After Beauty | Interview with Maura Sullivan
We are proud to announce a new book release at 1605 Publishers - "After Beauty" by Maura Sullivan. "After Beauty" is a book with photographs from Sullivan's private archive. Maura has graduated from Syracuse University and studied at the International Center of Photography in New York. Her main inspiration, when it comes to art creation, is poetry and silent meditative walks around her hometown, New York. Sullivan loves discovering hidden places of the metropolis where she has a chance to meet candidates for her mysterious and nostalgic portraits.
Together with the book release, we would like to introduce to you Maura herself. We sat down for a chat and got carried away with the conversation about the magic of New York City, blurry photographs, Dostoevsky & Bulgakov and of course, the wizardry behind the book publishing process with 1605 Publishers. Enjoy!
What means of photography do you follow: digital or analogue and what determines your choice?
I am drawn to the emotion in an image, regardless of how the image was captured. I want to see that deep connection between the artist and their work.
On your Instagram, I see some of your images in colour, however, the main body of work remains black & white. How do you determine whether you opt for colour or remain faithful to a monochrome palette?
I generally prefer black and white because there is more room to get lost. Colour is like a momentary jolt back into reality. I think it's great in small doses.
Who are the people you photograph? What are the criteria to become your model? Do you prefer having a close relationship with a model or would you rather photograph a complete stranger?
I look for someone who doesn't know that they are beautiful. It's important for me to have a strong sense of trust and connection with my subjects. I really have to push myself to approach a stranger. But I'm always glad when I do. What's interesting about working with strangers is the absence of a shared history, so they can become whoever you want them to be.
Tell us about the dynamics of your work. Do you normally determine a specific project first and photograph within its frame or do you prefer to take photographs first that later will form a specific body of work?
I don't usually shoot with specific themes in mind. I like the images to organically fall into place. In a way, my work is like one long run-on sentence blurring together people and places and objects that share a connection to the past.
At the beginning of this year, Skeleton Key Press has assembled your work under the title "Things We Remember" and now, your work is again about to become a book published by 1605 Publishers. How do you feel about your work becoming a solid hard-copy medium? And also, what is your experience with book publishing? As an author of the work, do you manage to participate a lot in the editing process? Before publishing your book, did you imagine this process differently?
Publishing a book has always been a dream of mine. It was such an honour to work with Skeleton Key Press for my first book '"Things we Remember"' and with 1605 Publishers on my second book 'After Beauty'. There is something magical about publishing that somehow makes the work more real. I love the conversations between the images on a printed page and the stories that unfold as you move through a book. I have really enjoyed the process because both publishers were very collaborative in all stages of development. The hardest thing for me to learn was that it's not just about picking all of your favourite images. To make an interesting book, sometimes you have to eliminate images you love in order to make room for the story to take shape.
How did you start with photography? And what does this medium mean to you?
I took a few photojournalism classes in college because I felt like I needed to learn what I thought was the technical side of photography first. I got a bad grade on one of my first portrait projects because it was out of focus. I was disappointed about the grade because I really liked the image. I was looking for someone other than a student to collaborate with, someone with a different look. I wandered downtown and ended up at one of the only open buildings, the local hospital. Down a long corridor in one of the outpatient rooms, I found an old man sitting by the window. Outlined by soft winter light, he had the most beautiful profile. I asked him if I could make a few portraits. He nodded quietly and I shot a few frames.
It wasn't until after college that I began to explore photography more as an art form. I was working as an art director in advertising and I really missed making art that a client or a focus group couldn't change. So I started taking a few classes at the International Center of Photography in New York with a friend. I quickly became obsessed with making portraits of my family and close friends. Working with subjects I knew, I was able to express my vision more clearly and create more intimate portraits.
What do you think a published book can do for an artist?
Having my work published is wonderfully affirmative and validating. It makes it possible for more people to view my photographs and preserve them in a more permanent way.
In your photographs, there are mostly female figures with an exception of children and some rare male portraits. What defines this choice?
I don't intentionally choose subjects based on their gender. I typically work with friends and family who are close to me and who genuinely like being photographed. What I love most about working with children is their natural ability to get lost in the moment and forget that they are being photographed entirely. They don't yet have that layer of self-consciousness that adults carry.
Looking at your images, I imagine myself on the pages of my favourite novels: Bulgakov's "Master & Margarita", Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and also in the poems of Joseph Brodsky. What is your relationship with literature and poetry and in what way do literary pieces inspire your photography?
