Briefly describe the work you do.
I use color photography to picture moments of coherence among our bodies and the world around us and explore our potential to exist unselfconsciously and fully present within our physical selves. The images investigate relationships among people, their bodies, and the environments that they inhabit. I am interested in the reflexivity of looking at imagery of people wrapped up in and fully absorbed by their physical and psychological surroundings.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
While in College, majoring in Art with a Photography Concentration, I spent countless hours in the studios drawing and sculpting from nude models. My photography at the time was all happening out in the world, collecting images, but everything else I made concerned the human body. Eventually I began making photos of people too, starting out with the formal nudes that I knew so well from my academic art training. My work has changed immensely since then but looking back, I understand the roots of my persistent interest in representing bodies – or maybe now I finally understand why I was so engaged by the academic figure study in the first place.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I don’t make any photographs in the studio and people often ask me why I have a studio at all. I photograph in people’s homes or most recently, out in the Wissahickon woods around a local swimming hole. I do share a studio with three other artists who also use photography and teach art in Philadelphia area colleges. Our space is in an old bandage factory in Germantown, a beautiful historic neighborhood in Philadelphia known for its Quaker history and later, its economic struggles. We use the studio to come together to discuss our work and our teaching. I think of the studio as a place to spread out my ideas on the table, to receive feedback from my work and figure out what happens next. I look forward to the informal critiques that unfold naturally when my studio mates are around. We all benefit from the support and critical conversation. We also discuss our curricula and the questions that we are working through as teachers. Bringing students over to the studio is always rewarding – my teaching and practice feel intertwined and supportive of each other and when students come to see the work and hear artist talks from my studio mates, it all comes together so well.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
Drawing from a model in the studio had a certain coldness but when I started photographing people and their bodies, I immediately felt like a collaborator with my “subject.” I now depend so much on others and their openness towards me and the camera. Making work at Devil’s Pool in the Wissahickon, for instance, is a very social give and take and I love it when people ask me what I am doing and when kids want to look through the ground glass of my Rolleiflex to see what’s going on in there.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
As a teacher my summers are incredibly productive out in the world with my camera. During the school year my work heads more into the studio for a period of assessment and reflection. During times of slower productivity in the studio, working with students keeps me engaged with ideas and the process of inquiry. I have been teaching full-time for four years now and have developed a seasonal flow that is sustainable. I make a huge number of photographs during the warm months. Winter is a great time for reading, writing, editing, printing, and analyzing and processing the work into coherent thoughts.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
Over the past five years I have moved through three projects, but all deal with the body in relation to environment and onlooker. I have photographed people in their own homes, and then myself in mine, perhaps as a response to that. I am currently devoted to looking at the people swimming and reveling in nature at Devil’s Pool, a place where I am able to expand my admiring picture of everyday bodies, their owners absorbed in unselfconscious presence. Physical vulnerability and the freedom that can be born from it is a theme that runs through all the work.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
My interests have led me to admire painters who have represented real human forms, naked and free in their vulnerability and strength. David Hockney, Jenny Saville, and Philip Pearlstein are a few whose work has had an impact on me. My work has led me to think about the politics of looking at the body and the writings of theorist Michael Fried, who complicates photography in relation to painting, theatricality, and voyeurism. Justine Kurland’s photographs and Will Oldham’s music inspire me for their romantic take on reveling in the everyday freedoms and joys of having a body. Similarly, Thomas Eakins’ 19th century photographic studies of his male students jumping and bathing in a lake near Philadelphia have always communicated something exciting to me, from the first time I saw them as a teenager.
With his work, my teacher, Willie Williams, has taught me the magic of photographs that unfold slowly and reward a patient viewer. Right out of graduate school, for three years I worked for Dwight Primiano, a photographer in New York City. His mentorship helped me navigate the struggle to make work while also earning a living and to find a balance that I am grateful to have (mostly) sustained since then.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
Making work and teaching support one another and I hope to keep doing both! I also volunteer for a non-profit in Bolivia, grow a veggie garden with my brother, take care of 165 year old house in Philadelphia with my husband, and go fishing whenever possible.
Sarah Kaufman received a BA from Haverford College and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has had solo exhibitions of her photography at Saint Joseph’s University, Haverford College, Soho Photo and Porter Contemporary galleries in New York, and has participated in group exhibitions nationwide. Kaufman’s photographic and curatorial projects have been reviewed in ARTnews Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Art at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania where she teaches all levels of Photography and cross‐media Studio Practices. Kaufman lives and works in Philadelphia and is represented by Porter Contemporary Gallery, NY.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.