Sarah Bloom has experienced a little bit of everything in the midst of pursuing her art, from battling clinical depression to grappling with a sudden brief and intense burst of national attention. It seems only fitting that at ten years into her transformation into full-fledged artist, she is taking a moment to step back and review the path that led her here with a retrospective of her work.
Running from June 6 to 17 at Da Vinci Art Alliance, with an opening reception on June 10 from 2 – 5 pm, The Impermanence of Being will cover this evolution in determination and thought, as the artist herself stays on hand at the gallery to answer visitor questions about the work on display.
We took a little time to talk to Sarah Bloom before the big opening and get a sneak peek into the thought process that inspires her.
Did you have any formal training as an artist?
It’s not typical as in, it wasn’t a clear path. I think I always wanted to be creative in some way, but I didn’t really think about it as a career; I thought about writing more than anything else. When I went to school it was for journalism. And then I got into drugs and alcohol addiction and didn’t do anything much for a while. I dropped out of school eventually, traveled around for a bit, ended up back in Philly, and started getting into poetry. Now I think of my photos as a different version of my poetry – the visual version.
In 1995 I got sober and had a daughter. I went back to school as an English Major, because I still had that interest. I worked in a publishing company, and ended up interning with the photo editor. I worked with them for 5 years. That was the only office job I ever had.
During that time I did pick up a camera again but it was just to take pictures of my kid. As I started picking it up again, the internet was becoming more of a thing.
I joined Flickr and right after that someone invited me to a challenge to take a self-portrait every day for a year. I didn’t think of it as an art at the time, I thought of it as a hobby. I thought I’d last a week, and ended up getting really into it and doing it two years straight.
I went to a park – some abandoned ruins. It became a running joke with people on Flickr, when I started posing nude – all in good fun, of course, but I sort of became known for that. During the first year especially I was experimenting with different things, exploring different sides of myself, without even realizing it at first, so I was surprised when that happened.
What is it about abandoned spaces that first drew you to them?
The abandoned stuff – at first it was like of course I’ll get naked here. It literally clicked for me when I did – and when I looked at it, everything came together in my creative mind. I was already pretty comfortable with the form of expression at that point, but I found I was able to communicate more of what I wanted through that medium.
What’s the focus of the photography series?
In a broad sense it’s about aging, women aging, society and how that’s looked at. But that’s only one level. The more personal level is about my own inner challenges with it: physical, mental, emotional, that comes with getting older and looking back on your life. And then on top of that, I also suffer from clinical depression. I didn’t acknowledge that was what it was until a couple of years ago. It can be looked on as depressing or dark – it’s not meant to be that. It’s introspective.
But I like to compare facing aging with the stages of grief we associate with death. It’s not a linear process. You don’t just process through and you’re okay. It moves all around. Some days I’m in acceptance and I’m totally fine. Other days I’m angry or sad about it.
How do the abandoned buildings help convey that message?
I was 36 or 37 and there were certain things I never did. I had never been on the same path as everybody else, which was fine, but it started to feel more glaring at that point. And I think everybody feels that way to some degree. You think everybody knows what they’re doing and really none of us do. But sometimes you feel like you’re the only one.
It wasn’t so much physical differences – although I started noticing things – but the mental part of aging and realizing that, it sounds trite to say, I feel like I’m running out of time. Because I was still planning around it felt like: what am I doing with my life?
There was something familiar and comforting about the abandoned spaces. It seemed like an added expression of what was going on inside of me. And it kept going from there.
When did you first realize your photography was more than just a hobby?
I don’t know when I was able to say I feel like an artist without feeling stupid about it, but once I felt confident in that mode of expression, and people were responding to it in a good way, and I felt committed to that expression, I started slowly putting my work out here and there. Super early on I got into the Art of the State show. So it was very encouraging. Little things like that would happen along the way that kept me going.
Do the changing phases of your depression ever affect your work?
