Born and raised in Missouri, Sarah Wilmer lives and works in New York with a swarm of cats and a guy who feeds them.
Her work explores themes of desire, danger, hope, solitude, light, nature and the future.
She has exhibited in New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington D.C., Warsaw, Helsinki, Iceland and Japan.
Her work has been published in New York Magazine, Time, V Magazine, Esquire, Nomenus, The Guardian, and Vogue Korea, among others.
With images as rich and textured as Sarah Wilmer’s, the opportunity to dig behind the work, explore her process and thinking is a real pleasure. Talking about the realities of straddling the art and commercial worlds, the struggles of living in NYC and the balance between work and play, that was a real education.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
It has to be something I’m curious about, and something that I think I can stay engaged with, because it sort of takes me a long time to do bodies of work, in general, maybe longer than other people. I’m not really sure. So it just has to be something I’m curious about, something I’ve been thinking about, something that I find conceptually interesting, and also visually interesting. Those are the main things I’m looking for.
Something that I don’t understand but am intrigued by. Feelings that stick, thoughts that won’t leave. Puzzles. The strangeness and impossibility of life and nature.
It depends a lot on if I have a deadline or not, hahahhahaha, but sometimes years, well, usually years.
Because I shoot for a long time and then I put everything I shot away and then when I’m ready to start looking at it, for me, it’s more like the images are pieces of wood, and then the retouching and the editing is the carving out the final image. And I actually really don’t enjoy retouching! I don’t know how to not do it. Or a lot of people say, “you should hire a retoucher!” But somehow, it doesn’t work if I don’t do it myself. And that’s a really big part of my process. It’s not even that I’m doing a lot in Photoshop, it’s more there’s a lot of looking and spacing out and spending time with the images…and I’m not a great retoucher, I’m really slow and probably very awkward. Like if a real retoucher watched me, they’d be like [eyes go wide in horror]…(laughter) Yeah, so, years. I have a body of work that I’ve been tilling around with now that I started shooting in 2013. I shot 2013, 2014, and I finally said, “okay I’m not going to shoot anymore.” So I’ve just been editing and retouching, and just working with the images for the last few months, and it’s going to take a while, but I’m aiming to have this one done by the end of this year.
I love assignments and commercial work, because you have a great team, you have support, you have a clear objective, you have a deadline, and you get paid. But I also enjoy just quietly working on my own pictures.
Yeah! You start to realize how good money is when you don’t have it! And, “hmm, I want to go shoot, I want to do this project.” I need to fund that. And I love collaboration, and I love working with people. Doing my own art gets lonely, and I spend a lot of time in a dark room.
Hah! Well, editing, I spend a lot of time with the shades drawn in front of the computer.
I guess it depends when you ask me.
Hahahaha! I feel like with any art I make, whether it’s a song or a photograph, even like some weird essay I wrote, when I look at it later, after the fact, I feel like, “wow, where did that come from and how can I do it again?” I don’t know, I always feel like it was immaculate conception or some weird thing happened, especially with music. And when you listen to the song later, it’s like, um, I’ll stay on photography…
Yeah, yeah. But I figure that’s more with music, where later you listen to a song, and it kind of envelopes you, and it’s this thing you made, and when you write music, you go in the zone, and it’s not you. It’s not me, it’s like something else channeling through. And I feel like my most successful photographs are the same way. Yes, I did the research or the planning and I got myself to a place and I was open to an experience or a thing that happened, but when that actual thing happened, it was like an otherness that’s not regular life. And I think because of that, I love the act of photographing and actually making the pictures. I don’t like everything else around it. The emails or the planning or book a car, it’s just like, ehhhh, when you’re actually there. Like that 10%, that’s amazing, and I like looking back at pictures, I’m a really nostalgic person. “Oh, I remember that shoot” or I remember when that happened, I don’t know. So, yeah, I don’t answer any of your questions! Hahahahaha!
Okay, okay. I like them both, I like all the different parts. You couldn’t have one without the other, right? So why choose?
Oh, you’ve never asked that before?
Hahahhaha. I don’t know. I just feel like…it depends. It depends how the shoot’s going, it depends on which part of photography we’re talking about. It’s comfortable when you look back on it, but I know there’s been a lot of times…I don’t know. Okay, it’s the most comfortable thing I do.
