised in New York City, I find the Midwest different, almost exotic. For Tornado Season, my process was very straightforward: I asked to take pictures of strangers. I attended a lot of parades and went on daily walks through different neighborhoods. Near the end of my time there, there was a devastating tornado in the town next door. I was intrigued by the contrast between the vast quiet plains—that extremely quiet existence—and the destructive drama of a tornado. Disrupted ground is also an ongoing theme that interests me, so I incorporated it into the title. In Queen City of the Plains, I had a similar process. I went to parades, car shows, and football games. I was also interested in the spaces themselves—the stretches of empty sidewalk, the store windows, the unpeopled roads. The goal of each project was to make a simple, first-impression portrait of a place.

© Sophie Barbasch from the series 'Queen City of the Plain'

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

SB: These days I am really liking George Awde, Sofia Borges, Martin Kollar, Anna Shimshak and Lieko Shiga.

Three books of photography that you recommend? 

SB: 1. 'Elemer' by Marton Perlaki. 'Elemer' is simultaneously didactic and mysterious. It is like an instruction manual that can’t be read—that is open to interpretation. The book is about this unknown figure and it is also about the idea of the figure. It is about these commonplace objects—a brush, a bucket, a potato—and also about the idea of these objects. In creating these parallels, Marton Perlaki points to the space between them, in turn suggesting that even the most everyday scenes are not exactly what they seem.

2. 'The Swamp' by Sofia Borges. Sofia Borges creates a strange, unsettling universe with her pictures. She plays with the relationship between seeing and knowing. She takes mundane things and makes them surreal. I see her book as a wonderful translation of her studio process, as well as the way she creates unexpected relationships between images in physical space.

3. 'ZZYZX' by Gregory Halpern. What stands out, in addition to the pictures themselves—which are beautiful and ambiguous—is the amazing editing/sequencing job. The images are both rooted in a specific place and also not really about that place. There is a precarious roughness that he builds throughout the book, which lends the work a quiet urgency. At the same time, the pictures are not cynical.

Finally been raised in New York. Could you tell us a bit about the places you most remember of your childhood? Now that you have grown-up how do you look at the city? How would you describe it to someone who has never been there.  

SB: This question reminds me of a conversation I once had with a friend. He asked, what is New York for you? And the thing that came to mind was driving home at night along the Hudson River past the George Washington bridge towards my childhood home. The city has many such moments of beauty and contemplation. Usually I tell people that growing up in the city is a lot quieter than people think, but then again, it's hard to compare with places I never knew. Now, I feel a love-hate relationship with it. It's a very hard place to live, but at the same time, it makes a lot of sense to me--as a city. I've never found anything that makes, on a personal/emotional/intuitive level, quite as much sense to me. Describing it to someone who has never been there, I might say: there are many cities within cities. Even now, as it gets more homogenized and gentrified, there are an infinitude of experiences and ways to experience the place at any given moment. It sounds cliche but its true. 

© Sophie Barbasch from the series 'Tether'


Sophie Barbasch
urbanautica United States