New York photographer Sally Davies is a bit of an anomaly. She’s a woman in what many see as an overwhelmingly male “game” and, if that weren’t enough, she’s a street photographer too, well, sort of. That’s the other side of this anomalous coin – she’s a “kind of” street photographer. Sally’s work straddles the proverbial fence between street and documentary, or is it street and fine art? Yes, she is not to be defined by a genre and this is precisely what I love about both her work and the woman herself. A true artist in today’s photography circus is a rare find, but if Sally Davies is not one, then there isn’t one to be found. I recently sat down with Sally to shoot the breeze. Here’s that conversation:
Michael: Why street photography?
Sally: I did a fair amount of studio product work to pay the rent earlier on, and so going outside hunting for visuals was a great change from the studio. Life is like a ball of snow that we roll down the street, hoping it’s big enough when we get to the end of the road to build a snowman. Along the way it picks up random stuff – sticks, stones, gum wrappers, glitter, dirt, and who knows what else. The seasons change too. All of a sudden it’s spring, and your ball of snow has melted and you’ve got a pile of this stuff that you didn’t exactly go looking for. An artist will look at that pile of stuff and understand that’s what they have now. When my snowball melted somewhere around 2000, I had some cool stuff in my hand, and decided to keep taking photographs.
Michael: Sally, I understand you came from painting, can you tell us how your experience as a painter informs your photography?
Sally: Painting taught me how to look, how to see, how to problem solve in a 2D situation. Formal fine art painting training is not easy. My first assignment in color theory class was to make 500 one inch squares each one painted with gouache, starting with the black square on the left, and grading to white square on the far right with each square of grey changing in between. When they were all lined up together, the eye should not see a square. Then that assignment repeated itself with pairs of other colors, and so on and so on…that type of visual rigor never leaves you. You learn that there are no bad colors, only good or bad combinations. Then from there you move on to light and how to address darkness and light on a flat plane. You struggle with all this, and so much more, before you even begin to find your emotional voice. For me, everything I learned about painting, and by that I mean myself, applied in equal measures to taking photographs.
Michael: How do you reconcile your work with the term “street photography”?
Sally: I still have not reconciled it. I have super respect for real deal street photographers. To me, those are the guys that are not doing any post work, most are shooting with small point and shoots and all are looking for “the decisive moment” as everyone calls it. I don’t always fit into that category. Sometimes my most successful images are without action. Sometimes it’s a storefront with graffiti that tells the story, without a person. Sometimes it is a busy bustling street corner with a whole lot of nothing going on, but you still get the “vibe” and you are transported somehow when you look at the photo. Isn’t that the point of it all?
I think the street photography format, as we know it, is slowly expanding to include other visions, and that’s a good thing. It must…if it is to survive in this brave new image-world.
Michael: You’ve had some success in terms of gallery representation and sales, but there have also been some stumbling blocks. What do you feel is the stumbling block between “street photography” and the “art world”? How do we overcome it?
Sally: If I knew the answer to that, I would open an art gallery and we would all be rich. At the recent AIPAD show here in NYC, I spoke to several curators and art dealers and asked them what was the current trend with photography. They all said similar things independently of each other. Collectors are not stepping up for street photography. They are unsure of their investment, and they don’t know where the whole photo thing is headed. It’s a sad state of affairs when collectors are only buying as an investment, but that’s what we have now. To be fair, this applies to the fine art world too, not just street photography. Galleries and their dealers are struggling under this investment trajectory also. So who knows? Something will shake out of it all. Just keep breathing and keep shooting and if the biz gets right with itself you’ll still be there with your work.
Michael: You’ve lived in whose apartment?
Sally: When I moved to NYC in 1983, I lived in a ghetto drugged out building at 170 East 2nd Street in the East Village. Allen Ginsberg lived there before me. By the time I moved in the front door was removed so people could walk in off the street to buy their dope, but It was still one of the only buildings on that block that wasn’t burnt out. I guess that’s why we lived there.
