Current Feature: Sally Gall
Sally Gall Interview by Steve Miller
STEVE MILLER: I saw your show Aerial and it blew me away. No one would guess that it’s laundry. Without any context for the series, a number of people guess sea creatures first. Was that an intentional enigma?
SALLY GALL: When I started photographing for this series I thought of the clothing and things I was photographing as being otherworldly and animalistic. I thought of them in a semi-conscious way, sometimes as sea creatures, particularly because I was photographing against a blue sky, but it was never my big intention. I was surprised once I showed the work to some people that they started responding that way. It was slightly semi conscious, and then after the fact that once I started editing and printing the work I became much more aware of that and kind of pushed it. When I was actually shooting it in my mind it looked like a lot of abstract art more than a sea creature, but I was aware that the clothing I was photographing was transforming into something other than itself, that was part of the fun.
STEVE: I think part of the enigma is the lack of scale and uncertainty.
SALLY: When I started photographing all this colorful and dancing clothing, it was all overhead because I photographed laundry hung from balconies. At the beginning, I did things that were much more literal. I had bits of buildings and little bits of clothespins showing. As I kept going, I found myself wanting to get rid of any information other than the pure clothing. It made my job really hard because it’s all found laundry, which meant that I had to find laundry that hung between buildings in these alleyways and narrow streets in these old towns in Italy perfectly hung so that it didn’t run into other buildings. I wanted to photograph on clear days because it added a whole level of abstraction, a blue blank sky or a white blank sky. I really limited what I was looking for in a big way by making those kinds of choices. I made these pictures almost by accident; I hadn’t given it a lot of thought when I took 3 or 4 snapshots of the laundry. So I went back to photograph them more seriously. I took a lot of pictures and showed them to my husband, he kept saying that they’re too literal. When I went back to photograph round two, I became very conscious of eliminating things, not with Photoshop but with framing and what I included in the picture.
STEVE: That’s interesting. It answers a lot of questions about that lack of scale and specificity. You don’t know where you are and I think that’s part of the enigmatic, mysterious and successful quality of the work.
SALLY: The body of work morphed. I was just cleaning out my studio the other day and I threw away about 20-25 pictures that I thought were going to be part of the body of work. It started to be about the laundry itself, about human beings, the bits of buildings, and in some sense of who wore those jeans? Did the guy live in that building? Whose nightgown is that? But then I started going totally abstract and referencing, as you said, sea creatures or as somebody who works at the photo lab said to me, “It looks like the animals in the zoo are fighting each other.”
STEVE: Most of your work is black and white, so to see this color was like looking at a different artist.
SALLY: I actually did some black and white in the very beginning, and I realized it wasn’t working. I really love black and white photography more than anything, but the whole body of work was about the color, about brilliant color like eye candy. I just felt this was the moment where the color had to be pushed because it was all about bright sun and luminosity and all of these bright fabrics.
STEVE: The way you use black and white in your earlier work is as an intentional tool to bring it towards abstraction, to take it away from the reality factor. And now you’ve achieved the same effect in color.
SALLY: Thanks for saying that, I don’t know if I ever quite thought about it like that but yes you’re right. It’s funny when I did the black and white, they looked too realistic even though they were black and white. They just didn’t have it because I was going for these intense blue skies.
STEVE: The color pushes it towards the abstraction you were trying to achieve with black and white! When I saw the show, I immediately thought of your book The Waters Edge because this work easily slides between edges. The edges of painterly abstraction, a score of musical notes, the viewer’s emotional projection onto a Rorschach blot because we all name it the thing that we think it is based on our experience, the representation of the deep sea and the space of billowing clouds. In your mind, are any of these descriptions more accurate than another?
SALLY: You’re my perfect viewer. I was thinking, not about every single one of those things, but a few of them. I was thinking particularly of the sea. I’m looking up rather than down, but I thought of the blue sky as being an ocean, and I photograph so many oceans, though usually in black and white. I did think about the laundry lines as being a musical staff, it’s sheet music. But I particularly thought of the sea creatures or the heavens, I also thought of them as being celestial.
STEVE: In your earlier work, you’re always traveling, going to unexplored territory ending up in a place that you knew was unexpected or unexplored. Is that relevant to this work?
