David Samuel Stern’s Portraits: The Mechanics of Longing

For photographer David Samuel Stern’s photography typically serves as a departure point for crafting tangible objects. In his Woven Portraits series for instance, Stern physically assembles pieces of his photographic portraits into new forms, aiming to fuse the notion of photographic representation with its own material nature, making a new essence. The imagery in this series may bring to mind Cubists’ and Futurists’ paintings, or David Hockney’s Polaroids, but in Stern’s  hybrid artworks, the imagery derives from a photographer’s imagination and can be distinctly traced to our digital age – the manual  counterpoints the virtual. Here Stern shares with Art Spiel some of his ideas, process, and projects.

Aaron; 2015; Photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, physically cut and woven together; 40 x 31 x ¼ in, 101.5 x 78.75 x 1.25 cm; Courtesy David Samuel Stern

AS: Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to photography

David Samuel Stern: I’m a photographer by training, I teach photography, I think photographically, but really, I’m obsessed with objects. I’m an artist who wants to make a tangible end-product. As photography goes, that’s not the typical goal.

As a child I used to take pictures and draw as entertainment. I photographed anything, but drew mainly airplanes. I took a darkroom photography class at a local college one summer when I was sixteen or seventeen and when I learned how the medium actually worked, the balance of the technical and the aesthetic felt special. I decided to study photography and art history in school, as this seemed to make the most sense to me.

AS: What is the genesis of your woven portraits?

David Samuel Stern: The Woven Portraits series has an unimpressive beginning. It comes from a long period of thinking about the similarly impossible tasks of portraiture and of photography itself: to represent something (or, in the case of portraiture, someone) through an image. I find this interesting and I think everyone has an innate interest in pattern and rhythm but, as I mentioned, I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day I really want to be crafting objects.

Weaving is a way of giving the photographs a clear tangibility—of a crafted physical thing. And weaving is universal. And it struck me at some point in 2011 that this lends itself well to portraiture. Weaving and pattern are a kind of mechanical indifference, and combining this with the longing of portraiture, I find beautiful. I wanted to embrace this conflict to make images that are, underneath it all, depictions of a person.

Nouri; 2018; Three photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, physically cut and woven together; 38⅜ x 30⅛ x ⅛ in, 97.2 x 76.5 x 0.3 cm; Courtesy David Samuel Stern.
Nouri (Detail); 2018; Three photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, physically cut and woven together; 38⅜ x 30⅛ x ⅛ in, 97.2 x 76.5 x 0.3 cm, Courtesy David Samuel Stern

AS: There is a visceral aspect to your work – how do you see the relationship between the photographic and sculptural process (the “making”)?

David Samuel Stern: I can’t really say that I’ve truly thought about my work as sculptural. I saw an exhibition of Japanese bamboo art at the Met last winter (the Abbey Collection), and since then I’ve been thinking about how to take the Woven Portraits into a more sculptural realm. But, honestly, up to this point, the only “sculptural” aspect I’ve given much consideration is the physical texture that results from the weaving of the photographs together.

I guess the work is in a strange position. In its heart, it is portraiture. Though I’m interested in making photographs into objects, I weirdly haven’t approached this from a specifically three-dimensional angle. I know of at least a few artists who use photography in an insistently three-dimensional-sculptural way. But I think I’m mainly wanting to make intricate, more-or-less two-dimensional photo-objects that go in a frame, and the frame goes on the wall, and that’s that. At least for now.

AS: What can you share about your process?

David Samuel Stern: My process begins with a binder of inspiration images that I assemble for each shoot. It’s really just printouts of other photographers’ work and some sketches of mine that act as notes for referencing while on-set. I like to have them there to show the sitters, as a way of explaining mood and pose. When I have a stylist or an assistant working with me, I want them to see it as well.

The straight photographs that I shoot and eventually print on vellum and physically cut up and weave into a single piece come from these inspiration images. They start as essentially lucid photographs of the sitter, taken with a very high resolution camera in a lighting studio. It’s always a little amazing to me how direct they are. Even when a photo of a person sitting in front of a white seamless isn’t trying to be bold, it somehow is, regardless of pose. I wonder if other photographers and artists who make portraits feel this way. The directness dissipates as I weave them together and it is easy to forget how brash a straight photo is.