It’s the most exciting thing. I feel very comfortable negotiating with people in space and situations, I feel comfortable in getting uncomfortable with the interaction, too. I like to make everyone okay, though. I like to make sure…I don’t know. Making pictures isn’t like a hug or something, you know. I feel comfortable being a photographer, and I feel comfortable making art. I feel great when I’m making work, actually, I feel uncomfortable when I’m not. That’s my answer.
I feel like I’m the best version of myself when I’m photographing or printing or working, in the midst of a project. If I’m in-between or don’t know what I’m doing, or I’m like wasting time, spending too much time doing other tasks around photography, I start to feel uncomfortable.
Well actually, I was living in Portland, OR.
Hahaha, I really liked it, and I had friends there, and it was nice, but I just felt like, at the time, there was opportunity in New York for art and music. And also, living in Portland was really nice and cozy, but I thought, “you know, if I don’t do anything, next thing I know I’ll be 40 and still living here.” I wanted to have other kinds of experiences and meet other kinds of people. A lot of my favorite artists were here, my favorite magazines were here, and there was a lot happening in music here, at the time. This was in 2004, and I also wanted to go to school, and I felt like if I’m going to school to study photography and art, I should go in New York, because that’s where it’s all happening.
Well, I always played music, and that’s always been a big part of my life. It was part of the reason I moved to Portland, because I was into a lot of bands that had been coming out of there, and also, I really love doing record artwork and photographing bands, and I just thought there was more of a market here.
Yeah! There was a lot more activity here, and energy, and opportunity. So I moved to New York for the opportunities and the possibilities.
It is, but I realize it’s not necessary.
I do want to stay here. I have to make more money to stay here! I feel like money keeps coming up, it’s a bad time right now because my landlady just raised the rent big time. And I’m just looking around thinking, “how can I afford to stay here?” Do you live here?
Where are you?
I love New York. I have an amazing group of friends here, I love the museums and the galleries and the food. I love riding my bike and taking the train. You can be super scrappy when you’re in your 20’s, but when you get in your 30’s you think, “am I still doing this?” Hahahaha.
Yeah, yeah. So I love New York, but I am open to other situations. And I’ve done residencies, and I’ve lived in other places, and I’ve realized over the last few years that I can live anywhere and make a good life and be happy and make art. If I live somewhere else, I might…my friends and I call it “working for the Man” when we take jobs or whatever, I could work less for the Man and spend more time on art, or I could start gardening or something. Hahahahaha.
Do you garden?
It’s great and horrifying. You pack up all your stuff, you go somewhere, and you try to figure out how to do something with the time. It’s great…it’s really difficult because you have to find a new way to work with your situation. I don’t know, I’ve had very different experiences with it, and there’s always been good in the end, but the process can actually be pretty hard. Because you’re by yourself, you don’t have your resources or your usual support. You could be in another country and not know…the first one I did…the biggest, farthest away one I did was in a fisherman’s village in Iceland with, at the time, I think 250 people lived there. And it was in the middle of nowhere, and it was primarily children and elderly people.
I love those demographics.
Well, you know, it turned out, for that period it was! The biggest thing was that I was used to working in the woods, I’d just been doing all this work in the Redwoods, and then the forest in the upper Midwest, and then I was going to Iceland, and one of my friends said to me, “you know there’s no trees there, right?” And I was like, “oh, totally…” and of course I didn’t know that, and yeah, there are no trees there. And I asked my friend in Iceland, this electrician that I became really friendly with, I said, “why aren’t there any trees here?” And he said, “well, there used to be trees, but then the sheep came, and now there are no trees.” But he was part of a tree-planting society, so he was trying to bring trees back to the landscape, god bless him.
It was tough. I had to figure out what to do. I actually started to get some really crazy stuff. I would spy on people…
They gave me…I went there with my friend, Kyoko Hamada, and we had a band together. So we were playing music there at night, and then during the day we were doing our own separate photography projects. And because we were loud and obnoxious, we got our own building! I’m just kidding, because they knew we were going to be loud, we weren’t with the other artists, they gave us this whole building on the edge of town. It was super spooky and haunted, it used to be a herring factory. It was crazy, and I would go there by myself and just spend tons of time there. It was the most time I’ve ever spent without internet; we didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have internet, there was nothing. It was crazy! But it was amazing. I would stare out the window a lot, and there happened to be this little tiny swimming pool that was open for six weeks out of the year or something. And I would take pictures of people at the pool, like all the time. But then I would start to do really weird stuff with the pictures, and then just making them look like these dreamscapes and stuff, because I didn’t like any of the background or the environment. So that’s just one example, that’s kind of how I handled it. I would black it out, put them in different places, or do things like that. I did more striped-down, straight forward portraiture, without creating such involved tableaus, which is what I had been doing before I went there.