My work is definitely influenced by literature and film. You have mentioned some of my favourites. Sometimes I like to reference certain passages from books that have inspired me in my image titles. Other times, I combine fragments of film and literature with my own personal stories to create something new.
What else or who else inspires you to create?
When I see someone with an interesting face or I stumble upon a vintage piece of clothing, an antique object, or a magical location, I immediately start to create a story.
What can we discover about your personality by just looking at your work?
I think this quote by Jane Austen says it perfectly "Sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself because I could find no language to describe them in." Photography has allowed me to express myself without having to explain it.
Tell us a little about the photographic process: is it staged or spontaneous? Do you use a moodboard or any other specific preparations?
My shoots typically evolve spontaneously, sometimes finding the wardrobe or the location first and then the model. I never use a mood board to shoot. I prefer to let the images happen organically.
In your opinion, what circumstances can guarantee a good photograph?
There are no guarantees - that's the exciting thing about it and why I love analog photography. The period between shooting film and waiting for it to develop is horrible, torturous and wonderful at the same time. You have no idea, other than a general feeling if what you shot is going to turn out good or bad. That's the feeling that I keep coming back for.
Tell us about New York! In what way does the city inspire you? What is your favourite spot in the city? And do you prefer to travel far in order to create a specific image or do you think that New York has enough decorations to offer?
New York City will always be my favourite place in the world. It's dirty and loud and crowded and real. You can always find a place to go that's open no matter what time of day or night, and you can always find someone to talk to or photograph. I don't really have a favourite place in the city. I've lived and worked in almost every area of the city and found beauty in the most unlikely places. But I also love capturing images when I travel because it teaches me how to see again. There is something so wonderful about that first jet-lagged walk around a new place when everything feels alive. All the sounds and faces are different and you are not afraid to look because you are only there for a short time.
Your photographs are raw and honest, almost like Francesca Woodman's self-portraits. What do you think about your photographs, not being literal self-portraits, actually being indirect ones?
Thank you. l love Francesca Woodman's work. I think in a way, all art is an indirect self-portrait or a self-reflection. What we notice or admire or envy in the people we choose to photograph are qualities we probably have somewhere deep within ourselves. That is how we are able to find it.
Your work is somehow quiet, nostalgic with a touch of "Memento Mori", it's almost like it reminds us of the fleetingness of life and the importance of preserving memories and paying attention to the not important, at a first sight, moments in life. Nan Goldin once said: "I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I've lost". Do you agree with this and how do you personally feel about your work?
I never really think about how much I've lost but how lucky I was to have been there during those brief moments of time that might never have been remembered if I had not documented them. When I look back at an image that I shot a decade earlier, I enjoy seeing it but I would never want to go back to that time again. Sometimes what I miss is
a feeling that I once felt.
Your next book will be published by 1605 Publishers and will carry the title "After Beauty". Could you tell us how did you come up with this title, what does it mean to you and why it fits your body of work?
I have tremendous gratitude to 1605 for believing in my work and for waiting for the right title to emerge. "After Beauty" is the title of a poem by my friend Walter Fields, which will begin the book. It seemed like a natural fit for this body of work because to me it's more than just beauty that makes someone beautiful.
I also know that the published book will include poems by Walter Fields. Could you tell us, what is your relationship with Walter and why, in your opinion, his poems resonate so well with your images?
I am so thrilled to share the pages of this book with some of Walter Fields' poetry. Over 20 years ago, I fell in love with his paintings before even meeting him. I was walking around the East Village with a friend and we stopped to admire one of his works in the window of his gallery Jack Light. It was a small portrait of Billy the Kid squinting at us with a shiner under one eye. Neither of us had any money but we slipped a note under the door anyway to inquire about the painter and the painting. Months later, my friend ended up paying for half of the painting for my birthday gift. When I met with Walter to figure out a payment plan for the second half, he offered to do a trade - I would give him one of my photos in exchange for the second half of his painting. I remember walking around the gallery inhaling each of his paintings. There was Virginia Woolf on a SurfBoard, Nietzsche Playing the Piano, Doubting Thomas and countless paintings of JFK's mistress, Mary Pinchot. I was hooked. Walter and I became friends and collaborators and I had my first photo exhibition at Jacklight, as well as countless photoshoots. Walter's poems resonate so well with my images because although they were created separately and at different times, they seem to be part of the same conversation.