I am Sarah Kudirka and this is why I shoot film…only to paint over it
As you’ll have probably guessed from the slightly altered headline above, this isn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill EMULSIVE interview. You see, today’s interviewee isn’t really a film photographer – well, she IS but…you’ll see.
Enough of the clickbait introduction and over to you, Sarah!
Hi Sarah, what’s this picture, then?
SK: This shows what I am working on right now in my studio. It is a wall full of instant Polaroid prints, that I have painted (or will paint) over. It includes 84 shots I took in Berlin pasted up on the wall in the order I took them over three bright, hot summer days last year.
I shot them all on the same film stock, same days, same camera: some came out blue, some brown. I am painting the blue ones first.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
SK: I am an artist, I do not consider myself a photographer.
I was born in a town in England and lived in Kenya for a while as a kid. I have vivid sensory memories of Africa – heat haze in downtown Nairobi; the smell of spices in the markets; feeling like a tiny speck of a girl in a huge ancient landscape. For over 20 years I have lived and worked in London. I also now spend part of the year in Glasgow, Scotland.
I used to be called Sarah Davenport, I graduated university having studied fine art then sculpture history and theory, and won awards for my big bold, semi-abstract paintings. Four years ago I got married and changed my name to Kudirka and began a major new project; City Skies. The idea is simple: walk around a city looking up between the high-rise buildings, shoot Polaroids to paint over.
The project has proved compelling. I am still working exclusively on it and it is the work I am now best known for.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
SK: Well, to start with I love the physicality of Polaroid. I find something intensely pleasurable about pushing a clunky button, hearing its loud whirr-buzz, catching the fresh little object that pops out and stuffing it quickly into my pocket away from the light to develop automatically, and then looking at what I’ve got a while later.
In the 1990s, as a researcher I used a borrowed Polaroid to catalogue the life’s work of English sculptor Austin Wright while he was still alive. Documenting each of his artworks, piled up in an old barn, I shot so many films then that I got a free (spectacularly ugly) Polaroid Business 600 camera for myself by sending in all the black end papers in response to an offer. I used that black box subsequently to record the many layers of added and scratched or scraped back paint my large-scale works went through before completion.
And sometimes I used to pack a spare film in my bag and go on Polaroid safaris in the city, shooting as many shots as I had film for in a day. Then of course it started getting hard to find the film.
When Polaroid film went out of production I really mourned its loss. When, in 2011, my (now) husband bought me a reconditioned Polaroid SX70 Land Camera Alpha (Freitag edition) from Impossible Project and some boxes of film as a surprise, I was elated! But the resulting shots I took were terrible.
Being an artist not a photographer I didn’t try to work on my technique I just tried painting over the surface to make them into something better, something beautiful. It worked and I knew I’d hit on a project worth pursuing.
The pilot set – the first City Skies shots I took while walking in east London expressly to paint over them – were taken on original expired Polaroid film. After this and ever since I have used Impossible film stock PX-70 or SX-70 in a variety of color tones. The project grew from there and – hundreds of painted, drawn over Polaroids later – is still expanding
These were taken on original expired Polaroid film, after this and ever since I have used Impossible film stock PX-70 or SX-70 in a variety of color tones. The project grew from there and – hundreds of painted, drawn over Polaroids later – is still expanding.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
SK: Walker Evans was and is without a doubt the key influence on my working in Polaroid. And I have a few amazing photographer mates in the UK who I look to for advice: James Tarry, two large-scale pieces of whose latest ‘surfers’ series we love having in our home; Laura Babb, founder of Snap Photo Festival is someone whose portrait work (and unstoppable personal and business energy!) I really rate; and also Marco Bettoni, another artist who works with photographic material, we I met years ago when we had adjacent studios. We have loads of his stunning images of Japanese urban color, on lightboxes, aluminium and paper.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
SK: I cannot do what I do with digital, no question, no choice. My current work is only in Polaroid, it grew out of working out what to do with all the bad Polaroids I take and it really is the defining medium of this project. I have shot a few digital images I’m happy with as my work, but I have never printed them out.
Maybe I should explain; I am absolutely not just making painted-over photographs, copies of the photo, that would bore me stiff in five minutes.
But yes in a way I am making painted-over photographs, literally, I do make art by applying oil paint over Polaroid shots and drawing through the wet paint.
I only use Polaroids I’ve taken so I’m not defacing anyone else’s work. I do not copy what was there on the developed shot, I simply use it as a starting point, maybe a skyline, but then go my own way. As soon as the paint starts going on I can hardly recall what was on the original shot and anyway I often have very little figurative image to work from.
From the hundreds of Polaroids I have taken in the past five years this is one of the only ones I won’t paint over. There are just a couple I regard as good enough images in themselves, taken around Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, not far from my studio. The area is currently a building site, half of the buildings I shot have now been knocked down. This city is in constant flux, but I like that. There’s always stuff to see.
It is very rare that I retain any of the photographic image in my finished work, usually I cover it entirely and reimagine the city scene in paint. So these are a bit of an anomaly, ones where I chose only to paint the skies.
What’s your next challenge…your next step? How do you see yourself improving your technique? What aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
SK: I love shooting instant film, it gives you so little control over the outcome. And so often I end up with hardly anything at all. It might really annoy someone looking for a perfect shot, but I love it. I love the wildcard nature of what pops out of my camera and besides I have never been interested in virtuosity.
