Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Art Space Talk: Michelle Sank

Michelle Sank was born in Cape Town, South Africa. She has been living and working in the UK since 1987. Her photographs have been exhibited in England, Europe, Australia, Mexico and the U.S.A. She has been published in art and photography journals and magazines including Next Level, Katalog, The British Journal of Photography and PhotoReview. She is represented by the Print Room at the Photographers Gallery, London and her work is held in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas and The Woodstock Centre for Photography, New York among others.

Image from Reality Crossings by Michelle Sank

Brian Sherwin: Michelle, can you discuss some of your first experiences with a camera? What attracted you to photography? Also, do you have any formal training in photographer-- as in, did you attend any academic programs for that study?

Michelle Sank: I discovered photography by chance - It was introduced in a Fine Art course I was studying at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. I immediately became committed to the medium.

BS: I understand that you view your work as a form of social documentary. Can you go into further detail about that and the message you strive to convey to viewers?

MS: My work although not journalistic deals with social issues - I am drawn to groups or individuals that don't quite fit the norm.Through my portraits I attempt to show the social, psychological, physical nuances of the people I work - a sense of humanity. Often these people lives have been difficult in some way.

Image from In the Arms of Babes by Michelle Sank

BS: In your exploration of the human condition do you adhere to any specific school of psychological thought? For example, do you approach theories of specific psychologists, such as Carl Jung, when thinking about the direction you will go with your work?

MS: No. not specifically - I work very intuitively and am drawn to my subjects through something they are emitting at that point in time - a mood, a look, a stance, dress, how the light is working with all that as well.

BS: I understand that you have lived in Capt Town, South Africa and a few other places throughout the world. How have those travels influenced you as an artist?

MS: I was brought up in South Africa and lived there into my early adult life. I believe growing up in the Apartheid system and myself being part of a refugee community drew me to photograph people living on the edge of society. I also think the exoticness of Africa in place, colour, light and cultures has strongly influenced the work I make.
Image from Endgame by Michelle Sank

BS: What about other influences? Are you influenced by any specific artists?

MS: My strongest earliest influence was that of David Goldblatt who became a mentor to me when I started. I now enjoy the work of photographers like Phillip di Corcia, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld… etc.

BS: Tell about some of your series. ‘Bye-Bye Baby’, ‘Reality Crossings’, and ‘Tidal’ for example.

MS: Bye-Bye Baby was a self-initiated project which evolved through my concern for the youth I observed. These images deal with the notion of developing adulthood within the milieu of British society today. In Bye-Bye Baby I am exploring the way young boys and girls interpret their understanding of masculinity and femininity. Having left the purity of their childhood worlds, they seem to take on the trappings of the grown ups they mimic and of the status quo as set out in popular culture and the media.

Reality Crossings is from a commission for the 2nd Fotofestival in Mannheim, Ludwigshafen and Heidelberg. My proposal was to create a visual document about youth in Mannheim and the surrounding areas. My planned approach was to photograph a cross section of young people in both the city and its surrounds working with both local and immigrant communities. The portraits have been produced through a mix of street photography and negotiated youth group collaborations. I am interested in the way that individuals are shaped by social structures, how gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity 'enter into' us as subjects. By undertaking a series of portraits in varying physical and social environments, I hoped to capture the nuances, norms and sense of identity that are particular to and a reflection of youth within contemporary society in the Mannheim vicinity today.

The images for Tidal are from a residency I undertook in the small port town of Cobh, near Cork city in Ireland. Every day I would walk up and down the short promenade by the water and I became fascinated and intrigued by the cross-section of young people I encountered and their attachment to the sea. This has shaped their social interaction and given rise to a particular sub-culture in relation to their recreational activities and future aspirations.In addition this small town serves as a microcosm for what is happening in many parts of Western Europe where young people from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia etc all come in search of work and security breaking down ethnic and cultural isolation and precipitating a new evolution in societies.
These portraits were produced against the background of the sea, itself a symbol of the passage of time, of change, of journeys into and discoveries of pastures new
Image from The Water's Edge by Michelle Sank

BS: Can you discuss the connection you feel with the people you photograph? Is there a connection? Philosophically speaking, can you describe that connection?

MS: I am very connected to my subjects whether it is on the street or in more constructed working environments. It is very much a two way process and I have always said that the interaction I have is as meaningful as the photograph.

BS: How does an idea for a series come to you? At what point do you say “this could work”… or does it just happen depending on the situation?

