Back to Spot Magazine

The Peripatetic Photographer

Sally Gall is a photographer living and working in New York City. In addition to her fine art career, she teaches photography, and works as an editorial and advertising landscape and lifestyle photographer. Her work is in numerous museums and private collections and she has been awarded several prestigious fellowships, which include two MacDowell Colony Fellowships and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency. Gall has published two books of photographs, The Waters Edge (Umbra Editions/Chronicle Books, 1995) with an essay on her work by writer James Salter, and Subterranea (Umbrage Editions, 2005) with an essay on her work by two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand. Gall has a twenty-five year history of solo and group shows at museums and galleries. She has had seven solo exhibitions with the Julie Saul Gallery, New York City.

This interview was conducted, like Sally’s life, half in the urban setting of Paris (in a garret in the 4th arrondissement during the week of Paris Photo) and the other half in transit by train through the Tuscan countryside on the way to Rome. Sally currently divides her time between New York City and the countryside outside of the medieval village of Montisi, Italy. JS

Part I: 16 Rue des Gravellais, the Marais, Paris, France

Jack Stephens: What’s your interest now? Why bugs and weeds?

Sally Gall: I’m interested in life in landscape, especially the unseen activity. A cultivated field of sunflowers infers the person who planted that field. I’ve often been interested in the unseen activity of humans and now I am interested in the activity of things that crawl and move invisibly through the landscape. Right now it’s spider webs. There are probably hundreds all around us as we speak, but we don’t see them. Only when they’re lit with dew or a perfect angle of light allows it, do you see one. Then you move an inch and it’s gone. They seem like ordinary things because we take them for granted, but they’re actually strange, intricate, and beautiful. Do we ever stop and really look at one?

JS: Poets refresh the mundane by showing us what’s marvelous about it. So for you it’s the neglected participants that make a landscape what it is?

SG: They animate the landscape in mysterious ways thus it’s a narrative way of entering a world. What are they doing? Where are they going? I’m offering the viewer a chance to come in on their hands and knees, for a change, rather than looking at everything as the upright creatures that we are. Also, after living in cities most of my life, I forget that bees, moths, and other insects pollinate and make things grow. I never think about the role of insects in our lives… that we wouldn’t have growing things without them. I realized how important to the natural world all these creatures are, a part of landscape I have never paid attention to.

JS: Like how, without bees, we wouldn’t last four years because there’d be no food… Why always nature as your subject matter?

SG: From childhood, I found being outside in nature exhilarating, a world apart from, I don’t know….

JS: Your suburban existence.

SG: Yes. My working life as an artist has been to capture that sense of discovering the natural world, and to convey it to others. The beauty and the menace. With the hope that the photos take the viewer somewhere else, make the viewer think beyond the work itself to bigger things, other issues, universals, the meaning of nature in one’s life, nature’s cultural significance. I am really most interested in an individual’s interaction with the natural world and I hope that my photograph will provide a space for contemplation and meditation and will immerse the viewer in their own humanity and its relation to nature. I want to present an experience in my photos that will lift the viewer from everyday consciousness, mundane reality, into a primal and immediate experience with the natural world.
But back to childhood…. I realize as an adult that the experience I had then, and continue to have now, is what Freud called the “oceanic feeling,” where one feels one is a part of something much bigger. You realize that you as a human being are only a small speck in a large universe. A feeling both scary and liberating, transcendent. I am always asking myself how I can capture that in a visual image.

JS: Some of my favorite photos of yours seem to contemplate nature from inside out. There is this friction between the meditative and the active. They don’t just “put you there,” but provide a locus of contemplation that is the difference between looking at fish through aquarium glass and being inside the aquarium with the fish.

SG: I’ve always wanted to make photos where you are in the landscape, not simply looking at the landscape. Where the viewer FEELS the natural world, has a visceral, sensual experience of it. I hope that when someone views one of the Crawl images, for example, that person feels that they really are there on the ground peering through the grasses, seeing a whole new world that they usually don’t look at. I want the viewer to be a part of nature, a participant, not a voyeur. The human condition is inextricable from nature.

JS: So where do you see yourself when you are working? Behind the lens? In the lens? Certainly not like Cindy Sherman or Tseng Kwong Chi, in front of the lens?

SG: According to your definition, “inside the lens, inside the camera.” I use the camera in a traditional way, as an extension of my eye.

JS: So the thing about the Crawl series is we’re looking at things we haven’t encountered since we were kids, or from the point of view of picnickers. And Subterranea, the body of work you shot in the twilight zone at the mouths of caves, is that place where the landscape folds inward and these are ‘neglected landscapes,’ places most people don’t go, thus don’t see. But what about the cherry blossom photos of Central Park?

SG: Ah… this is a very particular situation because living in New York, I always go to Central Park as my refuge. I love it. And it’s especially wonderful in spring, after that grey northeastern winter, when the flowering trees suddenly explode. I found the trees so overwhelmingly full of life and color that I photographed the blossoms as beautiful objects against the sky, color, and light.

JS: What are you showing us about how we see cherry trees? Aren’t you just making Japanese flower arrangements?