Sheilah; 2018; Three photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, physically cut and woven together; 39½ x 31⅞ x ⅛ in, 100.3 x 81 x 0.3 cm; Courtesy David Samuel Stern

AS: Your work in my mind relates to simultaneity, co-existing states of being – expressed through a sense of frozen movement. Does this make sense to you?

David Samuel Stern: I think that makes sense. And I think this has something to do with what I meant by saying earlier that both portraiture and photography have an impossible mission. We don’t know a person by looking at their image and we don’t see a moment in time by looking at the photographic result of its duration. In these portraits, the sitters tend simultaneously to hide and reveal themselves. Perhaps that’s the norm in presenting oneself: a bit gets concealed and a bit gets revealed, all at once. That’s how it works. When you try to control that, it becomes entertainment, or politics, or both.

AS: You have been working quite a lot with dancers. Can you share a bit what led you there, your experience, and ideas?

David Samuel Stern: Dancers are the best subjects. Working with them, for me, has been a happy coincidence that happened mainly in 2014 and 2015, when I was completing a batch of ten woven portraits for an exhibition at BAM. I had been working with the choreographer Seán Curran in 2014 on several promotional photographs of his dance company for a performance that was going to premiere at BAM more than a year later. Over the course of that project, the opportunity came up to put together a solo exhibition of Woven Portraits for BAM’s 2015 Next Wave programming. In any case, this led to me photographing the dance-company members as individual portrait subjects, in order to make the Woven Portraits that would comprise the exhibition.

Dancers know how to use their physical appearance. Ask them to do something and they do it. Show them a sketch of an idea and they get it right away.

Rebecca; 2015; Photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, physically cut and woven together; 40½ x 30½ x ¼ in, 103 x 77.5 x 0.5 cm; Courtesy David Samuel Stern

AS: What are your thoughts about contemporary photography – and how do you see your work in that context?

David Samuel Stern: Of course it’s impossible for me to generalize about contemporary photography, but I do think it has changed a lot in the last five years. There’s a recent emphasis on reexamining photography as a medium, now that technology and social media have turned it into a pervasive fact of life.

Photography has always had a kind of introspective mode, as a medium. Photography sometimes asks itself, “What am I?” Some of my favorite photographers, like Hiroshi Sugimoto, have been doing something like this for decades, but their way of examining the medium has been through a more spiritual take on the “what am I” question.

I am starting to see a stronger wave of artists and photographers looking at the medium from a physical point of view. Some of these artists have also been doing this for decades, like Vik Muniz and Moyra Davey, but I think this is getting into the spotlight much more now. This is where my work kind of fits in probably—but it’s not a great fit. This last summer I happened to see “Interventions”, an exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery that dove into exactly this, and I have to say I don’t feel as playful as these artists seem to be feeling. I liked the work but when it comes to post-shoot, I think I’d rather be a robot that makes a pattern.

2017; © David Gonsier

AS: You have just finished a project. What can you tell me about it?

David Samuel Stern:  I recently finished a batch of four Woven Portraits. These are a little different from the ones that have come before because they were shot in natural light and posed with less directness. I’ve been thinking a lot about the work of Richard Learoyd since early this year. I really admire it. His process itself is impressive, but there’s also something about the way his models are posed that’s so striking. I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it’s tension from having to hold the pose for a relatively long-ish exposure, but it is mixed with something peaceful, too. In any case, I wanted to try to incorporate this into these Woven Portraits: Learoyd gives us a portrait in the sense that there’s a person there to look at, while I was trying to do that without clearly showing the person.

Additionally, three out of the four Woven Portraits in this batch are made from weaving together three photographs, rather than two. This results in a final artwork that is much more abstract and fleeting. Also, there is a three-dimensional cube-like pattern that covers the image rather than the typical box that comes with most things woven. I experimented with this process back in early 2016, but I don’t think I had the right eyes for it at that point.

AS: What are you working on now?

David Samuel Stern: I’m making a few smaller Woven Portraits, smaller than I’ve ever done, about eleven by eight inches (the typical size is around forty by thirty inches). I’m likely going to have another shoot later this fall or early winter to gather more photographs to make woven pieces from, but I’m also going to begin a side project involving a pinhole camera and some legendary (expired) photo paper. I’ve done the tests and I have the equipment. Now the real work begins.

Behind the Scenes, recent work, © 2018 David Gonsier


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