For this month’s column, we had the opportunity to talk with Boston-based photographer Sage Sohier, whose work “Sculptor with Model of Chuck Close in his Summer Studio, Norwalk CT” hangs on the first floor of Shad. Sage’s work has been exhibited at museums such as the MoMA in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago and has appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Vicky Sung: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! We noticed one of your works on campus called “Sculptor with Model of Chuck Close in his Summer Studio, Norwalk CT” and we absolutely love it so wanted to ask you about it. But first off, would you mind introducing yourself to our readers and tell us a little bit about your work and practice?
Sage Sohier: Sure, I’m a photographer and I tend to work in series. Most of the series have been
environmental portraits where the portrait is important but it also shows a lot of the environment. I used to teach but now I do freelance work to make a living and I do my own series and try to have shows and do books of them.
VS: Can you describe your photo-taking and photo-making process? You mentioned that you did
environmental portraits. How does that work? How do you set it up?
SS: The picture that you’re talking about, “Sculptor with Model of Chuck Close in his Summer Studio,” was part of a series called Perfectible Worlds, which I worked on from 2001-2006. The theme is people’s private passions and obsessions. It started with photographing a friend and his model railroad that had taken over his whole basement. When I came home and looked at the pictures and showed them to my husband—this was right after 9/11—we were interested in how he had total control over this environment. So my husband said, “It’s a perfectible world,” and so that became the title and the theme of the series. Initially it was all people who created these miniature worlds, model railroads and dollhouses and all sorts of things, but eventually it branched out and became any world or activity over which people had near total control.
VS: We see that you’ve traveled around the country for this project, from documenting a family of tae kwon do medalists in Sugar Land, Texas to a woman with show poodles in her living room in New Hampshire. How do you find your subjects?
SS: For this particular project, each picture was kind of a mini-project in itself. Usually when you’re
photographing, say gay couples, you can sort of network and from photographing one couple you find a bunch of other couples. This project was harder because it was more about talking to people, doing online research, looking up hobby clubs and trying to find people.
Robert B. Niles: What is the process like once you’ve found your subjects? How involved are they in the process?
SS: This project was especially collaborative. The challenge was to photograph their miniature or creation well but also to make an engaging portrait of people with their creations. I talked to people, they showed me what they were doing, and then I tried to figure out what the best vantage point to photograph them from would be with them in it. Often I was with people for two or three hours and because it’s work that they love doing, they didn’t mind my being there with them. When you try to take a portrait of someone they tend to get a lot more self-conscious. But people love showing what they’ve done. It’s a labor of love.
RBN: Did the theme of Perfectible Worlds—this idea of trying to create a space where they have total control—resonate with your subjects?
SS: It did. They really thought that was true. And that’s sort of what they loved—that it was something that was outside their normal life and their normal work life that was just for them. And they only needed to satisfy themselves when they were doing it. It’s more fun than watching TV by far and more satisfying.
VS: Circling back to the “Sculptor with Model of Chuck Close,” can you speak a bit more about how you were thinking about this work in particular and what the different layers in it might mean?
SS: The picture you’re talking about is of a fellow artist, a sculptor named Joe Fig. He’s done an incredible series of miniature sculptures of well-known artists in their studios, and when he miniaturizes their work he actually tries to duplicate their processes as much as possible. I think, for Joe, he’s very interested in these artists and how they do things. But he’s also making these little gems that are works of art in themselves. The painting and the little paintbrushes—everything that he makes is so beautiful and precious. And then I’m coming in and photographing him and he’s kind of the benevolent monster who’s working on this miniature world. And I think one of the things I’ve used a lot in this series was scale. His hand is larger than the figure of Chuck Close and there is a feeling that he is this monster that could do a lot of harm, but of course he’s not. He is also the creator.
VS: That is very interesting! Final question: in your personal or professional life, what is the greatest piece of advice that you’ve ever given or received?
SS: Well, I remember when I was in my 20s I took a workshop with Lee Friedlander and I brought in some picture that I’d taken. I was employed at the time photographing for company newsletters and I was photographing people getting these little plastic pins after they’d been at the company for 50 years. They’d go up and shake the hand of the guy that ran the company. And so I put some pictures up that were very snide because I really thought that it was kind of sad. And Friedlander said something, which I’ve always remembered. He said: “You don’t like these people, do you?” And I said: “No, I don’t.” And I was kind of proud of it. And he said, “I don’t think that you can photograph people that you don’t like on some level.” So I guess it’s good to remember that. And so I guess what I’ve always remembered is that it’s important to have some kind of sympathy or empathy or real interest. You really have to be interested in a genuine way in the people you’re photographing. It’s not ironic commentary. It has to be loving in some way, I suppose.
RBN: That’s wonderful, especially when we think of sharing that with our business school classmates— that it’s not just about picking an attractive market or job, but rather finding something that you really have a meaningful connection with.
SS: That’s true. I guess you could generalize that lesson.
RBN: Thank you so much for your time, Sage!