Sarah Hobbs, Artist
Jack Deese (JD): I want to start with the idea of research. How much goes into your photography, and what does that research look like for you?
Sarah Hobbs (SH): I don’t really try to delve too deeply into psychological research because that tends to get very clinical. It becomes drudgery, but it also takes away from what I’m trying to do, really; it’s too tangential. The psychological states that I deal with have a lot to do with our everyday lives as opposed to problems at a clinical level because I want people to relate easily to the work. So, I don’t delve into that too deeply; when I have ideas I’ll search images that relate to them, like “a house on stilts,’’ for instance. I’m thinking about doing something with that kind of structure, so I search images and save the ones that I like. For the piece with the idea of a prom that I did recently, I searched prom settings and essentially went shopping for a setting. So I don’t do deep research, but it is ongoing.
JD: Taking that prom piece in particular, was it the idea of a prom that came first, or was it the psychology around an idea, and then a prom was the best manifestation of that idea?
SH: The idea of a prom came first. It doesn’t always happen that way, but I was thinking of how done up it is, how extravagant it can be, and the psychology of the anticipation of it that kids feel. I thought about carrying that through to adulthood: Why would someone want to hold on to that feeling? It could be that it was the penultimate moment in your life, and you want to revisit that space over and over again, so you create it in your basement where nobody really goes but you, so it’s your little secret (clearly, this isn’t a basement where people hang out in; it’s just utilitarian). Or, you never went to the prom and want to create that space so you can have that experience that you seem to be missing. Usually when people don’t have an experience of something, the mystique of it is stronger. So, creating that ideal in the basement would hold on to that idea.
JD: I noticed on your website that your photography and installations are given equal weight, and have the same number of projects for both. Could you talk about how you make the determination of what gets made into a photograph and then what becomes an installation?
SH: It’s pretty organic. I will come up with an idea, and for years all of the ideas worked as photos. After I spent time on a body of work for many years, I thought about what would happen if someone could experience my work in a 360-degree space—if the sights and the sounds of the space were also a part of the concept. Because all of the work I do is in private spaces, I tried to think about private spaces that are also public spaces, such as a hotel or storage facility. It really is about the space. When I first started making this work, the space was sort of a subset; it wasn’t the main part of the concept, but over time I’ve let that often be the main part of the concept. For the hotel installation “Overpacked,’’ for example, I considered: What would someone need to bring to a hotel to assuage the issues they deal with that come to light because they’re in a hotel? All of the components of the concept (the psychological state, the materials, and the space) lead to the conclusion about whether the piece will be a photo or an installation.
From left to right | Prom Forever (Basement) | Germaphobe (Doubletree Inn) | Avoidance | Alarmist (Motel 6)
JD: Have you ever worked on one concept as if it is going to work as a photograph, finding out at some point that that fails, and then realized that it has to be an installation?
SH: Yes, or I think it’s an installation, and then it really is a photograph. The first time I did an installation, the one I did in three hotel rooms, I thought, “Oh well, I’ll do the installations, and then I’ll take a picture of them, and I’ll have a photo, too.’’ It did not work that way; the space was not what I needed it to be for photos. So in that instance I actually did find three other hotel rooms and booked them for two nights and set them up, because it worked that way. But I haven’t found that crossover anymore, and it’s fine. I start each new piece being open to the idea that the concept could go either way.
JD: Speaking of the act of photographing, your process involves a large format view camera, correct? Does the space you photograph have to be open, or can you operate in tight quarters?
SH: Sometimes they are somewhat tight. The new piece behind you, “Searching for a Portal (backyard shed),’’ is in a shipping container. It was eight feet across, and it gives a different feeling, which I like. I had to step a little bit into a different way of thinking, so it was good.
JD: You talked about private space; what drew you to the idea of looking at private spaces?
SH: In the very beginning of this work, I was moving from a place where I had roommates to a place by myself. It was the first time I had ever lived alone. It’s great because you can have everything the way that you want it. But it is just you. The solitary space gives your neuroses and phobias room to grow. The physical space is also a psychological space. It was very much about this private space being both comforting and discomforting at the same time.
JD: Looking at some of your photographs, I get this feeling of a constructed reality. I don’t know that I’m thinking of a prisoner exactly, but I’m thinking of someone who hasn’t actually experienced a space in a while, and they are using their contextual memory and information to build these spaces out in their head. You just spoke about living alone; was that a time when you felt isolated, and how do you think that isolation plays out in the work?
SH: It wasn’t a time when I felt isolated, but that idea is definitely there. I think that, and this is an idea that I’m dealing with a lot in in my work now, this is liminal space. In terms of a psychological space, it’s where you’ve left a sort of comfort zone and you haven’t yet found another one. Sometimes your own private space can be that—adjusting to your own solitude or thinking about entering into the world and about how frightening that is. So, I would say that it does play a part in it, and I’m working on an installation that has to do with those who purposefully isolate themselves. You have to have some isolation for these obsessive ideas to grow. It also shows that this buildup of thoughts and objects in the works happens over a span of time. You can’t just throw up one of these things overnight; it starts out small, and then it grows. So, there’s a sense of one being alone quite a bit.
