Sara Kirschenbaum’s photograph, “Pears,” can be found in the Winter 2012 edition of CALYX Journal. Here’s what she had to say about everything from photography to feminism to food.
How has your personal visual style evolved throughout the years?
I had a very strong visual inheritance. Both my parents are artists and Bauhaus educated. My mom went to Black Mountain College and my father to the Chicago Institute of Design – both Bauhaus institutions that were started by the exiled faculty of the original Bauhaus in Germany. My artistic task as a young child was to figure out the rhyme or reason for what my parents liked or didn’t like. It is certainly time now for me to find my own taste but I don’t. I love my family’s aesthetics, which embrace things as disparate as a crushed pair of glasses on the street, a child’s drawing, and Yves Klein’s blue. I’ll stick with this particular style, like a family crest.
Is there any correlation between what you photograph and what you write?
All my work – in writing, ceramics, drawing and photography – is in the pursuit of truth. I am non-fiction all the way. When I read the NY Times Book Review I don’t even glance at the fiction reviews. I’m not proud of it, but non-fiction is what lights my fire. So when I photograph a pile of pears, I am trying to share what it is I find beautiful or poignant in reality. I am also specifically paying homage to randomness and how adept Mother Nature is at varying and scattering things uniformly: sand, leaves, shadows and pears.
What is the most challenging or unexpected photograph you’ve ever taken?
The most challenging photo I’ve taken is of a photograph I found in a pile of papers on my father’s desk. It was a photograph of a dead child. I cradled the curled black and white photograph in my hand and carried it to where my parents were watching TV and asked, “What the hell is this?” My father said, “That’s a little girl I found in the war.”
It turns out that in the Second World War my father and his regiment found a whole arena of dead bodies in Leipzig and he was particularly moved by the corpse of one little girl not even two years old. He went to the trouble of borrowing a fellow soldier’s camera and taking her picture. He somehow got the film developed in the war zone and kept the photo with him throughout the war and then, when he came home, on his desk for the next 65 years.
I wrote an essay about finding this picture and subsequently faced the dilemma as to whether to offer my photo to J Journal, the publication that accepted the essay, and whether to post it on my website along with the essay. I felt a profound allegiance to the girl and her family. It is quite possible that no one survived the German attack who even knew of the girl’s existence. It almost certainly is the only surviving picture or trace of the child. I imagined conversations with the girl’s mother – would she want the world to see her daughter in that state? Was it important for someone somewhere to know she ever existed? In the end the journal decided not to publish the photo and I decided to post it on my website. I felt a tremendous moral responsibility in this decision. The essay and photo can be found here.
Many of your photos involve patterns of food and in nature. Do you have a favorite food to photograph and a favorite location in nature?
I grew up in Chinatown, NYC and I find the best piles of fruit and vegetable there. The streets in Chinatown are filled year-round with street sellers and their wares which they stack with precision. So when visiting NYC I always take photos of strange and wonderful Chinese fruits and veggies. Lychees are perhaps my favorite with their pinkish brown peels. I also like to photograph food at local farmers markets around Portland, Oregon where I live. The pears that I photographed for this magazine were found on the “Fruit Loop” around Mt. Hood. Here is a link to some more food photos.
As to my favorite location in nature to photograph, hands down that has to be nature’s most subtle and nuanced canvas – the beach. I have thousands of photographs of sand and water. Here are links to some sand photos and some water photos.
Do you identify yourself as a feminist and does this view manifest itself in your artistic endeavors?
I am absolutely a feminist. I came of age in the feminist-rich seventies and eighties. I joined a “women’s consciousness raising group” in college. I loved my women’s studies classes. My mother too is a feminist and as a woman artist struggling to gain traction in the male dominated art world of NYC, she marched with protest signs outside prominent galleries that had not a single woman artist represented! My father has feminist inclinations as well. Although he didn’t share the work of raising the kids and keeping house, he fought hard, at the industrial lighting factory where he worked as a designer, to get women in that workplace. Feminism is who I am. And it must manifest in my artistic endeavors although I am not able to extricate the influence.
Sara Kirschenbaum is a writer and artist living in Portland, Oregon. She draws from the model on paper and clay, and takes photographs. Her work has been shown in Portland and in Switzerland. She has been published in Fiction International, J Journal, Kalliope, Mothering Magazine, The Oregonian, Poetica, Portland Parent, and Portland Tribune. She has been a commentator for NPR’s Marketplace and has been published on Salon.com. She is currently seeking a publisher for her memoir about postpartum OCD.
Caitlyn, Intern Extraordinaire