Originally from Middletown, New York, Sarah Phyllis Smith currently lives in Chicago where she teaches photography at Chicago State University. She received her MFA in Photography from The University of Iowa and a BFA from Murray State University. Recent exhibitions include Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea at The Shed Space in Brooklyn, NY and Sharpless at Fluorescent Gallery in Knoxville, TN. Upcoming exhibitions include a two-person show at Vanderbilt University’s Space 204 and a group exhibition at Whitespace Gallery curated by The Fuel and Lumber Company, both opening this summer. Sarah’s work has recently been featured by several online publication including Don’t Take Pictures Magazine, Light Leaked, AINT-BAD Magazine, Vulgaris Magazine, and Locate Arts. In addition to teaching in Chicago, Sarah also currently serves as the Assistant Artistic Director of the New York State Summer School of the Arts: Media Arts program, a summer program for high school students sponsored by the New York State Department of Education.
Sarah began teaching at Chicago State University in Fall of 2017 and currently serves as a lecturer.
The greatest failure of photography is its inherent nostalgia. It forces us to constantly look backwards, filling present voids with imperfect depictions of the past. Photographs promise something permanent yet their very existence is a direct result of how ephemeral the experiences they represent actually are. They fall pitifully short in capturing the essence of what we want them to represent, yet we still expect them to act as stand-ins for the past. My work, while stemming from autobiographical experiences, investigates our relationship, expectations, and attachment to the photographic image. The images are direct, photographed with an objective distance that hovers between the intimate and the analytic. Linear time is disregarded as the very existence of a photograph is an interruption to that system. Photographs can be reflected on with both sorrow and delight as their presence suggests a glimpse of our past, present, and future all in one moment. The expectation that photography can be equated with foreverness is undone through images of unending landscapes, ailing pets, and the nostalgia associated with vernacular images and documents.
— Sarah Phyllis Smith
2016 – ongoing
Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea
As tourists we travel to specific places looking to fulfill experiential needs that are unique to that location. I’m interested in the images made at these places and how as objects they are later gathered and collected. Personal photographs can be read both with and without accompanying details because of the viewer’s ability to see and associate an image with their own experience. These proofs allow us to claim an experience as our own and lay ownership over these moments. Niagara Falls is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world with visitors coming to witness the thick mist donned in blue ponchos. It is also viewed as a destination for lovers, being deemed the honeymoon capital of the world. The work from “Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea” is an account of my individual, and occasionally private, experience yet one shared by many other Niagara visitors. The project began with an interest in vernacular travel images and how they can hold both specific and anonymous information within them. What came of it were quintessential landscape images mixed with heart shaped tubs and souvenir pressed pennies, all images and objects I knew to associate with this place before ever arriving. The work is a record of looking for romance, and despite the clichés, still finding it.
Why Chicago State University?
Chicago State is an urban university, primarily serving the South Side of Chicago and residents of Illinois looking for an affordable public university within the city of Chicago. We also have a fairly large international student population, making up almost 5% of the overall student population. Many student choose to attend local two-year institutions and then transfer into our four-year program. This tends to mean that our students are slightly older than the traditional incoming undergraduate and large numbers of students are returning to college after having pursued careers in other fields.
I teach in the Department of Art and Design which has approximately 50 majors. We are a BA granting program that houses several different tracks that students can choose from. These include Graphic Design, 2D Studio Art, 3d Studio Art, Interactive Media, and Art Education. Over half of our students fall within the Graphic Design track, of which photography courses are a requirement. We have a large B&W darkroom, two Mac labs, large format Epson printers, a range of scanners, and a lighting studio containing both continuous and strobe lighting. Although there is not a specific Photography major, all students within the department are encouraged to take photo both as a tool to move forward in their art careers but also as a place to engage with photography as a contemporary medium.
What I most enjoy about being at Chicago State is how passionate and driven many of our students are. The state of Illinois has been in a budget crisis for some time now and public Universities like mine have been hit the hardest. In recent years the University almost had to shut its doors but the students rallied and protested to keep the doors open. They even briefly shut down the highway in order to call attention to the crisis. Our students value the educational opportunities they have as many of them are first generation college students who often are coming from complicated financial situations.
Being in Chicago is a great advantage. Despite our small program, the students have access to lots of free programming offered by some of the larger art institutions in the city. Last semester, my students and I took a field trip to The Museum of Contemporary Photography for a private print viewing thematically titled, “Race, Gender, and Representation”. Students met with Sheridan Tucker, the current Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts, and were able to get close to prints by some incredible artists of color. I’m grateful programming like this exists in the city and that is so accessible.
What courses do you teach?
We are an undergraduate program although the University at large has many graduate programs. We offer a variety of photo courses including, B&W Darkroom Photography, Color Photography (digital), and Digital Photography (a photo course geared towards graphic design majors). I teach these courses at the beginning to the advanced level. We’re a small program and so not all courses are offered at once but the classes are scheduled with regularity to allow students to take the classes required by their major and also as electives.
How does your program bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary photographic practices?
As I said before, we’re a small undergraduate program but within the course offerings, students explore a wide range of means for producing photographic images. Our darkroom class isn’t offered as regularly as I would like but this is due to current student enrollment and the individual financial burden that taking a darkroom class comes with. In all of my courses I encourage experimentation and an exploration of individual student voices. We were a predominately darkroom program for many years and so our facilities are really incredible. In the upper level photo courses I’ve had students work on film in a variety of different formats and being in a large city, color processing labs are only a short train ride away. We’re not equipped for color processing or printing so color film is then scanned and printed digitally.
We also currently offer a Sound Art class that is taught by our sculpture faculty and I am hopeful for adding a video course in the future.
Describe the process of output for photographs.
As a department we provide all of the ink for the printers, and as long as students are currently enrolled in photo courses and have paper, they can make prints. This is an area where my own studio practice and that of my teaching start to mix with each other. My own work often feels like a curated group of disparate images so I spend a lot of time looking at small work prints, moving them around, and letting things live together on a wall for short periods of time. I encourage my students to use this process as well. Most of our courses are digitally focused and so students spend a lot of time staring at their images on a computer. It’s a very different experience to look at the printed image and can often offer invaluable insight into editing decisions.
Describe the critique format.
Early into my teaching career I would refer to each class as their own wolf pack. I would talk about how we were there for each other in both supportive and critical roles and that each other’s success depended on this level of trust and honesty. I want my students to feel like their class is a community they can rely on. Critique are a necessary part of this community. For most classes, critique happens at the conclusion of each project but for advanced students, the critique happens at several in-progress moments throughout the semester.
As an undergraduate I had a photo professor who would take people’s work off the wall and toss it out of the 7th floor window where our classroom was. Many people would leave that room in a variety of mental states, myself included. As much as that was indeed a formative experience, I’ve never wanted to be that kind of instructor. My students would be the first to say that I’m tough on them but that it’s because I truly want them to do well. I want them to make their best work and to also make work that they feel passionate about.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?