‘It’s a compelling notion that reality only exists in this very moment.’ – Sarah Cooper
Although there’s a strong painterly feel to the work of new Hasselblad Ambassadors Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer, the unique look they achieve owes much to the quality of the cameras they’re using. Girls Sewn To Trees
At first sight the distinctive imagery of Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer exudes the timeless, slightly staged feel you might expect to find in paintings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the pair fully acknowledge the debt they owe to narrative traditions and influences. Eschewing the contemporary obsession with capturing the ‘decisive moment,’ the pictures produced by Cooper & Gorfer result from a close collaboration with the subjects they’re portraying, with the photographers fully involved and carefully directing their productions until they have exactly the look they’re after.
Despite the continuity of approach from the pair, their backgrounds are strikingly different. Sarah is a classically trained photographer with a BA from Syracuse University, while Nina studied architecture under Zaha Hadid at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. They met during their studies on the master program at HDK Göteborg.
Their collaboration began thanks to the fascination they both shared for narrative structures, visual storytelling, the influence and expression of culture and a joint appreciation for books. “We share a love for storytelling tied to our experience of a place and/or image,” says Sarah, “both in a general sense but also in our own personal reflections and understandings of our own family histories. Our work has many indirect influences, from the family farm of Nina’s grandmother in Styria, Austria, through to the family stories and photographs I have from my great, great grandfather’s life on the frontier in 1880s US. This chain of history in our own lives in relation to our creative motivation and narrative plays a significant role in our work.”
The main medium in Cooper & Gorfer’s work is photography, and every completed image has its origins in this medium. But this is purely a starting point, and the end result is only achieved through experiments in composition, light, texture and metaphorical cues.
“We move away from photography in the classical sense,” Nina says, “and it can take us several weeks to complete the image since we might add, take away and reassemble it using different techniques. For us, something interesting happens in this grey-zone between photography and painting, when you as a viewer have to leave the certainty of knowing what medium it is you’re looking at.”
While photography might simply serve as a starting point it’s still crucial that the quality of the initial image is outstanding, and for this reason the choice of a Hasselblad camera plus 80mm and 35mm lenses made complete sense.
“We recently upgraded from the H4D to the H5D-50c for our most recent project, ‘Interruptions,’” says Sarah.
“One of the main reasons for the change was the incredibly high ISO performance of the newer camera. As we were photographing above the Arctic Circle in February, light was always going to be an issue, and yet we didn’t want to be completely reliant on a flash kit. The H5D-50c also proved itself to be totally reliable in the extreme weather and temperature conditions, which was crucial.
“We haven’t yet had the pleasure of using the H6D, but we’re looking forward to it. The fact that you can produce film sequences with the camera is something we’ll be very interested in, since we tend to need filmed documentary material for our larger scale projects when we’re on location.” Being asked to become Hasselblad Ambassadors delighted Sarah and Nina, who are happy to share their experiences with the system. “For us it was all about the quality and detail of the images,” says Nina. “We had always wanted to go up in size with our fine art prints, but the quality of the format we were using had been insufficient until then. We’ve now shot our new body of work with the H5D and it keeps amazing us. Aside from the technical aspect, the Hasselblad is such a classic: both of us have had a huge admiration for the camera since we started our careers. It’s a huge honour for us to be ambassadors for one of the most iconic models out there, which has also helped to lift our work to the next level.”
Setting up the picture:
Sarah and Nina have a particular approach to their art that’s consistent across their many projects, directing and staging their images, often lighting the scene with portable flash heads.
“Clothes and styling have a big relevance in our work,” says Nina, “both in the process of the photography as well as in the post production, because there is significant potential for symbolism here.”
“We don’t want to document the time we live in per se, or to analyse the very moment or event we’re photographing. Rather we’re more interested in blurring time, and the digital process is just one of our tools, one that has to be mastered just like any analogue process. Just as with paint and a brush, or in the darkroom, you have to find your own expression within a given technology.”
There could be extensive layering to build up the final picture, which could at times be completely digital or it might be a combination of analogue techniques, such as drawing, painting, scratching and sewing on, or into, the image, which is then digitally collaged. “Our work has evoked a lot of curiosity but also scepticism,” continues Nina, “because part of our process is done digitally. There seem to be a pre-conception that this somehow takes away from the worth and meaning of an artwork, but we consider technology to be only a tool, maybe a catalyst in the best of cases, but it’s not the artwork itself.”
When Sarah and Nina first started to collaborate as artists, photography was their shared skill and it quickly became their main tool of expression, and they appreciated the fact that technology has evolved so rapidly in recent years, opening new doors and, in the process, altering the very substance of the medium. As artists they enjoy the fact that they are not only able to experience but can also be a part of the development of photography from a creative standpoint.
“On a more practical level, photography allows us to interact with people in a more immediate way,” says Sarah. “Even though we stage our photographs we still work relatively quickly and spontaneously as we’re travelling and shooting our projects. Photography allows us to meet a person one day and the following day take a succession of portraits of them. We can also photograph the dog of the house, the pattern of the tapestry on the walls, the mist coming in early in the morning. With photography we can be collectors.
“So we do take documents of reality, if such a thing exists, but they undergo a transformation and maybe it’s this that we find so compelling: the notion that reality only exists in this very moment and that once it’s consigned to your memory your subconscious has already altered it and blended it together with moments that came before or after. You may have forgotten some details, added some emotion, saturated it with meaning or forgotten it altogether.
“We like the idea that the photograph of a real situation undergoes the same change – and that we somehow can make this visible in our work.”