Whether Sara Cwynar is assembling intricate chromatic ensembles of found objects or reappropriating, remixing, and collaging vintage imagery, her work is a consistently striking blend of vibrancy and obsolescence, painstaking curation and playful haphazardness.
In the midst of completing her MFA at Yale, preparing for numerous upcoming exhibitions, and making 16 mm films, Sara Cwynar chatted about her personal philosophies and processes around image-making.
How does your background studying literature continue to inform your creative practice?
My literature background always comes into play, I read and read and write and then make pictures as the last step so even if you can't see it directly, it’s there. But recently I've been working in 16 mm film and writing voice overs that pull from anthropology, from rereading Walter Benjamin who is one of my favourites and from some fiction (Don Delillo is someone who comes up a lot for me). So the connection is becoming more explicit. I also made a book called Kitsch Encyclopedia that took three years to make and has informed everything else I’ve done. It uses texts from Milan Kundera, Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes to formulate a relationship of Kitsch to images, illustrating these writings with hundreds of photographs that I’ve taken or collected.
How does your experience with the images you produce differ from the way you hope the images are perceived?
I like to open my process up to all the random things that can happen in the studio. I’m not actually a super precise technical photographer, though I am really interested in a lot of technical aspects of image making. I like to just aim for what I want and see what happens. So a lot of mistakes, like a light leak, a fold in a paper, a mark of a photoshop tool, can be interesting elements of the picture. These things also hint at the constructed nature of all photographs.
What materials, concepts, or quotes have served as recent sources of inspiration?
I have been really deep in reading anthropology and trying to understand why old objects continue to resonate through time, how we place our aspirations and memories and feelings in objects, and why these things might matter to on some fundamental level. For example, something I’ve been reading the other day was Entanglement Theory, the idea that objects need us just as much as we need them, that we give them purpose and use value and character in the world.
I have been trying to understand why old objects continue to resonate through time, how we place our aspirations and memories and feelings in objects, and why these things might matter to on some fundamental level. For example, the idea that objects need us just as much as we need them, that we give them purpose and use value and character in the world.
Are there objects that you find yourself returning to?
Yes, I often acquire things and keep them in the studio for years before I figure out what to do with them. Right now I’m working with these Avon presidential bust cologne bottles from the 70’s. I have collected about 50 of them and I keep accumulating them, photographing them, staring at them in studio! They were a prominent feature of a film piece I made last year and now they will be the majority of my next show. So things fade in an out of use for me but are always in the back of my head. I have a sort of catalogue in my head of everything I could use at any time.
How do you choose the foundation images for your pieces?
I look through old encyclopedias, I comb eBay constantly, I look in libraries and junk stores. I’m especially drawn to images that were once very fashionable or trendy but have faded into kitsch. I am interested in the idealism of so many commercial photographs made during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (during the height of modernism) and how this has faded, and what it means for how we live and make images now.
Where does the boundary exist for you between revelling in the uniqueness of the individual components in your pieces and allowing them become part of a whole?
I actually try to capture all the detail of everything when I’m photographing. My goal is really to stuff as much into the frame as I possibly can. I want everything to resonate as its own object within the whole, and I want the whole to be overwhelming to look at in a way. I come up with these systems of organisation (for example, rebuilding an existing photo of a floral still life, or gathering a taxonomy of George Washington cologne bottles) but within these systems I try to let things stand on their own. I’m particularly interested in how individual objects may have warped and faded with time in the same way as the photographs I use as source materials.
Your work seems to deal frequently with the idea of obstruction producing a new way of seeing. What other conceptual links exist between your distortion pieces and your collages? How do they differ from one another?
They are both about culling something from the past and giving it a new life in the present. So rebuilding, or reworking existing images with the tools that are available to me now.
What are your latest projects?
I am doing a solo exhibition at Retrospective Gallery in Hudson, New York opening September 26. I am also part of an exhibition at Andrea Rosen in Chelsea opening September 10 and at Hunter East Harlem Gallery starting October 14. I’m also starting the last year of my MFA at Yale right now. Things are a bit nuts but in a good way.