I take bad Polaroids and paint over them. If I suddenly improved my technique and started taking lots of shots I liked too much as images then as an artist, I’d possibly be rather stymied.
For me the next challenge is always painting over the next stack of shots and seeing where they go as images. Meanwhile the way ahead for my City Skies series is the next location – flights are booked for Hong Kong and Sydney trips next year (cities I know pretty well) and first Berlin and Glasgow shots are on the wall already.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
SK: I walk around cities. I take Polaroids. Back in the studio, maybe months later, I paint over those Polaroids.
I don’t often shoot then paint straight over the fresh prints, they sit around a while. It helps bring distance when I cannot remember the location I actually shot. Makes it easier for me not to be precious about the scene that was on the Polaroid. City Skies is not a documentary project, I am reimagining cities from my imagination.
Perhaps I am offending Polaroid purists. Admittedly a vast amount of Polaroids are destroyed to make my work. But don’t mourn them, I do take crap photos. And my work has long been about trashing surfaces. I may sound like a vandal, but I’m a discreet one. I would never deface any one else’s Polaroids just my own.
I am not usually very organised or systematic. Often my Polaroids sit in piles on my worktable waiting for me to paint them, sometimes a year or two later. But I like to show them in very precise grids of multiple frames.
I generally totally obliterate the photographed image I made originally, only the shine of the polaroid surface shows through my drawn pencil marks at the end. It begs the question: do I actually need an exposed Polaroid to be underneath? Hell yes, I definitely need something to start from, to work against.
I shot an Impossible film stock that was called ‘Fade to Black’ and was pleased with my day’s images only to find the next day that each frame had indeed faded to black. This set of images was made as a result, with me entirely making up each image from nothing visible underneath. It is my Hanna Barbera ‘Top Cat’ cartoon city supreme and I love it as such. The drawn though lines are dark and bold, but I soon run out of skyscraper shapes when I work from no source material.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an unknown assignment. You can take one camera, one lens, two films and you have no idea what you’ll be shooting. What to you take with you and why?
SK: Choice of lens? Not an issue with my camera; I wouldn’t know where to start! I just pick up my Polaroid Sx70 Land Camera Alpha and whatever two boxes of film I have in the fridge – Impossible instant film Color for use with SX-70 type cameras.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, were do you go and why?
SK: I’d take my clunky favourite Polaroid SX-70 and as much Impossible instant film Color as available and head to the nearest city. I love east London, but am happy in the anonymous backstreets of whatever city I find myself in.
Any city that is safe enough to walk around. I said I wanted to work in any city worldwide but then someone asked me to shoot in a beautiful city adjacent to a war zone. I wanted to accept the commission but realised I would not be safe to move freely about on foot and photograph wherever I wanted.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film (well, sheet or box), where and how will you expose it and why?
SK: Having lost Polaroid film once already I’d hate to lose it all over again. But I feel a bit like that every time I get to the last box in my fridge or my bag, to be honest. It doesn’t make me use the last frames in a more measured way though. I still just head out to frame another slice of sky between the city buildings.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
SK: I am a painter, I honestly haven’t much of a clue about film photography! It is the only one of your questions I totally struggled to answer!
The most common misconception I usually have to address about my work is that people don’t really believe there is an actual Polaroid underneath each one of my images.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
SK: With painting, the art world has been forecasting its demise over and over again for years in the face of new technologies, but it is not going away. It is too affecting, too compelling. Maybe it is the same with film for photography.
Polaroid for me is enduringly seductive in its clunky, no-control-at-all process and the format of its resulting prints has me hooked.
My work in this medium has been called technically innovative but to my mind I am not doing anything clever. I’ll only stop if it starts to bore me and there is no sign of that happening.
~ Sarah Kudirka
Unexpected, right? I think it’s wonderful.
We talk about promoting film photography and advocating film. We talk about using cameras that are most likely older than us (and will outlast us!); and we talk about supporting film vendors.
Mostly though, we talk about using film as a creative choice.
When was the last time you were truly creative with film? We use the medium to create but creating and creativity are two different things – look at my own body of work if you want to see a lack of the latter.
Perhaps the last statement was a touch needy but you get my drift, I hope. On a personal level, film is both a choice and an outlet. Leaving family to one side for a moment, of all the things that define me as an individual, film plays a huge part but I’m not what I would call a true creative; and this is where people like Sarah, James Tarry, Michael Jackson, Roger Ballen and many others that have graced these pages really excel.
They have used, absorbed, subverted and enhanced the medium of film to help express their creative voice.
I think it’s fantastic, a wonderful subculture with an amazing message: the medium is only just the beginning.
If you find yourself in London, head on over to Laura Lea Design in Leytonstone (on the Central Line), where you can see Sarah’s “(Nothing But) Blue Skies”.
Sadly that’s it for now but next week will bring another film photographer for you all to get to know. I’m nearly 100% certain that they don’t paint over their photographs but no promises.
If you find yourself stuck for something to do, scroll up and have another read, and if you’re REALLY stuck, why not join Secret Santa 2016?
Keep shooting, folks.
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