Philadelphia-based Sarah Stolfa is a fine art photographer who holds an undergraduate degree from Drexler University and an MFA from the Yale School of Art. She’s most famous for her series, The Regulars, which won the The New York Times Photography Contest for College Students in 2004 and became a popular book with an introduction by one of our favorite writers, Jonathan Franzen. After the jump she talks to Flavorwire’s Adda Birnir about changing her visual language, seeking out the universal trauma in American culture, and suggesting the link between religion and sports in her work.
Flavorwire: You got a lot of attention for The Regulars series, which you made while working as a bartender in Philadelphia. From looking at your images now, your method, style, and format has changed quite dramatically. How did this change come about?
Sarah Stolfa: I needed to drastically change the way I made work after The Regulars. I did not want to apply the same visual language to a different subject matter. I changed cameras and working method, even to the point where I would build boundaries about how I would photograph, like not allowing myself to take a straight on formal portrait. Sometimes it is beneficial to break yourself of your habits of working, to impose a different structure.
FW: Do you set out to photograph specific subjects, places, or events?
SS: I make list of things I want to photograph, subjects, places or events, and try to situate myself within them, but along the way life happens and a photograph may present itself. It is both premeditated and discovered. The list of things, people, events or things that I think may give a glimpse to the issues or ideas I am exploring.
FW: Can we see one of these lists?
SS: There is no photograph of these lists, its my working method, just for me. On the list there are both general ideas and concrete things like:
FW: What is this most recent body of work about?
SS: There is an undercurrent of trauma and isolation in America that affects its individuals, its landscape, and its culture. This undercurrent manifests itself not only in obvious times of crisis but also in incidental moments of everyday life. My photographs link together to create a new reality in which disparate worlds are shown to be contiguous.
FW: What do you mean by trauma?
SS: Trauma is an experience that produces psychological injury or pain, it can cause patterns or actions to be repeated, and can cause areas in our lives not directly affected to become affected. The trauma is personal, communal, and cultural and can be induced or underlined by violence.
The trauma of violence in American culture can be seen in a funeral of a teenager, a prison built on a riverfront, or a lap dance. In my work America is a place where a landscape from Mississippi can reside next to a lone girl standing in the wreckage of a car crash in Connecticut, and the pictures will inform each other.
FW: Are these images linked to our present time in America?
SS: I think the work is linked to our present time. America is in a state of trauma with the state of the economy, the political landscape, violence, education, racial issues, the list goes on. But at the same time, trauma is apparent in all times and cultures.
FW: The images do not feel personal. Do you feel they are in some capacity?
SS: They are only in the way in how I view the world or take from personal experience to lead me to the things I photograph. It began as a personal story of sorts, but I wanted it to be more general, speaking of a collective experience with trauma or loss.
FW: Where are the photographs from this newest series taken?
SS: They are from different locations around the country, from Los Angeles to New Haven, CT.
I am invested in the range because what I am thinking about it is an American investigation, that what I am talking about is as common here in Philadelphia as it is in Los Angeles — it’s a product of being American. Each place is its own, and the pictures could not have been taken within 10 miles of each other. The pictures look similar, or are each a piece of a whole, which helps create a seamless world regardless of location.
FW: Some of your images depict very intimate moments and places. What is it like photographing at a funeral or a strip club? Do you build relationships with your subjects?
SS: I do not build long-term relationships with my subjects nor am I part of the community, in most of the photographs. In a few instances the subjects are close to me. It is uncomfortable to photograph at a funeral or strip club, worlds that are not my own, but I purposefully put myself in uncomfortable situations in an attempt to make pictures that are not safe, or pre-visualized before hand. In the bar series, I had a sense of how the pictures would look in the end, in this work I do not until I am there and responding intuitively.
FW: Death, injury, and the vulnerability of the human body (in contrast to the virility of the teenage male body) feature prominently, why?
SS: Trauma affects the body, even those of the young who should not have to face such things so early in life. The body shows the trauma of our physical and mental state.
FW: Given the effect of trauma on the body, what purpose do the images of young healthy men serve?
SS: In the image of the funeral the young healthy men must carry the burden of violence. Pallbearers should not all be teenagers, but when a member of their community is murdered, they carry that trauma. In the image of football players on the sideline sideline, the figures standing are contrasted by the injured figure on the ground.
FW: Religious symbols and sports intertwine in the work. Do you think they serve similar functions in American culture?
SS: Sports and religion can induce an equal amount of fervor in a person. They are prominent in that it is where our money goes, they infect our politics and politicians, how we spend our time. My American experience informs that, if you watch TV or see ads or exist in the broader culture, it is everywhere. They are as American as apple pie and trucks.
FW: There are almost no women portrayed in your more recent work. Was this a conscious decision?
SS: It was not a conscious decision.
FW: Do you think male trauma is more public, played out on a more grandiloquent scale (wars, sports injuries, crime, political controversies)?
SS: I would not make any claims that there is an underlying meaning as to why there are more men than women in my pictures.