Photographer Interview: Sonia Louise Davis

Photographer Interview: Sonia Louise Davis

Untitled #22 from the series tracing(s) belonging(s), 2011.
Copyright Sonia Louise Davis

For a while now I’ve been an admirer of photographer Sonia Louise Davis‘ work, so I was so excited to hear that I’d be sharing the project space with her at the RUSH Arts/Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn. Sonia Louise Davis: Selections is on view until May 17, 2014 and I will be joining her this Sunday, April 13th from 4-6pm ET for an artist’s talk also at the Corridor Gallery.

D&B: Where are you from and where do you live/work now?
SLD: I was born and raised in New York City. I live 20 blocks away from where I grew up, in Harlem.

What was your first experience with photography and when did you decide it was a medium you wanted to engage with artistically?
I took a black & white darkroom class my senior year of high school, but didn’t get back into it until the end of college. I needed a creative outlet for the academic work I was doing. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to pursue photography seriously so that summer I moved back home and participated in a month-long artist residency downtown. That’s when I first picked up 4×5.


Untitled #1 from the series tracing(s) belonging(s), 2010.
Copyright Sonia Louise Davis

You shoot with a large format camera. Tell us about your photographic process and how you’ve embraced this format for your own work. 
The physical shooting process is significant, and the large format camera dictates a slower pace. It was like learning a new language. I was discovering how to use this tool while at the same time rediscovering my neighborhood and trying to figure out my place in it. On long slow walks with my view camera and tripod, the streets around my apartment became my studio. I fell in love with this way of working, especially in contrast to rapid-fire digital capture which can be mindless.

Shooting on 4×5 sheet film one frame at a time I can be methodical and deliberate, but I’m also faced with the reality of working on a budget and with increasingly expensive film/materials, which forced me to let go of perfectionism. You scout, you plan, you get out there and trust your instincts, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

I don’t consider myself a super technical person, but working with this particular tool was crucial in the development of my voice as an artist. It helped me turn off the overly analytical part of my brain, improved my eye, and changed the way I experience my immediate environment and community.

Untitled #13 from the series tracing(s) belonging(s), 2011.
Copyright Sonia Louise Davis

To date, all of your work is “site specific” – why is location/place so important to the stories you tell?
I don’t know, but it’s just something I always want to talk about. It might have something to do with being from New York. Early on, I kept asking myself how I was going to make an authentic picture in a place like NYC. I remember feeling like it was already too photographed and over saturated with images for me to begin to make any of my own. Starting small, from the local and the particular really helped me.

I’m curious about this technique you use in your work tracing(s) belonging(s) of placing images (from vintage photographs, street posters or album covers) within your final, constructed image. What does this act symbolize?
I think it’s a way of engaging the past in the present, of framing history on streets that have witnessed so much. But it’s ephemeral–I’m creating a situation that exists solely for the camera, putting objects in conversation, channeling memories, speaking with ghosts, constructing autobiography in public space. The series also includes landscapes that are “unaltered,” so it’s a balancing act between found and placed. I’m considering individual narratives against the backdrop of collective memory in a neighborhood that is historic and legendary, but also fraught with the double-edged sword of both (re)development and profound neglect.

Untitled #4 from the series tracing(s) belonging(s), 2011.
Copyright Sonia Louise Davis

In your newer work, Across 116th Street, you photograph a single NYC street from the Hudson River to the East River. What inspired the idea?
116th Street is bookended by Columbia University to the West and the East River Shopping Mall complex to the East, but unlike 125th Street, I noticed it had a very block-by-block identity. Still a major thoroughfare with crosstown buses and subway stations for 4 lines, 116th lacks the big retail of 125th, instead home to many small businesses that cater to the wide variety of ethnic groups that live in the area. I think it encapsulates many of the complexities, challenges and promises our borough and the greater city faces today.

I wanted to use 116th Street as a site to engage my neighbors and open up authorship. The project is less about me documenting the site and more about facilitating conversation and collaboration, using it as a place where art can be made and residents can come together.

Photographer Sonia Louise Davis interacts with her neighbors on 116th street.
Photo by Petrushka Bazin Larsen, June 2013.

What was revealed to you during this project about the community/place that you didn’t already know?
In May and October of 2013 I led river-to-river walks across 116th Street, hoping to share some of my research and invite interested strangers into my process. Slowing down has become a central component of my practice, both practically and conceptually, but observing, experiencing and listening to 116th Street as a group was incredible. It’s amazing what you notice when you’re not on your way somewhere. I found myself hyper-aware of language. And of topography, city planning, light and the density of our small island home. I counted bakeries.

Are there any photographers whose work you can’t live without?
Leslie Hewitt and Malick Sidibé.

What are three things that sustain your art practice?
Family and friends are my number one. I can’t say enough about how important having a support system is. Dialogue with non-artists is also key. Lastly, music. When I notice I’m not listening to music it’s a wake-up call to check in and reflect.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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