Conversations With Mike Brun - Sasha Arutyunova
Sasha Arutyunova is a photographer whose work I’ve been drawn to ever since moving to New York about two years ago. (She’s been in the city much longer than I, having graduated from NYU in 2011 with a degree in Imaging & Photography.) I won't try to pin down her style, since you can scroll down and check out some of her stuff. I'll just mention: I find that she has a tremendous awareness of light and I really dig the idiosyncratic lighting she's able to find and use productively time and time again.
Sasha is involved in quite a wide spectrum of projects - most notably co-founding the wise-beyond-their-years multimedia production company Nomadique, a conglomeration of NYU alumns interested mainly in documentary storytelling. She has also worked extensively as a photographer/videographer for the burgeoning Brooklyn-based music production company Mason Jar Music.
Also, she has a badass Instagram account. No, really: she once won a year's supply of cupcakes with it.
In the last few months, as Nomadique has taken to putting on events featuring various artists whose work they both enjoy and find it interesting to juxtapose, Sasha has been venturing more and more into the world of curation. (She tells me she thoroughly digs it.) One such event - “Approaches to Storytelling” - is currently
with prints of not only Sasha’s photography, but also of Andrew Ellis, Isabel Castro, Jimmy Chalk, Michael George, Katrina Sorrentino, Jonno Rattman, and Michelle Watt. Having enjoyed nearly three months of face-time with Manhattan, “Approaches to Storytelling” will be taken down very soon. I highly recommend checking it all out while it's still up.
The following interview is comprised of an email exchange we had over the last few weeks. Please enjoy!
What's your camera of choice for when you're just walking around? iPhone is an acceptable answer.
I do shoot heavily with my iPhone out of convenience but I wish I would commit to carrying a more substantial camera around like I used to in college. In a sense it’s given me a bit of a break, though. I don’t always have to be ON my game, and instead I can use my phone to make little sketches of quotidian things whenever I feel compelled to.
I love taking the Mamiya 7 out on the street but it has its own limitations, specifically financial ones. I had a tank of a Nikon f5 for a while that I shot mostly BW [black & white] with. I should reinvest in a more portable 35mm, just so that I can restart documenting events in my life in a way that has felt significant to me before the convenience of my iPhone took over. Contax? Sponsorship? Please?
I really dig your Instagram account - and your seventeen-thousand-plus followers seem to feel the same way. Have Instagram and iPhone culture influenced other domains of your work?
Thank you! Yeah definitely. One of the primary ways that it’s affected me is that the way that I edit has changed a bit. My friend Michelle Watt and I have talked about the difference between editing a photo for Instagram (incorporating more drama and visual intensity to compensate for the tiny screen), and how we would normally do it on our computers (focusing on bringing out more nuance and subtlety), and that the sweet spot is somewhere in between those two extremes. I have more of a plan for my editing process now that I have more of an understanding that images should be edited differently depending on where they will ultimately be viewed.
A way in which I’ve personally been influenced since all of this Instagram mess has become a part of my life is that I’ve become much more actively engaged in talking about my work, putting it out there instead of sitting on it forever, and using social media in the way it’s meant to be used. I’m a little less shy about talking to people about the various things that I’m getting into, even though any sort of self promotion is still a horrible problem for me. A lot of people have discovered my non-iPhone work and connected with me through Instagram, so there is definitely a tangible impact that it has made that I can measure.
Everyone with a smartphone is a photographer these days. Does this inspire/offend/excite/touch/
affect you at all? I suppose it brings a lot of awareness to photography, which is a plus.
I’m a huge fan. It’s inspiring to see friends who don’t take photography too seriously get really into expressing themselves visually, especially since often their perspective differs greatly from what I’m used to seeing. I think photography is a language that’s super accessible and important and more people being involved in the culture makes me feel less alone in the thing that I do. The sheer influx of people and new work definitely creates more pressure to stand out, but it wouldn’t be significant if it were easy.
Your gigs as a professional photographer span a wide range - headshots, documentaries, weddings, concerts, the list goes on. But it seems like when you are shooting on your own "free time", you are attracted to the candid and the found. Or at least things that are out of your immediate control: a busy avenue backdropping an intimate moment; carelessly placed objects becoming a chance still-life; idiosyncratic natural light bringing dynamism to the frame. Can you describe what it is that you're drawn to in those qualities?
I doubt that this experience is profoundly unique in any way, but if I had to describe the split-second thought process of photographic preference somehow, it would be like, I have a little internal freak out about how absurd or beautiful or sad or specific something is, and then I want to hold on to it or collect it, point it out to the rest of the world like, "LOOK AT THAT". There's definitely a "making order of the chaos" element of it too, which I think gets at your question a little more. For me, all of these found moments become their own universes when they are transformed into a flattened, static form via photography. I can engage with them, go deeper into them in a more focused way without the distraction of their surrounding world. I'm collecting all of the moment universes that I've fallen in love with over time so that I can then keep indulging and celebrating them. I'm a bit of a hoarder I think.
There's also the hope that someone else will connect to that little idiosyncratic something I've seen and engage in it with me, freak out over it with me, so the world is a little less lonely. That's the challenge, translating whatever a given super nuanced idea is effectively through the image so that I'm not alienating people and they can hopefully connect to what I'm talking about, engage in that conversation with me.
I want to ask you about your titles. While mostly expository, they feel nevertheless quite specific. How much time do you spend on them? Would you rather they be as out of the way as possible?