Michael: Sally, what do you want to achieve with your work? What will be your legacy?
Sally: History will decide on my legacy and I will likely be long gone from this dimension before that decision is made. But I do hope when I die, my work makes some kind of sense, that it not only documents a certain place and cultural time, but also tells my story.
Michael: If you could do it all over again, would you still be an artist?
Sally: That is an existential question that I have never been able to answer. I am sometimes envious of people who are not visually driven, but pretty certain one can’t “un-be” an artist. It’s like wanting to be a different color, or a different race. It is who I am and I suspect it’s in my DNA. When I was five, I was building chandeliers out of plastic flowers I found in the garbage. At six, I was re-arranging my bedroom furniture trying to solve the “spatial dilemma”. Artists are challenged by life, in different ways than other people are.
Michael: What do you look for in camera gear today, in the digital age? How do you feel about the constant stream of “new” models?
Sally: None of us can imagine what’s coming. Its funny, every new camera I buy I think will be the last one I’ll need. Every year the technology takes another giant step, but the gear should help you accomplish your mission and nothing more. I’m not a person who goes out with two or three cameras, but I do admit to appreciating some pixel muscle because I love big art. If I had the space and the money I would surround myself with ten-foot photos. I feel the same way about paintings. I like to walk into a room and feel very small by comparison. I want art to feel more important than me, and even though I get the intimacy of small photos, I like to print large. Fortunately technology now offers that option in a small camera. I just purchased a Sony RX1 R11 and, for now, its an amazing little piece of equipment.
Michael: I know you come from some extensive Photoshop experience, how important is the post-process to your workflow? Do you see the many hours spent on Photoshop as analogous to the darkroom of the “old days”?
Sally: Yes-there is no doubt that today’s computer is yesterday’s darkroom, and for those who think extensive post work is a modern phenomenon, just look at the before and after photos of Ansel Adams “Moonrise 1941”. They are barely the same photo. He was a darkroom master. If he were alive now, he would be a Photoshop master. The amount of time one spends in that space varies from artist to artist. I get nervous if I’m working on a photo for more than five or ten minutes. I don’t adhere to that saying, “I’ll fix it in post”. If I didn’t get the good shot in the camera, I usually throw it out. There are more than enough to go around out there. Not to say there should be a rule about it, but I don’t want to look at a street image and know it took three hours to achieve. That is not interesting to me. The longer I stay in the game, the less time I spend post-processing.
Michael: You’ve made a name for yourself in photographing New York City’s East Village. Part of that identity is not only the subject matter, but how you photograph it: You often work after dark and people are not the main element in most of your frames, although often present. Now, you’ve gotten up and taken off to LA. Does the Sally Davies aesthetic transfer well? What do you hope to accomplish under the California sun?
Sally: I’m answering this question from a house high on a hill in LA, so it’s too soon to know if my aesthetic got on the plane with me. But my guess is it did. An authentic aesthetic is the way one sees the world. It’s the way we translate visuals from our emotional language to a screen or a piece of photo paper. The terrain may change, but the need to explain what I’m seeing to the world, remains. It’s a good question though, one that I asked myself before I left New York to come west.
To what extent my style is a result of what I’m shooting, and to what degree it’s something much deeper…more about who I am, will hopefully be revealed here in these LA photos.
Michael: Diane Arbus?
Sally: We all want to know who each other’s favorite photographers are; it helps us understand the process. As we change and evolve, and hopefully get better, the list of artists’ that influence us changes too. That said, there are a few for me that still shine after forty years. Topping that list would be Diane Arbus. Not because I aspire to do similar work, and not because she was necessarily the best photographer around at that time, but because I will never forget how I felt when I saw “Sword Swallower” for the first time. My response was so visceral; it set me off on a particular path, and explained instantly how consequential the emotional footprint is to any work. That was a pivotal moment. So for me there was my life before that image, and my life after.