Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Conversation with Sasha Wolf

Untitled, 2005 (#24) © Thomas Holton

Seven years after the events of September 11, Manhattan below 14th Street is booming. It is a tribute to New York's resilience and New Yorkers' love for their city and life.

Untitled, 2005 (#5) © Thomas Holton

Tonight on the occasion of the opening reception for Guido Castagnoli's exhibit Provincial Japan at Sasha Wolf Gallery we are presenting our most recent Nymphoto Conversations series with curator and gallery owner Sasha Wolf.

Sasha Wolf established her gallery in downtown's Tribeca neighborhood in 2007. It was immediately evident that the exhibits at this art space were curated by someone with a distinct vision. A vision rooted in the documentary tradition but that was also thoroughly contemporary and interested in the human condition. We recently sat down with New York City native Sasha Wolf for an in-person conversation at her Leonard Street gallery – and we left completely inspired and smitten by Sasha.

Discover why by reading the interview below:

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.
SW: From the time of my early 20's until five years ago, everything revolved around writing and film making and actually a significant handful of other collaborations with modern choreographers. I was making money working in film and television- directing and producing stuff I hated for ESPN, MTV, the occasional B movie, or even A movie that stunk. You make really decent money doing production. I did everything I did to make my own films, write my own work. I did not actually like the stuff I was doing, it was a job. It just happened to be in the same realm of what I wanted to do. I was learning skills, there's no doubt about that. Everything was to support the habit of writing scripts and shooting films, and the occasional collaboration which I loved doing.

NP: So your film making wasn't just documentaries?
SW: My film making was only narrative. I didn't make any documentaries, which is a common assumption. I love telling stories.

Museum Interior, NYC, 1972 © Paul McDonough

NP: When did you become interested in photography?
SW: That was the first thing I did in HS. My father used to produce television commercials. I grew up looking at images with a vested interest. My father loved making photographs as well and he got me a camera when I started becoming interested, when I was 14 or 15. I was one of those people that always had my camera with me all through HS, into college. When I discovered film making, I transitioned out. I was a literature and writing major so I combined photography and writing and just started making films. But photography was my first passion.

NP: Have you shown anybody that shoots digital?
SW: No. I'm not representing anyone who shoots digitally because I haven't fallen in love yet with anyone who does. I don't have any rules about it. I'm not that sort of a person. As soon as I am impressed and engaged with someone who shoots digital, I will be working with it. To be really honest, I don't see enough of it. I couldn't talk about it in any depth. I think film still holds a fetishistic power over people. I don't think digital is there yet in terms of that kind of engagement that people have with their tools. I don't think it's happened yet, I think it will, I don't know when.

Elephant Butte, New Mexico, 2006 © Peter Kayafas

NP: How did you start selling photography?
SW: I decided to stop making films because I was tired of raising money. It's no more complicated than that. I still think it's the greatest thing ever. However, when you make the kind of films that I made, you are dependent on other people. I was almost never making films but trying to make money, my producing partner and I. I did not want my life to be about that. I am active. I want to make things. I love working on houses, woodworking, photographs (I still have a darkroom.) I like to make things and I was becoming a person that was rarely making anything. I decided to start another chapter. I went back to this other thing I really loved and I asked my friend Peter Kayafas (one of my absolute closest friends in the world) if I can try to sell some of his work. We already had wonderful dialogue established about his work. I was comfortable with where he was coming from, what he was doing. He said yes. I started talking to some other people, they said ok. I turned part of my house into an art gallery. I have a big apartment (I'm lucky) I could separate, sold all my furniture that was in that part of the house and put up amazing lights. And just started selling work. I have a lot of connections in LA because of my former life so I started to go out to LA, bring work out, meet fancy, wealthy film industry people. I would show them work and they would buy work. It just slowly built up this way. I just worked really, really hard. It wasn't magic. I just kept going and going until it got to the point where I could get investors and open a gallery. That took about four years from when I started dealing until I opened the gallery.

