March was designated the Month of Photography (MoP) in Denver. What a huge success it has been for photographers and galleries. Denver’s best shooters were hung or wheat-pasted on walls, on sides of buildings in downtown, the Santa Fe Arts District, The Museum District, in alleys, in high-rise office buildings, in university and neighborhood coffee shop galleries.
Sally Stockhold is not your run-of-the-mill fine art photographer. Her unforgettable work is part stage, part social commentary, playful but never frivolous, and should be considered some of the most important work coming out of Denver’s art community.
“It’s fascinating to embody the women I admire.” Sally Stockhold
At The Metropolis Coffee Shop where we met, Sally and I were chatting about her life prior to living in Denver. We quickly ran through the early years at Cooper Union Art School at New York University graduate film school, the years of commercial freelance photography and film work, her two husbands, children, and her academic segue into photography from a painter, when it dawned on me. Her enormously clever photography style made sense. In only a short time I had learned this artist could stand behind a camera with ease; she could stand in front of the camera if portraying another person. The key to Stockhold’s talent and drive is her intense shyness and a life-long attempt to overcome stage fright. “You’re a frustrated actress,” I said. Her eyes focused on mine: How did you know?
From the first time I saw a Sally Stockhold photograph her talent lodged in my subconscious. Much like the first time I saw a Nan Goldin show in San Francisco or a Diane Arbus book of photographs. All three artists astounded me with their uncanny unveilings of the human psyche. With careful observation the artists are masters at revealing raw pain, love, sadness, loneliness, playfulness and escapism found deep in the souls of other people. To encounter Stockhold’s work is like finding a cherished old book or a vintage photo to crawl into. There is something familiar and intelligent and you know there’s a story lurking under the thin veil of disguise. Her work engages. It’s difficult to walk away from it.
Recently I ran into her work, during MoP, at the Walker Fine Art Gallery and her new series, “The Life I Never Lived.” This series is where Sally (subconsciously) does what she wants to do – perform a one woman play, playing every character in costume.
She talked about how she accomplished this brilliant feat, explaining, that the visual narrative comes first. Once the theme, characters and costumes are found, she paints a back drop or stage setting and meticulously blocks out each character’s position for the carefully posed final shot. Look closely at Andy’s Birthday Party for his friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sally is posing as each character. Her uncanny and excellent portrayal of each personality, is astonishing. Even though I know it is she, always for me, the final scene is a shake-my-head-surprise reaction. It never fails, on second or third glance one succumbs to the mind’s eye, you’ve been tricked. Shaking off your confusion, and clearing the brain, you must admit to yourself, you thought each actor was a different person. Pure genius. But it’s Sally, Sally. Proof, she is not only a visual artist but an accomplished character actor as well.
DAM: Please, in your own words, give us a run-down of how you accomplish so much in one photograph.
Sally Stockhold: It’s a ton of work. I am a painter first, so before the shooting begins I paint background scenes on huge sheets of photographer’s back drop paper where I include peripheral decor such as a window (see the Chelsea sign outside this room) or, a painting on the wall to set the tone. In the preliminary stage the camera is set up, I check for images, size, ratio, lighting. I run back and forth from behind the camera tripod to my character’s pose and when every thing, including the set and costumes are ready, I pose for the photo, my sister steps in and snaps the pic, about 12 at a time. I step out of the set and examine the shots and continue shooting until I’m satisfied that I’ve captured the character.
DAM: The Chelsea series seems especially grueling due to the number of characters in each finished photo.
Sally Stockhold: Yeah, I’m probably going back to the ladies series after this. I love researching women. But on this, I just didn’t have as much time as I thought I had and I didn’t get started when I should have. Consequently, I worked day in and day out. One photo took three weeks. I worked 12 to 16 hours a day to finish by the end of February.
DAM: What type camera did/ do you use?
Sally Stockhold: Most people would call it a doorstop. I use a Nikon D200. [Smiling] It makes a lot of photographic noise in my enlarged prints.
DAM: It certainly works for you. But how do you piece it all together? What is the process for combining all the shots to create the final piece?
Sally Stockhold: It’s what you call hands-on work. After shooting I print all the characters exactly as I shot them. I cut each character out and create a composite paste-up of the photograph. I put extreme effort into each photo in order to get the shot right the first time. So there is little to do except “stitch” the story together in photoshop. The photograph is then printed on inkjet watercolor paper. The last step is when I selectively hand color each photograph with prismacolor pencil and pastels.
DAM: Diane Arbus said, ‘My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.’ When you lived in and around the village, 1964-1986, did you ever live at the Chelsea?
Sally Stockhold: No. That’s why I created ‘The Life I Never Lived’ series. I used to walk in front of the Chelsea every day. I still wonder why I never walked inside.
DAM: Who or what are your next subjects or theme?
Sally Stockhold: I want to go back to the ladies, “My Self Portraits.” (“myselfportraits, ode to icons”). It’s fascinating to embody the women I admire, much harder to be the person in real life.
DAM: How do you keep all the characters straight? Do you live as your characters to acquire their facial similarities, i.e., Aunt Jemima, Nancy or Andy Warhol as you prepare for a new series?
Sally Stockhold: It’s a very schizophrenic life I live. With this show I was fretting over a shot of Andy when I told my sister, ‘I need to take another shot of Andy.’ I find I separate myself from the characters and speak of them in the third person, as if they’re someone I’d call up to come back to the studio for a reshoot.
Sally Stockhold: I want to get outside my element, outside of Denver.
DAM: “The Pope?” [that day, the world was awaiting the white smoke]
Sally Stockhold: Hmm. I could become the Pope. I left the Catholic church. That’s a great idea.
DAM: I was wondering, have you ever been compared to Cindy Sherman?
Sally Stockhold: All the time.
See Sally’s work at The Walker Fine Art Gallery, 300 W. 11th Ave, Denver 80204, 303-355-8955