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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Sara Macel

Weeks ago, I happened upon Sara Macel’s work via the amazing website collect.give of which I am a huge fan of. I was instantly taken by the image she’s offering (above) to help raise funds for Camp Discovery, so I contacted her for an interview. 

Here’s an excerpt from a chat we had last week. 

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

SARA MACEL: I went to high school in Spring, TX, a small town outside of Houston. My friend Nadean’s older brother, Brian Finke, was a photographer for the school newspaper.  His bedroom was painted black and covered in black-and-white photos he took, which I thought was so cool.  I had taken art classes all my life, so it seemed like a logical step to sign up for the photo class offered at our high school.  My teacher, Mrs. Fox, really took an interest in me and encouraged me to stick with it.  Of course, Brian went on to become the hugely successful photographer he is today, and his work continues to inspire me.  But it really all started when I was about 14 taking that first photo class.  My mom and I went to Service Merchandise to buy my first camera: a Pentax P30T.  That was it for me, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else with my life other than be a photographer ever since.


SB: Who were some of your early influences?

SM: Well, Brian Finke, as I mentioned was an influence before I was really even aware of it.  He left Texas after high school to study at SVA.  That was a huge awakening for me to see someone from our town move to New York and not just survive there, but actually thrive.  For the first time, I realized that could be me.  And I set about making that happen.  At 18, I left Texas to study photography at NYU where I studied with Tom Drysdale, Deb Willis, Lorie Novak, Jeff Weiss, and Philip Perkis- all of whom continue to inspire me.  Early on at NYU, I saw Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.  I just saw her show at MoMA, which is wonderful.  And around that time I was also just getting introduced to and falling in love with Sally Mann, Francesca Woodman, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Wisconsin Death Trip.  I’ve always been drawn to work that has a Southern feel and not just in the geographically sense.  I like things that are personal and full of heart and a little bit dark or sad, but also have a sense of humor, albeit a twisted sense of humor.

After college, I worked as Bruce Davidson’s studio manager for two years.  He and his wife Emmy really opened their home to me, and it was an incredible experience.  I feel such a deep connection to his work.  He was working on his re-release of Subway with Steidl when I started working there in 2003.  I was with him until 2005, when he surprised me with a Mamiya 7 for my birthday.  I was so shocked and touched that I started crying.  Then, a few weeks later I got the opportunity to go back to Texas to shoot the Houston Rodeo, something I always wanted to do.  So I gave my notice.  Bruce likes to joke that as soon as he gave me a proper camera, I ran out to be a photographer, which I guess is true.  He was the one who first suggested I do a project about my dad’s life as a traveling salesman, but I wasn’t ready for it then.  The seed was planted, but it took years of my own wanderings for me to come back to what ended up becoming May the Road Rise to Meet You.

SB: Your series May The Road Rise To Meet You suggests a strong resonance of personal history and also establishes a resilient sense of solitude and loneliness, which traveling alone on the road can bring. Can you tell me a bit about the history (whether it is real or imagined), the character we are following and your personal impetus for creating the series?

SM: In between the time I left Bruce’s studio and began this project, I worked a full-time job and saved up all my vacation time to travel around and take pictures.  It was around that time I got interested in the work of the road-trip photographers: Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth.  Once I got settled into SVA’s MFA photo program, I came to realize that all those years of wanderlust really amounted to me revisiting the same places my dad had been traveling to on business all my life.  My dad is a telephone pole salesman with a sales territory that covers almost the entire middle of the country.  Once I made the connection between our mutual desire for the road, I began talking to him more and more about his travels over the years.  He let me delve into his old files and find notes he wrote to himself on hotel stationary during sales conferences and find the names of places he visited over the years.  I began moving in three veins: collecting this ephemeral material of the life he spent on the road, traveling to both actual places he visited and places I could imagine him visiting, and going on trips with him documenting his life on the road now.  And over time, the project morphed into this hybrid of a life lived and a life imagined.

SB: Is this series ongoing or complete?

SM: The project is complete in that it encompasses a particular chapter in both my life and my father’s life of us actively collaborating to tell a certain story.  But, he’s my dad so as long as we’re both walking the earth, I’ll be taking pictures of him and taking photos on the road.

SB: I believe you created a book for this series. Can you tell  me a bit about the book?

