Some of the most interesting works of art are those that reveal the intricacies of their process – the outtakes and experiments that happen in and around a final selection. We like seeing the shots that came before and after a selected iconic image, or the pencil strokes beneath the many layers of paint on a seminal work. By exposing the scraps and traces of human intervention, the artist’s thought process is laid bare, and the works become more relatable somehow – more human.
For artist Sara S. Teigen, this process is not just a means to an end – it is a vital practice for understanding the world around her. By drawing and sketching her internal thoughts, Teigen grounds herself in the present, feeling the wonder that comes with experiencing something new for the very first time. As an evolution of her previous project, Fractal State of Being, where she first began combining her drawing with photography, her new work is titled Interior Landscape – an ode to the way she maps and constructs her inner thoughts in the sketchbook she carries around with her everywhere, every day. After printing her photographs in the darkroom, she cuts out fragments of each image, reorganizing its tiny bits on the page in front of her. Using a fine-tip pen, Teigen then expands the scenes in each photograph even further across her canvas, melding the real image together with sketches from her imagination.
Seeing Teigen’s work at this year’s Unseen Amsterdam was a breathtaking experience. Extending her practice of intricately drawing in and around the cut-outs of her photographs, she created a massive temporary mural directly on the wall of her installation, piecing together an extended road map for the constellation of works that hung there. In this interview, Teigen speaks about her impetus for creating this dynamic work, how she began integrating photography with drawing, and how she hopes to impact an audience with her projects.
LensCulture: While your work incorporates photography, there’s so much more to it, and I think it really demonstrates your artistic abilities in a ton of other areas. But I do wonder, how did you start exploring with photography specifically, and what did those first experiments look like?
Sara S. Teigen: I think it’s a cliché story, but I was in a very dark place. Everyone around me was figuring out what to do with their lives, and I just couldn’t figure it out myself. I had this very dark year, and in that darkness, I found a tiny red camera that was my father’s when he was young. I started exploring with it, taking self-portraits and staging myself.
LC: And at what point did you start integrating illustrations into your photographic work?
SST: Drawing was always a major part of my life, but it was always incredibly private. In school, I had problems paying attention unless I was simultaneously scribbling – when I drew as I was learning something, I would internalize all the information. Then one day I was doing a photography workshop, and the instructor saw me drawing while he was talking and he told me I wasn’t allowed to just photograph anymore – I had to mix the two together. At first I refused, because my drawing is so personal that I thought it would feel like being naked in front of everyone. But he actually forced me to try it, and that’s when I started integrating the two into sketchbooks.
LC: What were the things you were working through and learning through these sketchbooks?
SST: I made my first sketchbook when I was in New York City, because it’s so busy there compared to Copenhagen and Norway. I needed a space to draw tiny little patterns in order to digest what was going on around me. I soon realized that this sketchbook was much more honest than my photography was on its own. When I see my work now, I realize that one doesn’t make sense without the other – they belong together.
LC: Tell me a bit about using a sketchbook as the preliminary step in your work. It’s an incredibly personal process, so how do you go from the work in this visual diary to creating larger pieces to be hung on a wall?
SST: Since my sketchbook is my main medium right now, a lot of things directly emanate from it. It doesn’t insist on anything from me – it doesn’t exist anywhere and it also doesn’t draw any conclusions. But I also like making bigger works, so I need to work outside the bounds of a sketchbook. I started folding large pieces of paper so that they were the same size as my book, and I carry them around with me and add to them as I go. Some of these are recreations from the sketchbook, because I look at those initial digestions as my negatives. Instead of creating enlargements from negatives, I’m using the book’s pages as smaller experiments.
LC: So do you start with a concept for a photograph, and then create your sketches around that concept? Or does it all sort of happen at once?
SST: It never starts with just one thing. I’m obsessed with prints and with the darkroom, so a lot of times the idea comes out of a print itself. I use some snapshots, but there are others that are created through ideas that I have staged, and those are what I call “key pictures,” because they reference something that I constructed in front of me to represent something of importance – they are standing in for a truth. But then when life changes, truth changes with it, and I find new things in the images, reusing them within other works.
LC: Both your process of illustration and working in the darkroom are very meditative practices, which adds to the personal features in this work. Can you speak about the importance of maintaining that meditative headspace when you are making these pieces?
SST: Definitely. With all my work, I’m still surprised that people want to see it, because it feels really specific to me personally. I’m the one who has to go through these motions – it’s my way of processing the invisible world and what I cannot see, like thoughts and emotions. I have this need to visualize it in front of me.
For me, it’s all about the combination of tempos. The photography is so quick, but the drawing is so slow, and I need that balance.
In the darkroom, I’m working without vision and creating something new, and that catalyzes all these other questions: Why am I here? How do we operate? Why do we act like we do? How does the invisible world look? Every medium offers a new possibility for answering the same kinds of questions, but they are all meditative in their own way.
LC: Even the act of cutting out tiny pieces of each photo with such precision is a meditative process. How did you start doing that with your photographs? Did this come from something else you had been doing for a long time with your diaries, or did it start when you began integrating illustrations into your photography?
SST: I actually started this on the very last page of my last sketchbook, because the square shape of the picture suddenly felt so limited, like there were no more possibilities. I needed to cut it open and see what might happen, and then it all suddenly made sense. It makes my photographs come alive a little more. For example, when you see a photograph, you see the image as one giant block. But when I cut out all these tiny little stones, one at a time, it suddenly seems so different. This whole world is built out of all these little elements, but we are just conditioned to accept it as a flat plane around us. When you’re a child, everything around you is brand new and exciting, and when we grow up, we are ignorant to this wondrous phenomenon. I think cutting up each element brings me back to that child-like state, where I want to see everything and see how the world actually looks.
