Second Nature is a terrific book of “domestic interiors that appear at once familiar and strange.” In these 42 photographs Sarah Malakoff explores rooms and spaces that she’s carefully lit, arranged, and photographed using a large format camera. Her images investigate not only the spaces, but also the people who have created them and the narratives we construct around them.
Published by Charta, the 9.5×11″ 80 page volume collects 42 plates from her series. Introduction by Linda Bendict-Jones, Curator of Photographs at the Carnegie Museum of Art and an essay be Jen Mergel; Curator of Contemporary Art Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA.
We were fortunate to be able to chat with Sarah about the work.
TP: Can you tell us about your background and the origins of your interest in photography?
SM: I’ve always had an interest in art and I was lucky enough to have photo classes in high school. I’ve been photographing ever since. Right from the start, I had an interest in the narrative possibilities of photography. For me, the whole process from creating and visualizing an image to darkroom work was magical. I miss crafting a print in the wet darkroom, but still shoot film and am embracing the control that digital provides.
TP: What path did you take to creating the body of work for Second Nature ?
SM: I’ve been interested in interior spaces for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was constantly rearranging the furniture in my house. I think it was an attempt to transform and control my surroundings at a time when little else in life is in one’s control. I also had an obsession with period rooms in museums. I would examine the details and imagine all the dramas that may have played out there.
I’ve been working on this particular project for a long time. I started by photographing my own spaces, friends’ and family’s — locations where I spent time and could observe and manipulate. I think there are many different interweaving threads and themes that have evolved and changed over time.
One theme that repeatedly popped up was the representation of nature within the home, often in varied and humorous ways. I started to see the home as both a refuge from and, at times, a re-creation of the outside world. I then began to deliberately seek out these scenes — foliage and wildlife patterned rugs, furniture, and wallpaper; simulations of trees and rocks; window views framed like paintings, paintings as stand-ins for windows; even pets which are certainly family members but also retain their connection to their wild ancestors.
TP: Can you tell us about the experience of making the work?
SM: I still shoot large format film. I love working with film and the detail it provides. I light each scene, so a fair amount of equipment is involved. I often intervene in the scene beyond lighting and will move things in or out of the shot as I compose, arranging things to pare down or to call particular attention to an object or area, to emphasize certain juxtapositions.
Some of the most fruitful images have been the result of total serendipity. Once a friend was dating someone new who happened to mention the boat bar in his basement. In another instance, a student suggested I photograph in her apartment, but she and her college roommates were moving out the next day. I arrived and found the best vantage point to photograph the room to be in the front doorway. They toted their belongings by me and my tripod to rental trucks as I worked.
Most of the spaces are in New England and the immediate vicinity, because I tend to find and relate to things close to home. I even think there are autobiographical aspects in some of them. But I have also shot in random, farther afield places like Texas and the Netherlands. I keep them untitled because it’s not important to me where they actually are located. I want viewers to be able to relate to them on their own terms, to spark their imagination as to who and what is going on.
TP: What story are you trying to tell with this work?
SM: While there are never people in these photos, they are, of course, about people, the decisions we make, the lives we lead, our tastes and culture. Sometimes there’s a sense that someone just walked out of the frame and I think this might lead to speculation about who the occupants are and what is happening. I want to present images that suggest a narrative in the domestic sphere but require the viewer to take some creative initiative to engage with it.
I think that there is also something uncanny about these spaces. Viewers may have the experience of feeling something familiar in the images, and yet also something odd, off, even anxiety-producing in some. I have thought about other tensions as well– between absence and presence, old and new, real and surreal, genuine and artificial. Perhaps the desire to resolve these questions or tensions contributes to the curious nature of the images.
TP: Why did you decide to make Second Nature into a book?
SM: I love looking at photography in galleries and museums and exhibiting my work is very important to me. But a photo book’s intimacy is unique. It can be looked at over a longer time period, returned to again and again, and connections can be made with sequencing and juxtapositions which are different than prints on a wall.
With Second Nature, it was an opportunity to look at a larger group of the images and to create something like “chapters” which emphasize different threads.
TP: How do you prefer to look at images – and why?
SM: I think all these methods have their own particular advantages and disadvantages. Images online are a great way to discover new photographers and work I might not otherwise experience. My own audience has certainly widened through the online presence of the work, but the scale and details in my images are lost in a small screen version. I love to experience photography in person. I do believe there is something unique about experiencing the actual print the way the photographer intended. And this is important to me for my own work as well.
As I mentioned, photo books are another favorite way for me to explore images in a more intimate, slower way.
TP: What project(s) are on your horizon?
SM: I am still photographing interiors and looking specifically at the images we display within the home. My interest started when I began including pets in my images and discovered how many pet portraits are hung in our homes. My view has widened as I explore who the subjects of these images are and what their connections to the inhabitant may tell us.
TP: What drives you to create photographs?
SM: I love exploring my surroundings and larger culture through photography. Ultimately, I think it all comes back to the desire to tell stories. While there are many media capable of narrative, I’m fascinated with what a still image can imply and what it holds back or obscures.
Get Second Nature at Amazon.
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