Wavepool – With a lot of your work being based in collage, how does photography inform your practice? What qualities of the photographic image are you interested in tapping into?
Serrah Russell – My work is certainly influenced by photography. I studied photography as an undergraduate and still think very photographically in the way I create collages. What I crop out and what I leave in feels very similar to shooting and selecting what to keep within the frame. The act of photography is so much about choice, about what to include and what to crop out when looking, to determine precisely what we want to show to others. I continue this process within collage. It’s just that typically instead of looking outward into the world, I am looking at the world of photographs that already exist and further highlighting, pointing at, drawing together.
There is a quote that I love by Stephen Shore: “The artist starts with a blank page and must fill it. The photographer starts with the clutter of the world and must simplify it.”
I find myself within the middle of that.
Wavepool – Where do you pull material from to work with?
Serrah Russell – I pull material mainly from advertisements found in fashion and lifestyle magazines. I find it most interesting to work, even struggle, to find a moment within the material that speaks to intimacy and evokes a personal association, especially within imagery that is intended for another purpose, like sales and commerce. I try to steer clear of using material where the intention of the imagery comes from an artistic perspective.
More recently I have begun to create my own material, by shooting instant film and digital photos. The final collage works that come from that material has a different feel. They are often much larger, as they are created in a digital realm and can be scaled up more honestly, where as physical collage stays grounded within the scale of the original printed material, typically magazine spread size.
I’ve also begun to incorporate objects a bit within the collages, like a thin gold necklace, an oyster shell, resin, stones. Those objects come from my own personal life and experiences, usually found, salvaged or gifted. I have been investigating how images can stand in for objects and I am curious if objects can do the same. What happens when they are married together?
Wavepool – When using your own imagery or objects, do the collage works have a different feel aside from the physical characteristics?
Serrah Russell – Hmmm… physically the works definitely look different. The images that I have photographed myself contain less imagery of the body, and more nature and environmental juxtaposition. The images themselves appear less fragmented, because I’m doing the majority of the cropping of the image in camera, so the overall look is more contained, formed traditionally as a diptych or as an overlaying of two images.
In using objects, whether they are my own or found, I think they evoke the quality of containing personal significance, whether to me or to another. They feel like objects that have been collected or salvaged, even treasured. I believe that both objects and images carry with them their past history, and even if we don’t know exactly what that history is, it’s something we feel.
There is a quote by Stephen Shore that I just read, it says “I imagine that it’s quite possible that the quality of mind can imprint itself on a picture through the choices a photographer makes” and I see that within my work, where my state of mind comes through in the act of creating, in some form, whether the viewer can pinpoint it or not. So to answer your question, thematically, I don’t see too much difference within the collage works, whether my imagery or another’s. I treat the image pretty similarly, at least I try to, and this is helped by using photos that I either shot years ago, so I have forgotten some of the context and can see them with fresh eyes, or shooting imagery specifically to be manipulated within collage. The images are less precious that way.
Wavepool – Stephen Shore seems to be a prominent influence, at least at the moment. What other artists are on your mind?
Serrah Russell – I wouldn’t say that his work specifically is an influence, but his thoughts on photography have definitely been resonating with me lately. I began teaching an Intro to Digital Photography course this quarter and the research I have done to prepare for that has caused me to return to some of the classic photographers and to do more reading on theory.
Recently I’d say that artists on my mind are those who are using photography in a non-traditional way, both embracing it and rebelling against it. Uta Barth’s way of using banal images to focus the act of seeing is always intriguing to me. Wolfgang Tillman’s attention to objects, and their ability to be evocative of human feelings is stunning. I love his series from the book If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. I’ve also been looking at Edward Steichen, Edward Weston and Harry Callahan lots lately and just becoming completely enthralled. I love the way they each, in their unique way, give such meaning to often overlooked objects, bringing poetry and meaning through abstraction, drawing attention to the overlap of landscape and the body.
I’m sure I’m forgetting lots, but at this moment, those are the ones that come to mind immediately. Interestingly enough, although much of my work is collage and appropriation, I’m often less influenced by artists who work in those mediums, but am more influenced by photographers in general who have a strong sense of editing within their images, cropping very purposefully, constructing their images in a way that feels collage-like. Gabriel Orozco and Laura Letinsky come to mind.
Wavepool – Based on some images I’ve seen recently, it looks you’re sometimes working in other modes, such as sculpture or video. Is it exciting for you to be working that way?
Serrah Russell – It is.
I always like, wait, like isn’t the right word, rather I need to challenge myself. It feels good, or rather necessary, to put myself in a position of the unknown, where I can’t fully anticipate the future. It’s terrifying and anxiety inducing at times. And nearly every time, I end up telling my husband that I’m going to stop making art. That this is the end of it all. But usually after that it gets better. Somehow I keep doing it anyways.
The new mediums, whether video, resin, installation, are new mediums that are necessary for a specific work. Often, I don’t end up returning to that specific medium, but through the experience, I have learned a new way of seeing, a new way of working, that I bring back to my photography based work. I think it’s healthy to start at the beginning again, once in awhile.
Wavepool – Do you ever find that feeling of uncertainty when working with photographic processes?
Serrah Russell – Hmmm. Interesting question. Do I find uncertainty? Probably more like it finds me. But yes, I think there is always uncertainty in art making. For me there is uncertainty in the moments where not everything has been revealed and where I am unsure of what the work will become or how it will be perceived. I love/hate those moments just because I want to continue to push myself, to know that I am trying something new and taking risks, but it also can bring uncomfortable feelings and anxiety.
Thinking about uncertainty in photography is a compelling thought, mainly because photography can be so much of a collaboration. Where as mediums like painting or printmaking involve a build up of material, acting with addition rather than subtraction, for me so much about photography is the editing out, the choosing what to point at from within what exists. So there is uncertainty there, because what exists in front of you or with you in that moment is not easily controlled.
To see more, please visit Serrah’s website.