SALLY: Totally. 100%. We have a bungalow in Italy where we’ve been spending summers for about eight or nine summers and every year we try and go on a trip somewhere new. Jack wanted to go to Sicily, so we decided to do this three-week journey of Sicily where we drove around the entire Island. But I didn’t have any notion of photographing because it didn’t seem like a photographic destination to me. We were in Syracuse, Sicily one day sightseeing in the town, and it was a beautiful afternoon and I just wandered around by myself with my camera being a tourist. I kept seeing all this color overhead because I was walking through these really tiny streets in this small town, and as I’m admiring this ornate architecture around me, I keep seeing all this flapping color way up high. I kept thinking, what is that? I had a point and shoot camera so I took three or four pictures, but I sort of forgot about them and continued my tour of Sicily. When I came all the way back to New York and started looking at those pictures, I thought, “what is that picture I took?” And I liked it so much that I kept talking to Jack about it and he said, “Maybe you ought just to go right back there, literally get on a plane and go right back there”. So I did. I shot the original ones when we were there in September and then in February I went back to Sicily for two weeks, to the same exact place where I’d taken those pictures, and thus the project began. It was completely unmediated. I didn’t plan it at all. If I hadn’t taken a walk on that afternoon on that particular day, I never would have done this project. Plus, I only realized going back and trying to reshoot it that on the day I originally shot the pictures, I had the perfect conditions for what I was doing; a really stiff wind and an incredibly blue sky on an incredibly bright day. Then began my frustration of trying to replicate that day which was very hard to do. This whole body of work was completely an accident.
STEVE: How does serendipity play into your process?
SALLY: So many photographers nowadays, there’s so much creative and conceptual photography, photographs made in the studio, everyone using Photoshop. What I love about photography is the act of finding something; I’ve always liked it from when I started photographing in high school until now. I like wandering around finding things. So this was a perfect example of what I like about photography, I could never plan it, it’s serendipity.
STEVE: How many images does it take to make a show?
SALLY: That’s a good question. In this particular one, it took a lot because I started very literally and worked through to abstraction.
STEVE: What are the chances of getting the conditions that you just described? That seems impossible.
SALLY: It was. When I went back in February, I went for two weeks and at least half the days there was no wind, so I couldn’t do anything. And for the other few days that I had wind, I had really cloudy skies and it didn’t work. So I had two days out of fourteen that I really shot.
STEVE: So the two days that were your good days, did you get a lot of images those days?
SALLY: It’s hard to say. I took a lot but did I get a lot. In the end, for the amount that I shot, I only have about twenty-five pictures.
STEVE: Fourteen days to get twenty-five images. Sitting there, you must be in your process.
SALLY: I’m totally in my process. I did that trip and then I went back there a few times over about a year and a half to the same area, and I mainly photographed there but I did a few pictures in Cuba. Last spring we wanted to go someplace warm and I thought I’d love to take a few more laundry pictures somewhere.
STEVE: How were the clothes in Cuba?
SALLY: They were very tattered actually, but I took a couple pictures from the show in Cuba. We just wanted to go somewhere warm and close but that was a different kind of thing.
STEVE: You kind of explain your editing process really in that it has to do with creating that sense of abstraction, lack of specificity, the conditions that you already described.
SALLY: I also became enamored with certain types of clothing and I had to eliminate some of them. I found a dress that was pink with black polka dots, how great is that? But it wasn’t about the dress and the dress in that situation didn’t make it.
STEVE: Your work has a strong connection to nature. This body of work is compelling because of its simplicity and your ability to trap nature in a new way; you physically and metaphorically capture the wind in a series of clouds appearing as laundry. Only now nature has been re-colored by cloth and a humble subject becomes a profound expression, especially because you are holding a moment as you described. Are these the connections for you?
SALLY: I love what you just said. Somebody once said to me, “You always photograph nature, and now you’re photographing clothing,” and that’s actually not true. It’s so much about light and wind and sky, an article of clothing becomes some other part of nature. I think I like things in the sky and I like to look up. It’s a different perspective, who looks up?
STEVE: In your book Subterranean, I really like something that Mark Strand says. This is very interesting in terms of your new work because this is about being underground and this new work is about being in the sky. He says, “What is beneath or within? What we think of the dark or the hidden? The other life, the one that we know exists, but with rare exceptions ever see, becomes in Sally Gall’s photographs if not entirely known, then at least familiar.” I like this quote in terms of your newer work and think it’s relevant because we are looking up women’s dresses and there’s a fascination with wondering what’s underneath all of that, especially as a kid, wondering what’s hidden there. And now it’s in full bloom and fully revealed in a very metaphorical and beautiful way. How are looking up at the sky, looking up at the surface water, looking up a woman’s dress, all related?
SALLY: At a certain point, I thought this is almost comic looking up somebody’s skirt. It’s something mysterious, something you don’t always see but there it is in plain sight. My 22-year-old niece told me she felt like she was a kid looking up at a blanket fort. I thought that was such a great image. It took me back to being a kid putting blankets over a table and crawling underneath and hiding.
STEVE: That’s what really makes the work successful to me because it operates on all these levels without being specific. The emptiness of the work is what makes it your most full. Is there anything else?
SALLY: I’m really a photographer of the real world; I like going out into the world and photographing. Usually I choose places of nature. I like to go hiking in the mountains or the beach etc. So this was a little different because this was going into towns. But I love finding things and making images that are contemplative, and allowing the viewer to be taken to other places. The fun part might be that I’m looking up someone’s skirt, but it also makes you think of a lot of other things. If it becomes a meditative image, I think that makes it a huge success.