LC: Each work is so intricate and unique because of all these little details you incorporate. Because it’s so personal, what’s your relationship to each piece like? Do you have a hard time saying goodbye to them?
SST: That’s a really sweet question. I use myself as a subject and an object in my work, so in the photographs, I’m acting as a general person, searching for answers in life and investigating things. So for me, I’m a representation of a general searching person, so I’m not necessarily attached to the work. I’m more attached to this need to explore questions and get out my internalizations as something visual in front of me.
LC: Like a release, in a way. Where did the title for Fractal State of Being come from? What does it reference?
SST: I work with many different materials, and at one point I was working a lot with Polaroids. I was opening them up to see how they looked inside, and these little piles of fractals were appearing everywhere. Every time I tried to manipulate something, fractals started appearing, and then I couldn’t stop seeing them.
My boyfriend at the time was a physicist, and he started telling me more about fractals and how their pattern is actually everywhere. It’s very poetic, because a fractal is a geometric shape that duplicates itself. It becomes one and two, and then two and two, and this is how almost everything on earth duplicates itself. Once you start to look around you, you see them everywhere.
I started thinking about how our minds also work in this way, especially with association. And all my work is about association, and coming back to those initial moments. I made Fractal State of Being in New York, and fractals are exactly what my inner monologue felt like. There was so much new stuff, and it was so much mess, and I couldn’t just hold onto one thing – it was just growing, growing, and growing. So the title for that work weighed on me.
LC: What do you mean when you say that the main theme in your work is a “state of being?”
SST: I’m just haunted by all these questions like: Why are we here? Why do we act the way we do? Why are we mean to each other? I’m interested in that and the word “being,” because it means so much, but it’s also dead in a way. It’s been used so many times, and we don’t hear it anymore.
It goes back to what I was saying about children. They are so alive and open to experiences, and they are constantly learning. But when we are adults, we look around and we might see a horse and not think anything of it – we already know what a horse is. We don’t care about it anymore, but a child is open to the initial impression.
LC: Is that why you also look to photograph things that are more mysterious to a general audience?
SST: Definitely. That’s why I experimented a lot with sea animals, trying to find things that people haven’t necessarily seen before. Because when you see something new in front of you, you take in the impressions instead of putting it into a compartmentalized old box in your head. It forces you to feel what you see, instead of having such a default non-reaction. And this has everything to do with the word “being.”
LC: You said you’ve experimented with a number of different photo processes. Do you find it necessary to keep experimenting, or have you found something you particularly like for the way you work?
SST: I cannot stop finding new mediums. Every time I start a new project, I have to find a new one. It’s this child-like quality again.
I have to force myself into the position of a beginner, where something is brand new. If I get too good at something, it’s dead in a way, and I don’t see it anymore because it becomes a routine. That’s why I love new mediums – because even in your own body, you’re a beginner. You’re more open and you see what you’re actually doing, and you get more experience and are able to learn something new from it.LC: Forcing yourself into clean slates actually leads into my next question, which is about your sketchbook being stolen. I find that story devastating, but it’s also poetic in a way, because it highlights the uniqueness of your work. None of it can ever be copied exactly as it was. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
SST: This all goes back to the idea of being present, because with my work, I always have to get back to a state where I’m being honest. When I started making my second sketchbook, it was much harder because I had made the first one without the intention of publishing it – I made it in private, for no one else to see. But because it was a huge success, I wanted to make a new one to share with people. I spent three years on it, and then it was stolen.
LC: Was that heartbreaking for you?
I actually realized that it was exactly what should have happened, because I had spent three years making something for other people - it wasn’t truly for me, like the first time I did it. I started a new book, which is still in progress, and it’s forcing me to be more honest with myself. It’s all about coming back to a state where I’m being vulnerable, because I want to learn and grow. I don’t want to learn lies – I want to make something new, not something I think other people will like.
LC: In your new work, Interior Landscape, you actually scratch the negatives and create prints after you make these alterations. Tell me a bit about this new process.
SST: Yes, when I was pregnant and had a child, I photographed a lot for about three years, but didn’t ever look at the images properly. I had this huge box of negatives in my office, and then one day I started sifting through them, and it was just landscape after landscape. Looking at all these places, I remembered I had these intense feelings when I was standing there taking each photo, but all of those vibrations were reduced down to one image – it was just a flat object.
So then I decided to draw directly on each negative to recreate what I felt when I was actually there. There’s an external world and an internal world, and photography documents the external world, and I needed to recreate the internal experience somehow. In a way, I was actually completing each image, which is why I decided to draw directly on each negative instead of altering the print afterwards.
LC: We’ve talked a lot about how your work is so personal, and you said you were surprised by your viewers’ intense reactions to it. What is the reaction that surprises you the most, and what about these reactions pushes you to continue creating?
SST: The work is initially made for myself, but I was very surprised and interested by everyone’s reaction to the first book. A lot of people said the same thing: I recognize something. I feel something. I recognize something, but I don’t know what it is. This reaction makes me really happy, because I always put forth a huge effort to be present – to visualize something on the inside – and that takes up a lot of energy. In the end, I’m happy that people feel something – anything – from it.