JD: I know you recently won a grant from Idea Capital to help fund a video piece. Is this going to be your first foray into video?
JD: And how did the idea for that come about?
SH: There are three, or five, or seven ideas that I have tried to make work that don’t, but they could in another medium.
JD: Meaning you’ve already tried both ways?
SH: Yes, and I just know that’s what needs to happen. I have a degree in photography, and that’s how I started making artwork, but I’ve always been open to exploring new things. Because the concept really does come first and the ideas behind it, and if you can’t make it work in a photograph, then you need to ask what else you can do. Some of these ideas need to play out over time, in front of the viewer, instead of the viewer just seeing the buildup, the result of the action. So, that’s why I applied for the grant, because I really wanted to start working out one of these ideas in a time-based format.
JD: And most of your photography work, maybe all of it, is void of a physical human presence. I imagine you’re interested in the democracy of psychological issues, so there’s not a lot of suggestion about what kind of person might inhabit your spaces. Will the video have that same feeling, or will it revolve around a character?
SH: I have the idea in mind that the video work I make will be like a behind-the-scenes view of a photo or installation I might make. It’s going to have to revolve around a character. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be democratic about that, which is impossible actually. You know by nature that the selection of the actor—who that person is, what they look like—will be a part of the work. I will have to contend with that. It will be a new challenge. There has been a lot of discussion about my work in terms of suburban ennui, and I’ve even discussed that, too. I think that has sort of played out already, but it’s there. So there is a type of person who may be in the mind’s eye of many a viewer of my work. Their expectations will either be met, or they will be surprised.
JD: Do you think that’s a fair reading of the work?
SH: I think it’s one reading of the work. There are many possible different readings. When I first heard that reading, I wanted to reject it. But the more I thought about it, it made sense. It came from the piece “Avoidance’’ that has a door that’s covered in aluminum foil. It’s a very suburban door, and that reading completely makes sense with that piece. I can see that flowing through some of the other pieces as well. I think it’s just one level. And I like that different critics, or other artists, or whoever, can come to this work with a different eye than I ever intended and read something different. That, ultimately, is what everybody wants in their work.
JD: How do you go about finding these spaces to photograph in?
SH: A lot of the early pieces were my own apartment. I also have very generous friends and family who have let me take over spaces in their homes over the years. When I have the idea that I want, I start hunting for the ideal space. When I find it, I look at the light if it’s going to be a daytime photo, or night images where the light is something I can control. But there are also times when, like with the piece in the storage facility, the place comes first. I did a residency at AIR Serenbe (outside Atlanta), and the studio is a shipping container. So before I went there, I spent a lot of time thinking of what I could do with a space that looked like that. I had this one idea and it ended up being “Searching for a Portal (backyard shed).”
JD: Sitting here in your studio, I see a few hundred printed photos laid out on various tables. But typically when you exhibit, you have a small number of well-planned and labor-intensive photographs. How do these snapshots fit into your practice?
SH: This is my sketchbook. It’s often difficult for me to spend months coming up with something, and every day I’m working on this one thing, but there’s not even a part of it that looks finished, or looks like it’s in the works, even though it is. This is a way for me to keep feeling like I’m accomplishing something. Making those photographs is a way to keep creating something new every day. I’d say the majority of them are from Instagram, and I just have them printed. They are of things like structures that I look at for possible spaces, objects that I might use, or something I might set up as a test installation in the studio to see how the materials could work. Then the photos go up on the table. I move them around a lot. I’m not a person who can draw very well, so this is my sketchbook. It’s what I work on pretty much every day in addition to the very involved pieces. Also, I find it very pleasing to be working on more than one thing at a time. Going from one way of working to another on a regular basis keeps both fresh.
Clockwise from left | Homesick (Holiday Inn) | Searching for a Portal (backyard shed) | Untitled (voluntary mental facility)
JD: Do your installations usually have a sound component, or is sound going to also be a new avenue for you to explore?
SH: A few of them have a sound component. One of the installations in the hotel was of an alarmist, a person who thinks anything and everything can go wrong; I guess the new term is prepper. There was a weather radio in the space and it was just tuned to static. It was an unpleasant noise, which added to the feeling of anxiety in the room. The piece that I did at the Carson McCullers home in Columbus, Georgia, had twelve clocks in the room. They were each set to a different city in the world. You could hear that they were just slightly off of each other, particularly if you were in there by yourself. The weight of time was very present in that room anyway, and that really added to it.
JD: I want to move to the collecting side of your work. Do you do editions of your work? And usually how many are in an edition, and do you do any smaller sizes than you exhibit?