Couple on Newspapers, Central Park, NYC, 1969 © Paul McDonough

NP: How did you decide on this location?
SW: I'm a lifelong New Yorker. I was born and raised here. My parents are from here. I'm in love with the city and I had a real obsession with this part of the city for a very long time, way before it was "fancy" Tribeca. I love the architecture down here, the way the light bounces off the buildings. I like the way it's put together, the vibe that is down here. I had felt for a long time that I wanted to spend more time down here (I live on the UWS). I knew that I couldn't afford a ground floor space in Chelsea and I didn't want to be up on the 8th floor, I wanted to have events here, where people can spill out on the sidewalk, mingle, come in. That's what the openings are like here. Crowded but you can go out, and you don't have to get in an elevator or stairs to smoke a cigarette or get a little space where you're never going back up. There's a fluidity, a social quality to the events. Tribeca is so welcoming. It's so set up in terms of trains. There's tons of restaurants around here. I really love it down here. I do get foot traffic and walk ins who can buy because it's an affluent area. My clients who come here have been complementary about the space. I don't know if it's a smart decision but we do well down here. I know I'm happy coming to work here.

NP: Do you enjoy the more public space you have as opposed to when you dealt from your apartment, where it was by appointment?
SW: I'm a social person. I enjoy conversations with strangers. It's a big part of city living. I have that here and I really do enjoy it.

Old Woman, Blind Man and Hare Krishnas, NYC, 1972 © Paul McDonough

NP: You are creative yourself. Do you ever feel this takes up too much of your time, resent it?
SW: I don't resent it. I don't set people up or myself up. I'm deliberate and clear about what I do. If I were to feel resentful about not having time for my own work, I would make time for it. I'm not one to sit around and get myself into a state. There's no doubt that I don't have as much time to make my own work. But having said that, it's always how you look at something. I can step back look at myself at the gallery and say, "Oh my god Sasha, no time to do anything else." or I can look at myself at the gallery and think, "This is so great. You' re building all these things at the gallery and it's great you're doing this new thing after coming off of 15, 16 years of doing nothing but making your own work." I don't really feel bad about it. I just think when I miss making work, I try and do it. I still shoot pretty regularly, I don't get into the darkroom as much as I want to, even though it's inside my house. But if I wanted to, I would. I feel that what I create in the gallery is my artwork. I take your photographs and make something else while retaining the integrity of your photographs completely and thoroughly. I can make a second thing, my exhibition, in my space. Orchestrate things the way I want to. That process feels pretty creative to me.

Libramiento Mexico- Cuernavaca, 2007 © Pablo Lopez

I would say that the most creative process for me is editing, which takes up a huge amount of my time. I edit most of my artists work to different degrees. Some almost not at all, but a little bit. It could be them sending me digital files and saying "what do you think?" to some artists who go out and shoot and then give a hundred photographs and say, "can you make an edit?" I'm also working with a lot of photographers who I'm not representing whose work I am looking at regularly. There isn't a week that goes by where I'm not engaged with one of those people, trying to help them along with what they are trying to do and say. You know, I think I am so busy and so artistically and intellectually engaged that I don't have time to feel that anything is missing. I love being engaged intellectually. As long as I am, I am pretty happy.

Capetown III, Sudafrica, 2006 © Pablo Lopez

NP: You work with people that you don't represent. Is that one way of going about finding new artists to represent, people who approach you, who might not be quite there yet?
SW: That's one way, and the other way is if I really like someone. There are certain people who I am working with now who I will never represent for various reasons, having least to do with the merit of their work, that's the least of it. But I really like them. And I want to be helpful. I try really hard to be nice. It's important to me to be a good human being, in general. I take it seriously in all aspects of my life. I want to be a positive force on the planet and I wish more people embraced that very simple philosophy. I try to put my money where my mouth is, even if I'm overwhelmed and I don't have the time. I've had almost 250 to 300 submissions in the last eight months and I try to answer almost every one. These things mean a lot to someone who may be struggling to get somewhere, get someone to pay attention to them. I know this from film making. It was brutal. I cannot be the person that was mean to me, there were plenty of people who were not nice to me.

NP: Are you always here (at the gallery)?
SW: I'm always here. I'm here about 98% of the time.

Ekaterinburg, Russia, 2003 © Yola Monokhov

NP: You've already answered this question, whether or not it's just about the work or the personality of the photographer.
SW: No, yeah, it is, believe me. I will not work with someone I don't like even if I think they are a genius. I'm too old to be around someone I don't like. It's not worth it. My relationships with my photographers goes from a lot of affection to adore. There's a bunch of photographers who I work with, obviously there's Peter (Kayafas) who's at the extreme end, someone I'm so close to, close to my family, for many many years. I'm very close to Paul (McDonough), Thomas (Holton), Yola (Monokhov) . . . my newest artist Guido (Castagnoli), I describe to people as one of the loveliest human beings I've ever met. That's a real pleasure. My artists and I spend a lot of time together. Paul is here at least once a week, it's a good thing I adore him.

