Sally Gall is known for her breathtaking, sensual images of the natural world. Andrea Blanch sat down with Sally to discuss her unique take on nature photography as well as her new show "Unbound" opening at the Julie Saul Gallery March 14th.
I grew up in Houston Texas, but was born in Washington DC. I got involved with photography in high school, and ended up going to college at The Rhode Island School of Design. I then came back to Houston for 10 years where I was very involved in the art world. It was a great place to be during that time as there was a lot of new money going into the arts. I worked at the Contemporary Arts Museum. I reached a point where I wanted a bigger something, so I moved to New York.
AB: Can you tell me something about your new show “Unbound”, where did the concept come from?
For most of my career, I’ve photographed the natural world . Having been a black and white photographer, I’ve recently been working with color. I’m interested in trying to express the idea of being gravity-less - of a world not anchored by horizon. For many years I took pictures about the horizon so with this body of work I’ve been trying to think about being in a space where there is no sense of your feet being on the ground. Simultaneously, I’ve been interested in Japanese screens and scrolls, which have a vertical format. “Unbound” is different from how I have worked in the past as I primarily shot a square format. I love the way that Japanese scrolls are read up and down, so I vaguely started off with the idea of emulating a Japanese scroll, which eventually turned into the idea of making the work as diptychs or triptychs.
AB: Can you recall the moment that it changed from your original idea to something else and what might have triggered that change?
I have a reverence for Japanese imagery and the format of scrolls ; a separate issue from trying to make images that contain some of the same feeling. Much like my own photographs , Japanese scrolls have a reverence for nature, a sense of a very ethereal world, and a sense of movement through a world that isn’t realistic space. I started by trying to make my own version of them but that is not what the work ended up being about and I let got of trying to emulate Japanese scrolls.
I use a Hasselblad Camera, and made a mask that partially covers the viewfinder so I could photography vertically. Later in the studio, I made multi-panelled images, which turned into diptychs and triptychs.
AB: I’m curious, you were interested in the Japanese scrolls but you usually shoot in square format. Did you keep the cropping in mind while you were photographing?
I made a mask that covered the viewfinder and tried to photograph vertically. But I also pulled from other images and cropped - putting together images that weren't planned to be together to make diptychs and triptychs (and even longer panels) in the studio after the fact.
AB: Do you use Photoshop at all?
I’ve been working technically traditionally in party due to my age and my generation- its what I’ve learned and what I know. So everything is shot on film, but what I have done for the first time are black and white pigment prints. I wanted to get away from the photographic surface and make an image that has somewhat of a painterly feel, so I chose to make digital pigment prints on a traditional Japanese mulberry paper.
AB: So you experimented with different papers, or you went straight to Japanese papers?
I experimented with lots of different papers. Photoshop was used to scan and color correct the images. They’re very straightforward pictures without any serious manipulation; like all prints they are a translation of the negative.
AB: Do you ever get the urge to learn some new processes or go out of your comfort zone?
This body of work is out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I try to take edgier photographs that I think will appeal to the "market" and be more “of the moment". Most of the time I think they fail. I feel challenged to do something that’s not so classical. Sometimes I try to make a picture that’s not beautiful ; I act as if beauty is not my concern, but it always creeps back i . I like the sensual object and want my photographs to look beautiful in addition to whatever else is the photo's content. I want the viewer to have a visceral relationship with the image and the object.
AB: How did you get interested in landscape and nature being raised in Houston?
I think it was because I was raised in an ugly place. I used to drive around Houston when I was young thinking it was so ugly. I am drawn to the idea of the oceanic consciousness that Freud talked about, the idea that you can be removed from the mundane of everyday life and brought outside of yourself. It’s a huge, huge thing that art can do.
AB: That’s a big thought!
To SEE nature is always what I wanted to do. I’ve always lived in cities, even though I seek nature. I frequently photograph in Central Park and likewise seek small areas within cities that are still nature untouched. Sometimes nature formed, not exactly untouched, but nature that’s still growing and breathing.
AB: What do you attribute to maintaining such a long career?
Interesting question. The obvious almost corny answer is that I love doing the work that I am doing. I feel connected to it and it is always a learning experience. Periodically I go through periods where I think I have run out of ideas and don't want to photograph anymore. I feel like everything I do is terrible, and those are terrible periods to go through, and certainly every artist goes through them. It is exciting when you get through to the other side and feel like you have found something. Its a relentless journey to make art; I've always wanted to be an artist. I've always wanted to express . . . and here I still am.
AB: I’m curious, speak to me about being with the Julie Saul gallery for twenty-five years; speak to me about that relationship.
It’s one of those things where you don’t intend anything and you simply start. I’m also surprised that it’s been that long. Julie had been a private dealer and was just opening her gallery when we met through a mutual acquaintance. I just started showing with her and have ever since. It’s interesting because her gallery has changed a lot over the years. Actually Julie’s aesthetic is quite different from mine. Obviously it’s been a productive relationship because we’re still together.
AB: What would you’re advice be for an emerging photographer today?
You really, really have to feel connected to the work you’re making, and you need to want to do it. You have to be self-propelled and self-motivated. You need to have something that you feel you need to express, and then you have to hang on to it. There are so many things along the way to stop you, particularly economics; it’s pretty hard to keep it going.
AB: You do a lot of landscapes; it’s your proclaimed genre. What is the difference between what you do, and your travel photography?
Being a travel photographer is showing what a place looks like which isn’t what I am concerned with - also there is an unspoken agreement that you are supposed to make the place look good. Also travel photography is usually about specific places and I'm interested in unspecific places.
AB: Do you listen to other people’s criticisms of your work and what is the best critique you ever got?
My husband Jack Stephens is the person who critiques me the most; he’s very important to my work and sometimes we work very collaboratively and he is my greatest critic. I work alone frequently and it’s not a regular thing for me to show my work to others , but its good to do as it helps me get out of myself.
AB: Do you collect photography?
SG: I trade a lot of photography with friends and I have a small collection, but I’d like to do more.
AB: Whom would you like to collect if you could?
SG: Off the top of my head, Adam Fuss, I love the work. To me he’s someone who’s made really interesting photographs about the natural world and natural things.
AB: So what happens to this show when it’s over?
It’s up for almost two months. Often the show with travel to other galleries. Hopefully people will buy the work and we won’t have any left! But, otherwise it will stay with the gallery and they will continue to work towards selling it and showing it.
Images Courtesy of the Julie Saul Gallery
See more of Sally's art at the Julie Saul Gallery