SH: I have two sizes of editions: 48 x 60″ and 24 x 30″. I mostly exhibit the larger size. The large pieces are in editions of five, and the small ones are editions of ten.
JD: Do you have any interest in documentary work? You said you are interested in the psychology behind constructing spaces, so what about spaces that already exist that would exhibit the same characteristics you were interested in? Do those interest you? I’m thinking about people who have large collections or obsessions—perhaps a hoarder—or maybe a minimalist, or other individuals who have an ideology that manifests itself in their physical space.
SH: I enjoy researching images of people’s homes like that. I certainly do enjoy photographing spaces like that, but I would probably always keep that at a sketchbook level. I want to have my own idea of why someone would collect something. If you go into someone’s space, then you have to get to know the person and create a level of trust, which is certainly important and valuable. I certainly would not mind doing that, but I think that it would do away with a little bit of the mystery for me. I prefer to be the guiding force behind what I give to the viewer.
JD: Of the spaces you’ve photographed, is there one that has been a recreation of a space you witnessed in person? Or are they an amalgamation of research and ideas?
SH: They are an amalgamation. There are certainly people in my life, and me as well, who have these issues, and I take inspiration from them as well as spaces I have encountered in my life. There’s never been anything directly from any specific person.
JD: Your work seems very labor-intensive, the creation of a lot of objects and props. Is that labor primarily you or do you have an assistant who helps you?
SH: It’s mostly me. I have in the past had assistants, particularly with the installations. I have an assistant who is amazing, who is very helpful. But I try to do everything that I can by myself. There’s an image that has God’s-eyes in it, and I made every one of them. It was important for me to make them all. It helps to make and prepare the materials; it helps me go further into the mind of someone who would have the issue that I’m dealing with. Early on in this process when I was in graduate school, I was talking to a professor about this work, and he said, “You know, you should watch out because when you are working on these pieces, you may take on the issue you’re working with.” And that’s very true; it was very wise advice. But, I actually turned it into something I could use. I want to get into that frame of mind. Sometimes it is difficult. It doesn’t bring me down, but it does make me feel more empathetic and get deeper into the mind of someone who might have an issue that I myself don’t have. I would work on the God’s-eyes every night; it took me all summer. I would say to myself, “I’ll do ten tonight,” and I would do ten, and then I would think, “Oh, I can just do a few more.” That’s the idea of what I was trying to put forth in the photograph. Someone just couldn’t stop doing this, even in a place where they’re supposed to relax and let go of their anxiety. This thing has become an obsession, which in itself is anxiety.
JD: It sounds like most of the issues that you are exploring are outside of yourself. Have you ever tried to tackle your own phobias and neuroses, or do you feel there’s a little bit of you in each one?
SH: There are some that definitely are not me, but there are plenty of them that are. A long time ago someone wrote an article about my work, going on the assumption that the work was autobiographical. Which is interesting because I don’t think I could really function in society if I had every issue that was in that show. But, there is something to that. The work as a whole, the way that I work, the constant making of things and arranging of things is soothing to me. I am a person who likes everything in its right place, and I like to rearrange things, and I like spatial relations. And so the work in general is cathartic; it assuages my anxiety to even make it.
JD: Your educational background is primarily arts based; did you take any psychology courses in school? What got you started thinking about psychological issues?
SH: As a freshman at Vanderbilt, everyone is required to take this one particular psychology class. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and I was so very young. In retrospect, I was not as interested in it as I should have been. Once I hit upon what I was really interested in working on in graduate school, it was really too late to take any classes, but I came to this because I’ve always been interested in interior spaces. For years I photographed abandoned or old homes. I realized that it was because those spaces have a psychological weight, and that psychology was coming from me—how I responded to the space. I have no idea what happened in these houses, but my imagination creates something, and it has a psychological weight. Through that, I decided to create psychological situations of my own devising. It was much more heavy-handed than just finding something. I realized that I could organize this—that it was something I know I can do. I can bring that part of me to photography and create a psychological situation, a thought process. I took a long time off from looking at spaces like that. I stopped going out and trying to find empty houses. But I’ve just recently gotten back into that and really enjoy it. It goes back to the beginning of my love for photography. It’s a renewal of that and a renewal of energy. It reminds me of where I started in the process.
JD: Do you think it is the excitement of discovery?
SH: That is part of it. In my work, there’s not so much discovery as just plotting out. So there’s a freedom there that I haven’t had in a while and which I really enjoy. Anytime I go somewhere for a show, I always ask, “Do you know any abandoned houses that I can go in?” I think you go along in your practice, and sometimes you just need to step away from it and do something different or something you did in the beginning, to remind you how excited you are about your artwork. Because it is work. It’s a job, and there are many days when it just doesn’t work at all, or you just have no ideas, or you don’t know where you can go next. If you just step out and do something else creative, it renews your other process.
Interview by Jack Deese