When I was 13 and first realized cameras were exciting I would take a lot of desktop wallpaper style photos and give them really grandiose cheesy titles, like a photo of a tree trunk titled "Wisdom", things like that. I think I was still grappling what exactly the function of my images was supposed to be and that nomenclature somehow elevated the art that I thought my early teenage self was making.
At this point I try to make my titles as simple as possible for them not to interfere with the image but still give context, I think that's what a lot of photographers do. The images are autobiographical in many ways so the titles help me keep track of them within the loose visual timeline that they've created for me.
You seem to be on top of your copyrights and licensing and such. First, is this something you learned about in school? Second, have copyright issues always been a front-and-center issue with photography, or do you feel like it's particularly endemic to the digital age?
I wish I had learned more about it in school. It was a topic grazed over quickly sometime in May of senior year but there was never a guidebook given to us about how we should approach every copyright related disagreement. Those issues come up ALL the time, and I find myself frantically emailing one of my former photo professors for help more often than I oughta be. I feel like all of us pseudo recent photo graduates are just stumbling through the copyright universe trying not to get burned or taken advantage of.
In terms of the industry, it’s always been an issue, but the incredible access we’ve been given to imagery in the past several decades wasn’t fully coupled with the necessary education element about intellectual property. I find myself having to educate my clients all the time. It’s a really exhausting part of the business and something I hope I’ll have to do less personally as my career moves forward.
You just got back from a fourth and final tour for Mason Jar's
The Sea in Between
, a music-film-documentary-album-
thingy centered around Josh Garrels. Care to share some personal highlights?
I could probably spend this entire interview answering this question, so I’ll try to keep it short! The film and the multiple premiere/concert tours of it that followed have been a huge part of my life over the past two years. All of us involved have become a little family, bonded by the wonderfully strange experience of making a music documentary on a remote island in British Columbia and then traveling to show it to more people than we could have ever imagined seeing it.
One of the most visceral experiences for me was hearing a crowd of 1,000 people applaud while the credits rolled at our show in Atlanta. Since I’m not a musician or a performer of any kind really, I never expected I’d know how explosive and absolutely insane that sound was like. Each screening we did was followed by a concert played by Josh Garrels accompanied by the musicians from the film, ending with an encore of “I’ll Fly Away”. We decided we wanted to cut together all of the performances of the song into one video, which meant I got to go up on stage with a camera for the end of each show. I was forever nervous I would knock over a microphone running around up there, or that I was a GIANT distraction. But it was really exhilarating to share the stage with my friends while they made beautiful music for hundreds of people, reinterpreting what they were doing in my own visual way. Also Josh introduced me to the audience a few times which was very nice and also crazy.
On our last and final tour we were doing the screening and show at a festival at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, and our ensemble got to share part of a set with Andrew Bird, which I also got to be on stage to film. It was absolutely terrifying and unbelievable but I think I kept my cool.
And you've done a bunch of weddings in the last year or so. Has that work influenced you overall?
With weddings I primarily assist my roommate Michael George, who’s an incredible photographer and one of my best friends from college. Assisting weddings is not as much of a big money gig as shooting my own, but its a lot less stress. A second shooter at wedding is primarily just photographing everything that the primary guy can’t be in two places at once to get. So ultimately I just get to do what I love: take an event and photograph it in my own style and try to highlight all the beautiful tiny moments that are on the periphery, while trying not to allow the occasional crazy wedding guest get to me too much. The more weddings I’ve shot the freer I’ve gotten with the kind of things I look for, and I think that whole experience has made me sharper. It’s just another way to exercise that muscle of awareness.
From past conversations (and from your Instagram bio), I know you think highly of Michelle Watt and her photography. Who else is inspiring you these days? Probably most if not all the other photographers in "Approaches to Storytelling", right?
Yeah, everyone in that show is a huge inspiration to me, which is why it was huge for me to get the chance to be able to give them more exposure in a small way. I feel very lucky to be a part of such a multidisciplinary community of artists who are really passionate about their work and the work of their peers. It’s exciting to see us grow together and figure out ways to support each other.
Other photographer’s whose work I’m consistently inspired by are Thomas Prior, Bryan Schutmaat, Christopher Anderson, Saul Leiter, Nicholas Haggard, Daniel Shea, Jake Stangel and Ryan Pfluger, as well as former classmates of mine Denis Nazarov and Peter Curtis who are insanely talented guys.
What's on the docket for Nomadique this summer and beyond? Any projects you can tell us about?
We’re in the stage of wrapping up a lot of projects that have been shot over the past couple years but never fully finished so that we can move on to the next big all consuming thing, whatever it may be. One of the projects is a documentary short about a German immigrant in her 80s named Eleanor Ambose, who turned an old electrical parts factory in Long Island City into a warehouse for her giant antique collection. We also filmed a series of shorts last year while traveling through the American South, which documented old American traditions that may be on their way out, examining the value that they have for the specific communities that practice them. So that’s the old stuff.
The group photo show up at Think Coffee right now is part of a new initiative were taking as a company, that focuses on creating a supportive blanket for the artists in our community. I’ve been really invigorated by this additional direction we’ve taken on, as it’s given us more things to DO in the city, like putting up art shows, hosting artist workshop dinners, and organizing film screenings. We’ve only hosted a handful of events so far but have gotten a really positive response. I’m excited to really get into the thick of this initiative this summer, before we start producing our next project.
All photos © Sasha Aleksandra Arutyunova