SM: With the help of a generous Alumni Grant from SVA, I self-published an edition of 25 hardcover cloth-bound books through a print-on-demand company.  I’m using these books basically as a promo to try and find a trade publisher for the work.  The book begins with my father in his thirties leaving on a trip and ends with him in his sixties staring out a hotel window; an entire career condensed to a single business trip.  Accordingly, the book starts with more nostalgic warm-toned photographs, and then blends into cooler-toned contemporary images. Throughout the book, the images flow back-and-forth from the road, to me, to him. By interweaving visual hints of my presence I have re-written history to be there with my dad all those times he was away from home.  Much as a family album is an idealized record of a family’s history, this body of work pretends that we were always together. 

SB: You have a number of compelling documentary projects that span the cultures and topics of life in Texas to Burlesque to Rodeos to boat yards. If you could summarize all of your work over the past years in a phrase or in a few words, what would that phrase be?

SM: Auto-biographical.  I think anyone who knows me well would look at that list of seemingly disparate subjects and think “Oh, yeah.  Those are all Sara.”  At their core, all those bodies of work come from a place of curiosity and figuring out who I am as a photographer.


SB: Is there one body of work or a specific image in these series that speaks to you more so than others, perhaps because it cuts to the heart and soul or the core essence of your imagery?

SM: May the Road Rise to Meet You is by far my most personal project and really encapsulates why I am drawn to photography as a medium.  At its core, the project is about creating a document or relic of something before it disappears.  I wanted to see the road from my dad’s perspective before he retires, while also portraying him as this dying archetype of the traveling salesman.  But on a much larger scale, it was my way of dealing with my fears as a daughter about him dying.  Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, speaks of the “melancholy of Photography” and its ability to “induce belief that it is alive…but by shifting this reality to the past (‘this-has-been’), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.”  I think that “melancholy of Photography” permeates all of my work, but never so clearly as in this series.

SB: Your body of work Kiss and Tell reconstructs imagined and real locations where a first kiss was shared. Like much of your work, there imagery creates establishes a sense of absence, memory and perhaps loss…almost like elements photographed at a crime scene, rather than sugar coating what many would consider their fondest hopes and dreams. Can you discuss the unique and remarkable approach you took to photographing these images and how you established or happened upon this unusual ambience (almost anti-romance) for what many would consider a love story of sorts?

SM: Just to clarify, it isn’t strictly first kisses.  When soliciting these stories, I try to leave it open-ended to any consensual intimate encounter wherein the location holds some significance in the memory of the person sharing their story.  And I love that you bring up crime scenes, because it was inspired in part by Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.  Similar to their appropriation of those images, I am, in essence, appropriating other people’s memories and through the visual interpretation of their stories making them my own. 

I would agree that loss or absence plays a significant role in the project.  When I began working on Kiss & Tell, I was in my early 20’s and had just started dating my boyfriend, whom I’ve now been with for eleven years.  I just knew we’d be together for a long time, which is something I never expected to find that at such a young age.  And the same goes for him.  We both knew that staying together would mean missing out on certain experiences.  So, in many ways, the project became an outlet for me to vicariously experience the one-night-stands and random hookups that characterize many people’s lives in their 20’s.  It isn’t about regret, but it does explore some of those darker feelings that come with monogamy.  I love my life with him and feel so lucky to have this shared history of basically growing up together.  He’s my best friend.  But there is a small part of me that wonders what my life would have been like if we hadn’t met, and Kiss & Tell is my way of exploring that.

SB: What are you working on now?

SM: I’m expanding the Kiss & Tell project and currently working on a re-design of that book.  If anyone feels they have a compelling story about a specific place where they had an intimate encounter, you can email me the story and details/directions to the place at kiss.tell@saramacel.com

I also have a brand new project that I am starting next month.  It’s too early to discuss, but I am excited to see where it goes.

SB: You currently have an image that you are offering on collect.give. Can you tell me a bit about the image and the organization you selected to donate all the proceeds to? Also please provide a link. 

SM: The print I have available on collect.give is from May the Road Rise to Meet You and is titled “Plane Over Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”  It is being offered as an edition of 20, and there are still a few prints still available for sale.  All proceeds will go to Camp Discovery which is a week-long summer camp in Texas sponsored by the American Cancer Society for children recently diagnosed with cancer.  The camp allows each child to learn different aspects of living with cancer, spend time with other children who have had similar experiences, and enjoy a week without the pressures of a hospital environment.  More info on Camp Discovery and info on purchasing a print can be found at: http://collectdotgive.org/editions/sara-macel/

To view more of Sara’s work pop over to her website

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