Sophie Barbasch is a New York based photographer. She earned her MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and her BA in Art and Art History from Brown University. Selected grants and residencies include the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the NARS Foundation, and a Fulbright Fellowship to Brazil.
PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: Fault Line
Growing up in my family was difficult, and so I have always tried to get distance from it. But it’s as if my family members, and our relationships, hold some secret, or key. Each time I move on to a new life phase, I find myself returning to them in order to resolve yet another question. I'm constantly circling. Like a magnet, I alternately seek and repel these people who have defined the emotional cornerstones of my life.
A family is a shifting conglomeration of narratives and feelings, just as each individual is constantly evolving and adapting. After an 8-year estrangement from my father, I let him back into my life. In the interim, I bonded with my younger cousin Adam, who I could not help but feel was like my double. Looking at him brought me back into the fault lines of my childhood; he was an entry point into storylines that I desperately needed to rewrite through my own lens.
Many things have changed since I started this project in 2013, but the same theme drives me: the mutability and inscrutability of each one of us. The more I press down, looking for definitions and truths, the more illusory everything becomes. At first, I was obsessed with conveying my own conclusions; today, more and more, I question those conclusions—I question the certainty of my own story. This experience has a liquid quality; relationships come and go, they build and dissolve like waves. We are in quicksand.
As Adam experiments with his gender presentation, making forays into dresses and make-up, I find yet another way to connect with him. Growing up in a family of men, I was often the only girl, which influenced power dynamics in both mundane and problematic ways. In the photos, I play with visualizing and subverting these dynamics. I suggest, via Adam, the notion that feminine energy is ultimately the strongest and most resilient.
The formal qualities and limitations of the photographic medium are fundamental to my process. I need photography not only for what it shows us, but just as importantly, I need it for what it doesn’t show us—for what it fails to do, for what it keeps hidden. Yearning for increasingly complete approximations of the truth only delivers more ambiguity. This is what I seek to capture within the frame: not the answers so much as the fact that there are none. I find strange comfort in this; it confirms my experience and pushes me to confront each subjective moment for what it is—boundless, indeterminate, quietly electric.
When and where did Fault Line begin?
I began this project in 2013. My family and childhood experiences have always influenced my work. But I thought that I should be able to make work that wasn't about my family. I thought it was a cop-out to make work about something so close--so mundane, so familiar. But then I just sort of let that go. Instead of indirectly referencing these people, places and things, I put them in the frame. At first, I wanted to reference the past. Now, I am more attuned to the present. The way I think about this has to do with a sense of time as it is made visible in the frame--the slowness or quickness of time, and how it is felt--as well as how much is revealed in the portraits. I want the subjects to reveal more, and be more specific, while also keeping things hidden. That is what I'm working on right now. I'm slowly shifting the vocabulary in minute ways. For a while, everything was dark and cold. Now I am working on getting that same feeling in bright, open, warm spaces. I am trying to keep things straightforward while also complicating the space.
Where do you see this project going?
This project is still in progress. I think of it in terms of chapters--right now, I am on the second chapter. I shared the first chapter via a solo show at Galerie Bohai in Hanover, Germany, as well as various publications. I’m not exactly sure what the final outcome will be.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
Things that motivate me include going to shows, participating in a crit group, staying in touch with artist friends, and making sure I schedule time to work. I also teach, which causes me to constantly reevaluate my ideas about photography.
Where I look for inspiration depends a lot on the project. Often, the trigger for a project is a personal experience. For this particular series, since it is about my family, a lot of the inspiration comes from these particular people and the experiences we’ve shared. I draw a lot on artists, filmmakers and writers that I like. I also collaborate with my family members.
What interests me about long-term projects is the way inspiration can ebb and flow. Often, I don’t feel motivated. I once got a chance to ask a photographer I really admire about how to deal with burnout. She said: “you just go to work.” That really did inspire me.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few different things—perhaps the first to be completed will be a cassette tape. In 2011, I started a project where I asked guys on craigslist to call me and tell me goodnight as if they were my boyfriend. The tape will include the primary audio piece that I made from these calls, as well as tracks that haven’t been shared yet.