I also didn’t take lights with me, so I only had daylight to work with, and that was a challenge because I used to really light things a lot.
This was in 2009.
But that’s an example of a really big shift I had to do with my work. That was also a time where I shot all that stuff, and then when I came home, I was really assaulted by New York; it was so loud and crazy and chaotic, and it was so consuming I was just like “ahhhhhhhhhhhh,” it was crazy. I couldn’t look at those pictures for a really long time, and then my friend, Chris Buck…
He asked me, “what’s going on with those pictures? Let’s take a look!” and I was Not Ready. I hadn’t shown anyone my RAW files, but I showed him, we got together, had a bunch of editing sessions, he helped me narrow down an insane amount of pictures to a more slightly less insane amount. And then I started editing, two years later.
So that’s what I’m talking about when we were talking about time and how long does it take, it takes me a really long time, and I need to get better, but it’s also… projects come up, more short-term things like album artwork, or a fashion shoot or something, and it’s like “I’ve gotta do that now,” and then life happens. I feel like making art is the most important thing that I can do and that I need to do, it’s just a matter of embracing the whole process and making myself get out into the world, because that’s where I’ve been slacking there a little bit, because I have the luxury of time. I don’t think I do, but I think I think I do.
Yeah, yeah. Like no one’s saying, “I need that body of work NOW!” except for me.
I signed with Jigisha Bouverat this year, and she’s been sending me on tons of meetings, which has been great. We made new books, websites and promos. I go to all these meetings and I meet with the art buyers, creatives, producers, and almost every meeting, people say, “we love your work, it’s so beautiful…but it’s really fine art, and where can we see it in the gallery?” A lot of people say, “I don’t know if we have any clients that are this…” So that’s a problem, because they see me as just a fine artist and not a person they can commission or hire to do a more commercial project. And then in the art world, the second some people hear you do commercial work, you’re instantly disqualified, unless you’re at a certain level where you’re really big name and they’re like, “oh, it’s cool.” It’s a struggle, but right now, the best way I can support my fine art endeavors is from the commercial jobs that I am fortunate enough to get.
I would like to focus 70% on personal projects and 30% on commissions. What I love about assignments and commissions is that it’s a way to engage with the world that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Photography is a passport. I’ve had really amazing experiences, opportunities, and collaborations because designers asked me or musicians asked me to do their artwork, fashion houses hired me, and I really treasure those experiences and value them. I plug away at all of it.
A part of me is, but…some people are surprised if they meet me and then they see my work later, because I tend to be…silly and joyful. But my work can be weird or scary to some people. People call it mysterious or spooky, and my personality is not necessarily any of those things. Maybe it is when I’m alone in the dark room retouching. Based on the way people respond to my work, I think part of me, I am reflected in it, because people always say, “there is a really strong aesthetic or vision” or, “I could spot a Sarah Wilmer a mile away” or something, which tells me there’s something of me in there to make it so identifiable.
Yeah. I mean, I think people like us have to do work or we get unwell. No, it’s what I was saying early about being uncomfortable, I get really uncomfortable if I’m not producing work because I feel better when I’m being a productive human in society doing the thing I know I’m supposed to be doing. And maybe also part of it is getting that stuff out, getting those feelings out so I can be a good person.
I am doing something specific, and the mood just comes with it. Because it’s me doing it, you know? It’s not like I’m thinking “I want to make a picture that’s haunting.” It’s more, “this is a great subject, I’m really curious about them, I want to do this thing that I scripted,” and then we go and do it, and it has the mood because that’s just my lens. I never try to do the thing that’s probably the thing that people see and say, “oh that’s a Sarah Wilmer”, that’s just a thing that is. You know, I probably make a lot of pictures that don’t have that, but I don’t share them because they don’t work.
Yeah, hahhahaa, yeah.
Thank god! Hahahhahahahhaha.