Not consciously. Because I’ve been doing it for so many years now. There was more defiance where I showed more nudity early on. In more recent years, the less scandalous poses now are to get a wider audience, so the nudity is not distracting for people. Even though it’s important for me that it’s there, it’s about showing vulnerability and a universality people can relate to. It’s not about being erotic. I find it very interesting to notice how people view nudity in painting or sketches versus photographs especially. It’s very different – I don’t know why that is.
Your art deals with society’s perceptions of womanhood, but art is itself a visual medium that takes perception to interpret it. How do you make sure your message doesn’t get lost in the midst of that?
I don’t know if I am. I had a series of events, a lot of good press, a few years ago. I was in a video interview with Cory Popp, it got picked up by Huffington Post, and Philly Mag. So of course on the internet some of the comments were horrible. I would occasionally try to explain in more specifics what I was doing, and some people would say, ‘Okay, but I still don’t get it’.
But on the other hand, some women have told me it’s helped them feel more accepting of their bodies, because I’m not super thin, I’m not posing in model poses. That’s my way of trying to counter that. It’s supposed to be a response to the classic model photo shoots in abandoned buildings. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s a certain view of femininity: about the dramatic contrast of the female form with a decrepit building. I’m trying to be symbiotic with the building. When I’m in the building, I feel a connection with the building.
I think that women in general, in American society especially, get less visible as they get older. As these buildings do. People just ignore them. I feel a comfort in them because when I go through a building and I see nature taking over, I see the earth is going to be fine once we’re gone.
What’s your process like for shoots?
When I go in I don’t bring any lighting. So I literally am looking for the light within these spaces. I do a walk around the space. And look for where the light is and features that I like, and then I set up. Now I find domestic spaces more interesting.
For dealing with roles of women and my own roles that I have chosen or not chosen, an abandoned house is a perfect backdrop for that.
Are there specific stories you have about women who have identified with your photo work over the years?
A lot of women think about doing self-portraits themselves. I encourage them to do it. It’s hard at first. But you keep doing it and you start to really know yourself in a different way. Sometimes I’ll be out shooting with people and they’ll ask if they can try. So now I joke you better be careful shooting with me because you’ll want to get naked! It becomes an empowering thing for them. They wouldn’t do it by themselves, but they feel more encouraged because I’m doing it with them.
Why do you think your work took off?
I think it was the nudity initially. Cory did two other videos with people who did abandoned buildings. That was the only thing that was different. I thought I looked ridiculous and sounded stupid. It went live on a Thursday evening, and then I woke up the next day and had emails from press. That all happened in the midst of me bottoming out with my depression. It was surreal. I felt detached from it all. I was excited, but I didn’t feel joy. It felt like I didn’t deserve it. I still feel weird about it. It feels like luck. I’m grateful for it, and it was clear to me that each thing led to the next during that year, and then it fizzled out. But it doesn’t mean that’s it, because you never know where the work is going to lead.
There’s something about my work that resonates with people. One thing I’ve learned as I get older is that we’re all more alike than we’re not. So many of us walk through life feeling afraid somehow or alone somehow and we don’t realize everyone feels that way. I think that’s the thing people connect with.
Can you take a minute to describe what the exhibition at Da Vinci Art Alliance will look like?
So the show is essentially a retrospective. So the idea is to show the range of work from then till now, which was really hard to pick. And I wanted to show all the work I hadn’t hung up before. I have 39 images that I’m printing. The front room will be the newest stuff, which will also be the biggest, and then it will be chronological back from there. And then since I did eight years’ worth of daily self-portraits, I’m going to set up a computer monitor in the back with a slideshow of all of those. I’m also going to take all the older work sitting in my basement, and put it in crates in the back to try to sell.
Finally, why should people come out to the show and take the time to see your work in person?
It’s going to be the only opportunity for a while to see all of my work in one place. It’s also a great opportunity to get framed work for super cheap! Plus I’ll be there to talk to personally.