Photo Books

Duo’s Digital Collages Explore Portraiture’s Possibilites

March 24, 2017

By Conor Risch

Questions about what portraits can and cannot convey about a person have existed for as long as artists have depicted posed subjects. Body position, gaze, dress, clothing, colors, objects in the frame and other elements are scrutinized by viewers searching for meaning.

The work of Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer explores, among other things, what portraiture can reveal. The duo create their pictures of women of all ages through a process of digital collage. They start with a photograph of their subject, and add photo-based elements that allude both to the stories the sitter has told them in interviews, and to the larger culture in which that person exists. In this way, the images also explore the formation of human identity and cultural identity. While influenced by the tradition of painted portraiture, Cooper & Gorfer’s work might also be understood as a kind of environmental portraiture. But instead of depicting the physical surroundings of their subjects, Cooper & Gorfer depict their psychic environment.

© Cooper & Gorfer

“Natalia’s Letters,” from Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer’s I Know Not These My Hands, their book made in Argentina. © Cooper & Gorfer

For their latest book, I Know Not These My Hands (Kehrer), the duo traveled to Argentina to photograph. They picked Argentina on a gut feeling, Gorfer says. She was born in Austria and lives in Berlin; Cooper is an American living in Stockholm. (The pair met and began to collaborate in graduate school more than a decade ago.) They were interested in South America as a place to work, and Argentina’s colonial history “and how that would affect identity” attracted them, Gorfer says. They were also interested in the political history of the country, which endured a coup and military dictatorship during the late 1970s and early ’80s, when 30,000 people disappeared.

Their use of an interpreter greatly influenced the project, they say. Gonzalo Pardo, their Argentine translator, became “like a third collaborator on the project,” Gorfer says, and his connections with, and interest in, indigenous people in Argentina’s northwest caused Cooper & Gorfer to focus on that region. “It was unexpected where he led us, but it was very interesting,” Gorfer says.

Their process for each project is different, Cooper says, but it’s “very much a collaboration” with their subjects. They interview people and “just listen…once we have a grip on where we think we can go with the imagery, we set a time and place that we’re going to go with them together to photograph.” They discuss where they will make the image and what objects their sitter will bring. “They themselves are building the symbolism within their own photograph by figuring out what they will have with them.”

© Cooper & Gorfer

“The Sheep of Dona Clorinda.” Through their translator and collaborator, Cooper & Gorfer were introduced to the country’s northwest, where they ended up working. © Cooper & Gorfer

The images aren’t created solely with the pictures Cooper & Gorfer make during their portrait sessions. “Our imagery also goes through a huge process after, where there’s a lot of literal collage work that we’re putting into the imagery, and I guess that’s where it’s more subjective—it’s about how we remember the situation and how our own thoughts and feelings then play out in the story of what we saw.” Other stories and bits of information they gather weeks or even months after making a portrait may find expression in a finished picture. For instance, Cooper & Gorfer met an Argentine expatriate in Sweden, and a portion of her family painting was incorporated into some of the pictures in I Know Not These My Hands.

The book also includes several short stories by Argentine author Haro Galli, as well as anecdotes written by Cooper & Gorfer about their experiences and the stories they heard. While the portraits aren’t meant to illustrate certain stories, elements of the texts are evident in the images for those who want to find them. One of Galli’s stories, for instance, talks about a black dog, and we see the animal in images in the book. “We want to have it a little bit open so that you have the chance as a reader to interconnect things and find your own pageant within it,” Gorfer says. “It’s always really important for us that we keep a little bit of an empty space to fill out and fill in. It’s the beauty of art in a way that it’s also about you who reads it.”

They also reproduce their travel journal in the book, providing a window into their process as artists. “We are very open,” Cooper explains. “We’re giving you everything that we know and we’re feeding it to you in the way that we also learned things—it’s not linear and it’s the same way we make connections.”

In addition to the portraits, Cooper & Gorfer also include landscapes they made during their trip. Some of the landscapes correspond directly to certain portraits, while others serve to create pauses in the book and a sense of travel from one place to the next.

The book’s title comes from a verse by American poet Adelaide Crapsey: “I Know/Not these my hands/And yet I think there was/A woman like me once had hands/like these.” The verse relates to the work in a number of ways, Gorfer says. In it they see the Argentine dictatorship’s practice of taking newborns from their mothers to be raised—without their knowledge—by loyalists. That it’s written by an American references the political relationship between Argentina and the U.S., which supported the dictatorship, but also points to a universality of human experience. “While working on this book,” they write, “we were reminded of the common human aspects of fear and loss, of love and identity.”