Apr 10–23, 2020
2/6: Maid of the Mist, Niagara Falls Canada
3/6: Niagara is for Lovers
5/6: New York State Flower, Niagara Falls State Park
An interview between student scholar Melanie Allan and photographer Sarah Phyllis Smith
Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea brings you to Niagara Falls and gives you everything it is, heart-shaped bath tub included. Niagara Falls has a personality that precedes it, and Smith uses this iconic location as a space to explore theories of memory and sentiment. She harnessed the ability to make me nostalgic for a place I have never personally traveled to, and I found myself getting lost while thinking about the act of romanticizing when looking through her images. This work reminds me that it’s okay to love the clichés, and I find comfort knowing that there’s another person out there that loves souvenir pennies as much as I do.
I’m personally quite fascinated with the duality of individual memory and collective group memory, which is something you focus on within Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea. We can all have incredibly personal, unique experiences and yet that moment is undeniably connected to the location, and therefore to others. What made you want to explore that within your work?
I’m a sucker for tourist experiences. As much as I want to have a truly unique experience when I travel somewhere, I also get the feeling like I don’t want to miss anything. I think that’s something that a lot of people feel which is why we end up taking so many photos when we travel. Despite how boring or repetitive our images may be we still feel compelled to take them as proof of our own existence. As a photographer I’m hyper aware of the kinds of images I take when I travel and I almost instinctively know when I’m taking something that a million people have taken before me. Traveling to Niagara Falls, a place I had been before as a kid, was exactly that. There are not many places to actually be still and see the falls so everyone’s images look the same which I really loved. Here we all are, recording these unique experiences yet just a few feet behind us is someone else waiting to take the same exact photo. I think it's maddening and beautifully poetic at the same time. I get that feeling when I’ve visited other big natural tourist destinations. They’re undeniably incredible but for me have just the right amount of cheese. I wasn’t sure what kind of work that I wanted to make when I went to Niagara Falls but I’ve always been interested in our compulsion to document ourselves and our experiences. While there I photographed without any real intention and it wasn’t until I came home and could look at the images and my experience there more clearly that the idea started to emerge.
Would you consider yourself a nostalgic person?
I’m definitely a nostalgic person. Outside of my work on Niagara Falls, much of everything else is tied to using photography as a means of understanding my relationship to my family through the landscapes they occupy. Long ago I read about nostalgia being described as a memory felt with pain but one which we desire instead of avoid. I’ve had a very complicated relationship with my family since childhood yet I’ve made them the focus of over 10 years of photographic work.
Some of my favorite images within the series are those of the souvenir pennies. Do you find yourself collecting souvenirs when you travel? I always have felt the need to obtain an object of any kind to sort when I travel, even though I often never really revisit these objects. Those images really made me question the idea of the souvenir, and my own thoughts and experiences with them, and I was wondering how you felt about them.
I’m obsessed with press pennies! I have so many that I’ve collected over the years. They’re the ultimate souvenir in my mind. Most of the things that you buy from those shops are absolute junk but the pressed penny is the real deal. There’s something about the scramble to find the change in your pocket and then cranking the image into it. I love the idea of not just buying a souvenir from a place but actually having to be there to make it yourself. On my trips I always bring something home, magnets, rocks, shells, pins. Years ago my mom was traveling a lot for work and she would always bring me back those tacky colored water paper weights that had glitter floating around on the inside. I live with a lot of these small objects but many end up stored away. I get a sense of urgency in those situations which is why I always end up bringing something home with me. It feels like if I don’t get it now, I’ll never be able to. In a sense it’s the same feeling with the photos. There’s a capture, conquer, and then store away mentality that feels very tied to systems of colonialism.
A lot of your work seems to draw directly from personal experience. Do you find that making work helps you move on, or come to terms with certain events? I also make quite autobiographical work, and while in the end I find it helpful and therapeutic, the middle portion of the process can be uncomfortable and not very fun.
As an artist I’ve always seen myself as the starting point from which ideas begin to develop. Instead of searching for ideas outside of myself to tackle, I work from the inside out. I don’t know that my work has ever helped solved any problems in my life but it has given me moments to step back from them. Through the work I can look at things more objectively, both in terms of the images but also my relationship to them. In the end I think that’s what has drawn me so close to photography. I’m organized and feel better when I can control the things around me. It seems like the things I’m not able to control, like my relationships with others, are sometimes managed through my photographs.
Sarah Phyllis Smith (b. 1986 Middletown, NY) is a photographer and educator currently based in Utica, NY where she is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Pratt MWP. Recent solo and two-person exhibitions include Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea at The Shed Space in Brooklyn, NY and Fish Hotel at Vanderbilt University’s Space 204. Her work has also recently shown at Whitespace Gallery, Roman Susan Gallery, Wedge Projects, VERSA, and The Midwest Center for Photography. Her work has been featured by several online publications including Don’t Take Pictures Magazine, Light Leaked, AINT-BAD Magazine, Vulgaris Magazine, and Photo-Emphasis and was featured on the cover of Iranian literary magazine, Dastan. Sarah also currently serves as the Assistant Artistic Director of the New York State Summer School of the Arts: Media Arts program.