Parking lot, Shizuoka City, Japan, 2007 © Guido Castagnoli

NP: What's next?
SW: I'm showing Guido next. He just won the big photo8 award. I'm very excited about it. He'll be here.

Amusement Structure, Yaizu, Japan, 2007 © Guido Castagnoli

NP: How did you meet Guido?
SW: He submitted. He's the one person who submitted that I'm working with.

NP: Once you have your roster of artists, is there a schedule of how often you'd like to show them?
SW: I'd like to show them every 18-24 months. My intention is for the gallery to remain a boutique gallery. I hope to represent no more than 12 people. That should give people a show every two years. That's basically what I'd like to do. I represent 7 artists now, I can't imagine representing more than 12 people. I can't do it and have the same relationship with my artists. I don't see why I'd do this for a living if I didn't have the relationship I have with my artist because I'm not doing this to run a business. I'm doing this because I like working with the people and the work. I love my clients as well. They are wonderful. If I get to a point where all I'm doing is organizing art fairs, then I've gone offtrack.

NP: Any words of wisdom for photographers?
SW: The problems I identify with work that is submitted to me (and I can only speak about those), I get a ton of work that is super super competent, but there is no subtext. There's nothing beyond what is going on the surface. You have to supply that. It has to be there. I can't say that strongly enough. Great work operates on many different levels, great work is work where the three of us look at a photograph and see three different things. There is enough there for different interpretations, even if it's a literal scene, something about the way everything is lining up beyond the literal, in a additional to the literal. So that our imaginations can be sparked. There is a Peter Kayafas photo of a couple holding hands with their back to the camera. They are both quite heavy. They are wearing striped bathing suits, almost the same, except his and hers. Literally it is a photo of a couple holding hands in the water at Coney Island. I have clients who look at this photograph and say it's great, it's funny, but I could never live with it, it's depressing. Other clients look at it and say it's so moving and they have to live it. I personally am in the second camp. It's one of my favorite photographs. I find it extremely moving. Which is not to say I don't understand what the other people are feeling. But a great photograph, among other things, provides the room for us to bring our own psychology to it, our own life history. I get work that is dead-on what it is and nothing else.

Coney Island, New York, 1992 © Peter Kayafas

The second problem is that I get a lot of submissions from photojournalists that are really just editorial. This is an art gallery. You can't really have it both ways. Look I represent Allen Chin, who is a brilliant photojournalist, who does both. He can shoot work that needs a story and work that doesn't. Occasionally there is a crossover and that's fine. I get work that is really editorial work. If you want to go shoot prostitutes in Cambodia or people with AIDS on the Ivory Coast, it's good to know who your audience is. My clients are probably not your audience. Make sure that your photograph is rich, complex and operating on more than one level. If you are shooting in a hardcore photo journalistic style, make sure that your work does not need any explanation, that it can stand up on it's own, that it's not meant to be in Newsweek. Spend as much time looking at work you love and ask yourself "why do I love this?" These are important questions to answer when you're going out to make work. What do you want to communicate? Are you communicating it? Is a series about, fill in the blank, really going to be interesting to other people? Do I care? Maybe you don't care. Then don't expect it to be in a gallery. There is no right or wrong answer there. You don't have to care about your audience. It's not mandatory. I think it's a good thing, personally, and so I run my gallery accordingly. . .

Changan Boulevard, Beijing, China, 2008 © Alan Chin

Wukesong Camera Market, Beijing, China, 2008 © Alan Chin

The next question is this- am I communicating this vision I have? Is it really in the photograph? Just because you can make a good looking photograph, don't stop there. You really have to challenge yourself, be honest with yourself, and then call people like me or send us stuff. I do wish people would be a little harder on themselves, first, but not in a bad way. Not in a beat yourself up type of way but I do see too much work where I don't believe the photographers asked themselves the tough questions before coming to me. Then I'll have to do it. I'll do it but I wish people would be honest with themselves. I think people would be better off for it.

NP: Thank you so much!

See more work by Sasha Wolf's artists at: or visit the gallery at 10 Leonard Street, Tuesday through Saturday 11 am to 6 pm or by appointment.

If you are in New York tonight stop by Sasha Wolf Gallery for the opening reception of Guido Castagnoli's "Provincial Japan" exhibit tonight from 6-8pm.

Crossroad, Shizuoka City, Japan, 2007 © Guido Castagnoli

All photos courtesy of Sasha Wolf Gallery.

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