SG: I’m trying to show how lush and sexy and creaturely a cherry blossom is, the fertility of the tree, by taking it out of context, exposing the lushness of red petals against the lushness of blue sky.

JS: But also you disorient us in the one with big blossoms over the tiny cloud.

SG: To make you look afresh at something you’re used to seeing all the time; to disorient you spatially. Like looking at the critters on soillevel, this time I invite the viewer’s eye into the sky.

JS: This brings us to a fork in road. The blossoms were your first color work. Why the switch to color?

SG: This was the first time I really felt the work was about color; I was trying to use color like the abstract color field painters, Rothko, Barnett Newman, etc., – a field of pink against a field of blue. The color expressed the lushness so it wasn’t a “switch” to color, but it was a moment I needed color to express what I was trying to express.

JS: Watching you photograph and looking at your photographs over the years, I think of you as an explorer. You are reluctant to manipulate or set up or stage or plan as you photograph.

SG: Yes, I feel like an explorer. I always want to know my surroundings and see what catches my attention, whether I am photographing or not. I feel a deep need to KNOW my surroundings and so whenever I go anywhere new, (and I am always drawn to visit someplace new), I do lots of exploring and do a lot of what some people consider, wasting time. I walk or drive around a lot, looking. Just looking and not necessarily photographing. It’s about seeing and knowing, which for me is what making art is. As an example, I remember many years ago when Sally Mann and I, among others, were both teaching at the Tuscany Photo Workshop (Italy); we had both been invited to teach there for the first time, and neither one of us had been there before. I was driving around like crazy, exploring all the towns, all the roads, all the territory within reasonable driving distance of the workshop, making lots of photos of the landscape, and she never left the grounds, never left the “campus”, but slowly circled around (by foot) where she was staying and took pictures. I remember having a funny discussion about it – I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to get out and see more, and she couldn’t understand why I did! I had a deep need to do it, and she didn’t, and it was so interesting to me that a photographer that I admire and respect so much didn’t, and it just pointed out the differences in artistic creation, two different ways of approaching looking at the world to make art out of. She makes art out of what’s immediately in front of her (thus her family) and I go far and wide to seek… things I don’t know. Underground caves, the world at our feet, wide open seas. Something that is ineffable, indescribable, and perhaps still out there waiting to be found.

JS: That sounds a bit like Cartier-Bresson, but your photos aren’t so journalistic. The sense is more about how you are seeing the things you are discovering. It’s like they are portraits, not of the discoverer or the discovered, but of the moment of discovery. Portraits of discovering discovery.

SG: Yes!

JS: I think of that tiny boat on that huge sea, about to sail off the edge….

SG: Evidence of Wind… Obviously I liberated the boat, compositionally, from its context in space by where I placed the camera frame. The narrative of the picture implies that the boat keeps sailing out of the picture frame and into the unknown. We KNOW that there is more sea and sky and land outside of the frame of the photo and yet it seems an adventure of discovery by that boat, like Columbus insisting that the world is round and going off to prove it – the boat is sailing out of the edge of the frame, off the edge of the world… to where? And of course the scale of what appears to be a tiny boat next to a giant cloud only makes us all the smaller in the face of nature.

JS: What about your choices in the darkroom? You certainly manipulate there.

SG: Because I like to abstract the image from the literal enough to make it timeless. I don’t want the image to be specific to time and place, because it’s about experience, not history and fact. So I do some selective diffusion during printmaking in the darkroom, making some areas of the image less sharp than others. Where the photo was shot, what time of day, what season, what year, are simply not relevant.

JS: In the same way that dream experience is very real, but dreams aren’t real.

SG: That’s good. I like that! I think a work of art, a photograph, can function the same way – particularly a photograph. The viewer knows I took the photo in a “real” place because it looks like a real place that has a familiarity to the viewer, and yet I tweak it a little, so that there is the sense of it having a very slight unreality (does that place really exist?) but the experience feels real. I like to create a slight frisson between reality and imagination, a dream state. All with the goal of making the viewer look harder.

JS: And yet you switched to color, which to my mind, unless you are a rabid colorist, locks the viewer more directly into a relationship with reality.

SG: And that’s why I usually avoid color, but for some situations… for example, Crawl, color allowed me a certain amount of freedom that black and white didn’t. Because, for one thing, when I photograph bugs in black and white, I can’t differentiate the bug enough from the tangle of grasses and weeds it lives in. I do love the inherent abstraction that is part of black and white photography… we do after all live in a world of color.

JS: So how do you keep the same level of abstraction?

SG: With the focus. One can depict close color objects out of focus, and turn them into color fields. A blob of yellow, not a dandelion, and so on.

JS: It’s a serious compositional issue. You’re using a very shallow depth of field and a scalpel-sharp focal plane, you’re being decisive about what to include and exclude in the focus in the way that you were with your framing and your search for the perfect light in your black and white work.

SG: The blossoms were very different because it’s the only time I use lush colors for their own sake… with Crawl, the color, and the focus, are part of creating a world unto the photograph.