MS: As mentioned I work very organically and sometimes just by walking around and observing, the seed of an idea for a project happens. Sometimes projects come to me through various gallery commissions I have undertaken

Image from Celestial Echoes by Michelle Sank

BS: Can you tell us about your recent work? What are you working on at this time?
MS: I have just made some portrait work in South Africa in the townships, a school and a refugee camp

BS: Finally, you are represented by Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris and The Photographer’s Gallery in London, correct? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

MS: I have been part of a group show on Adolescence with Les Filles du Calvaire but there are no plans at the moment for that to be shown elsewhere.

You can learn more about Michelle Sank by visiting her website-- www.michellesank.com. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

Sorry souless pictures of boring people is not art. And not original either. God I hate contemporary art, those of mediocre academies

Art academia delenda est

Balhatain said...

Donald, I don't see these photographs as "souless" nor do I see them as "boring people". Having grown up in an area that tends to force teens into adulthood early I can see a lot in these photographs and in the faces of the people involved.

Not original? I've not seen these specific works done by anyone else. True, others may have the same direction in how they take on photography or how they deal with issues with photography as their vehicle. However, to say that these works are not 'original' would be like saying that paintings today are not original because someone way back when painted and explored some of the same issues. Correct?

Anonymous said...

No, it has been done many, many, many times. And yes, they are soulless, as they are lost. I work with young people, have mentored, coached, adopted, and raised them. i know these last generations of kids, and they have no purpose. They are takng life for granted, somethng I hate, then feeling sad, and angry when they feel empty. They have all they need to survied, and thrive, but lack the ambition, the drive, the focus, as they have been promised so much by the media. Their view of life is askew.

It is not arts job to show them, thats for photo journalism. We are supposed to find ways that reveal that purpose, instill that drive, create works that interrelate and become alive, where the individual can find their place within the whole. That they can find Purpose and meaning. This cant be shown directly, we cant dictate HOW people do it, but create works that reflect life, so other can view it, and when successful, connect, and release feelings of intense living, belonging. NOT being separate, which is all these do, and a dime a dozen walking in any gathering of teenagers.

This is continued voyueristic self absorbtion, NOT art. We can but present and hope to trigger these feelings of being, belonging, meaning. Of god, of the univereses vastness, of the closeness of human to human, to society, to allow the viewer to discover the definitions of who we are. And the strivings for what we are to become.

Pretty simple really. G'day.

Art Collegia Delenda Est

Balhatain said...

"i know these last generations of kids, and they have no purpose. They are takng life for granted"

Donald, it seems to me that the older generation always says that of the younger generation. The 'when I was young' philosophy is nothing new.

If art is a reflection of society than it would seem that these images should be considered art by you, true? The image you see does not have to be a positive one in order for it to have a positive message or to allow positive reflection on the issues we face today.

Sometimes an artist can make a very positive-- and powerful-- statement by revealing what some may see as the 'ugly' aspects of life.

You would rather see photographs of smiling teens hidden behind a1950-ish persona? Which is worse my friend... showing the reality of today or masking it to the point of having no connection to the here and now?

Anonymous said...

You have obviously not looked at my website, my photos are as real a they get. These are just photos of a certain segment of society, far from reflecting who WE are, which is not just our lost brats. Some of these may grow up, many will just be waitresses and Walmart workers, sleep walking through life. That is ONE aspect of life, art is about relationships, layers of meaning and its heights and depths, filling out a skeleton, with sinew, brains, organs, skin. Make it come alive and reflect life, and its meaning. These are all surface, like the stunted souls of the subjects. Sad, true, but not art.

This is plain old photojournalism, glorified into artsiness. Empty. Void. As in the stares of the teenagers. Sorry, not art at all, and why it has become meaningless, its stuck in the partiuclar, there are over 6 billion others on this planet. How does this relate to their lives? Its spoiled Americans wandering in a desolute state. Few in the world can afford to be like this. Decadence, and sad when it hits our children, quite annoying and destructive when carried over to "adulthood'.

Besides, its quite the cliche, been done thousands of times in photo classes all over the country. Boring.

Art collegia delenda est

josephbolstad said...

Donald, I've seen your amateurish nature photos. They remind me of so many photos I saw in my high school photo club days. I urge everyone to visit http://www.dfimagery.com/ and have a good laugh at Mr. Frazell's "work".

Stop trying to shamelessly self-promote yourself and your silly agenda.

Balhatain said...

Now where did I put those boxing gloves... :)

As for Michelle Sank's work... she obviously has you thinking about contemporary culture upon viewing her photographs. So I think in that sense her work speaks. Even to you Donald.


Anonymous said...

Honestly, I agree with Donald, since upon viewing the pictures I was not very interested. Furthermore, i am stuck doing a review on them, and i have no idea what to write.

Balhatain said...

Anon, review? For school?

martin dixon said...

I find Michelle's work both engaging and inspiring - there's a touching quality to these portraits that is outside of the numerous ways we see young people portrayed in the media and appears both direct and honest.