Interview: At Home With ...

Photographer Sage Sohier

We are delighted to welcome American photographer Sage Sohier (b. 1954, Washington, D.C.) to Print Sales Gallery.

Print Sales Curator, Alexandra Olczak, digs deeper into the making of Animals (2019) Sohier’s black and white pictures from the 80s and 90s of people at home with their pets, recently published by Stanley/Barker.

Q: For over three decades, you have been photographing people in their environments. What initially attracted you to photography?

A: When I got to college, I majored in English and imagined I might try to be a writer. But I was very restless, and disliked sitting alone in front of a typewriter for hours. When I took my first photography class as a sophomore, I learned about fine art photography and realized that the medium had narrative possibilities as powerful as fiction writing. I was hooked, and then had the good fortune to have Tod Papageorge as a teacher my senior year. His eloquence about the medium and his encouragement launched me on this path, and it’s made for a fascinating life. 

Q: Your projects to date have explored close relationships, both familial and romantic, whether between same sex couples in the 80s (At Home with Themselves, 2014), or that between yourself and your mother (Witness to Beauty, 2016). What inspires you to turn your lens towards such intimate subjects?

A: I guess photography is often a kind of self-portrait. At Home with Themselves was motivated in part by my curiosity about my father. Witness to Beauty was an exploration of my relationship with my mother, and a means of being closer to her in my adult life. I seem to need a personal motivation to begin a project, but once it starts the pictures develop a life of their own and trying to make them better and better becomes the motivation. 

Q: How did your Animals project come about?

A: In 1991, my husband and I got our first rescue dog, McGuffin. Living with him brought back memories of my childhood, which was filled with dogs, birds, horses, and all kinds of dramas around them. Throughout the 1980s, I had photographed people with their pets wherever I found them, but life with McGuffin made me decide to make a more concerted effort to photograph in homes with animals. I went to lots of dog shows and cat shows and would run up to anyone who piqued my interest and ask if I could come to their home sometime to photograph. I also looked at the litter ads in the Boston Globe every Sunday and would phone people who ran promising-sounding ads. If they said something like, “Poodle puppies, raised with children and other animals,” I would get particularly excited.

Q: Within the endless boundaries of social media today we see so many photographs of people’s pets, some even with their own profiles! In contrast to these what strikes me about your photographs is that companionship and bond that you manage to capture so sensitively and candidly between the owners and their animals. How do find your subjects, and do you have any tactics in getting to know them?

 A: I made these pictures in the 1980s and 90s, so this was all pre-internet. I found people to photograph through word-of-mouth. Some of these pictures were made outside after a brief interaction, but in most cases I talked to people first about what I was doing and then made an appointment to photograph them at home. I try to spend as much time with people as is comfortable for them. Fortunately, people are proud of their animals and like to show them off. The animals are active, funny, and surprising, so people tend to be much less self-consciousness in front of the camera. Because I love animals, I’m quite animated and enthusiastic in these situations, which helps to relax my subjects.

Q: It is not just dogs and cats we see in your photographs, but more exotic species including llamas, reptiles, even monkeys. Was it your intention to feature an expansive array of animals at home?

A: Yes, when I first started the project, I noticed that I got excited by the homes that had lots of animals of one species, and even more by the homes that had animals of different species. So as the project progressed, I made an effort to find lots of different kinds of animals. The pictures I made in households with children were particularly lively, so I also tried to find homes with young children as well as interesting pets. 

Q: It is worth noting that at the time of our conversation, the World is united in fighting against a pandemic which is requiring for as many of us as possible to stay at home. What do you hope people will take away from your work?

 A: I find that my own dogs are a great distraction and solace during this time. There are unfortunately going to be more animals than usual who end up in shelters now, because so many people are unemployed and will have to abandon their pets. So, it’s a good time to go to a shelter and rescue an animal!

In terms of the photographs, I love how people lose their self-consciousness when they’re with their animals. There’s something special about another sentient being allowing us to get close to them. I hope that viewers will be amused and surprised by the work, and that the pictures are about a strange and somewhat unorthodox kind of intimacy. 

Q: How are you currently best filling your time at home, and do you have any tips for keeping happy and busy in these strange times? 

A: Aside from compulsive hand-washing, I’m spending a lot of time talking to old friends on the phone, walking and playing with my dogs, more time than usual reading, and watching TV series in the evening (right now, comedies help). I’m hoping to get to various re-organizational and de-cluttering projects around the house that I’ve managed to put off for years. Also, my studio is in my house, so there’s always lots of printing, editing, and sequencing to do. All in all, I guess it’s a combination of maintaining connections with people I care about, distracting myself, and feeling like I’m making some headway in my work that keeps me sane.

April 6, 2020