JS: Last question about landscape: What is the decisive moment in landscape photography?

SG: It’s the moment the light reveals what we didn’t see a minute ago. The light is always changing and revealing things. You think you know how something appears, and then voila, the sun goes behind a cloud, and suddenly a shadow covers up something that was there a minute ago, or the sun comes out and illuminates something way off in the distance that changes totally your sense of the space of the landscape. It’s exhilarating because you can look at the same place 100 times and then the 101st time it looks totally different because of the angle of light and it’s as if you have never seen it before. That’s the feeling I try to capture – that you are looking at something that you know in a deep way (the land, trees, natural elements, etc.) and are seeing it and feeling it as if you have never seen it or felt it before.

Part II: Via 20 Settembre #3, Rome, Italy

JS: Tell me about Houston and HCP and your time at Texas Gallery and the Contemporary Arts Museum when you were in your twenties.

SG: Looking back, Houston was a wonderful place to be a young artist in the early 80s. I was particularly fortunate to be in Houston at the exact moment I was, because Houston had a burgeoning art scene! I had just returned after graduating from RISD and immediately began working for The Cronin Gallery, Houston’s only photography gallery. Tony Cronin had just died and Robin Cronin was left with her grief and the gallery to run; she hired me and gave me a lot more responsibility than I might have ordinarily had because she was dealing with so much. That’s where I laid the groundworkfor everything I know about photography because that is where I saw hundreds and hundreds of photographs, both vintage and contemporary. The gallery wasn’t exactly busy in the sense of being full of people or activity – I had ample opportunity to look at things, and to go through all the flat files with the handful of collectors that came regularly. It was a treasure trove. Robin Cronin was very generous to let me “browse”; she considered it part of my educationthat was necessary to help her sell photos. The next-door neighbor in the strip “bunker” behind the River Oaks Shopping center was the Texas Gallery, where Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie were showcasing – and continue to exhibit – contemporary artists of the moment, from Robert Rauschenberg to Ed Ruscha to Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as many local artists. The proximity of the two galleries was very exciting and I eventually showed my work first at Cronin Gallery, then at Texas Gallery. Between the two, I saw lots of art and met many artists. Then Robin Cronin closed her gallery for personal reasons and I met Linda Cathcart, who had come from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, to head the Contemporary Arts Museum. She hired me as her curatorial assistant, which gave me a further immersion in the world of art and artists, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. She had a garrulous personality and brought a fantastic amount of energy into the museum and helped me see what a big wide world of interests and activity contemporary art held. Around that time I also taught photography at the Glassell School and one course of photo history at University of Houston. Then the Houston Center of Photography was born, a tiny community project whose organizers loved photography and simply wanted to give photography a home in Houston. And now HCP has blossomed into a national non-profit organization, a gallery space, educational program, magazine, etc. Thirty years later it has national cache. It’s thriving!

JS: What is the most frequently asked question you get about your work?

SG: Do you work digitally? And ‘Why not?’

JS: And the answers are?

SG: I am interested in the making of, and the viewing of, art for its content and meaning and aesthetic. In my case, it happens to be photography. I don’t have a position on digital photography or even on what is happening in photography today when it comes to current trends. All art forms evolve so it’s only natural that after working in a medium a long time, one would see many trends and major changes. I am interested in what the individual artist has to say and how they say it, not the trends and directions that preoccupy critics, historians, and curators. Not that the trends and directions aren’t interesting, but I come to it from a making art point of view and I am interested in why a particular artist chooses to say something. Not why suddenly everyone is making a certain kind of photo. Digital photography is another tool, a technology to be used or not. When I began photography 35 years ago, I learned with a film camera in a traditional darkroom. That was the technology then, and even then I used cheap plastic cameras like the Diana because I am only interested in technique so far as it advances my intentions. I don’t shoot digital now because I have no reason to move from film to digital or to change how I capture images. I suppose I will eventually be forced in that direction because of availability or lack of materials. Not to mention their expense. Also, I suppose, the time is coming when working with film will give antiquated feeling results once we are used to digital images. I’m not a Luddite though. For practical tasks I have begun to utilize some digital technologies to make life easier. For instance, making cheaper and quicker rough prints on the computer with scanned negatives, rather than in the darkroom. In sum, I am interested in photographing the real world pretty much as it is, with just a little darkroom tweaking here and there for emotional and sensual reasons. So I’m not the kind of photographer who needs a particular aspect of Photoshop or digital image capture. I don’t need to add or subtract elements from my photos, like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and others. Not yet, anyway. My interest as a photographer has always been in my interaction with the real world; I want to rub up against the real stuff of life and present it as I experience it.

Poet-novelist-screenwriter Jack Stephensis also Sally’s husband, in-house critic, and sometime assistant. His most recent film release is the documentary IMAX feature Arabia 3-D and his most recent publication is the nonfiction environmental book Living Mirrors: A Coral Reef Adventure.

He is currently at work on a joint Italo- Russo-American feature film based on his adventures restoring an abandoned farm in the heart of Tuscany, and he is working on a memoir as we