Monday, October 13, 2008


I sat down last week with two Columbia College photography alums, Sarah McKemie and Terttu Uibopuu, and talked to them about their collaboration. I often wonder how it is that two artists can put their own ego aside in the name of making something together. I hope this interview informs you on what it takes to do an artistic collaboration.

Elizabeth Burke-Dain: What is it about your work that lends itself well to collaboration with each other?

Terttu: A lot of people have asked us why we collaborated. It has much to do with our personalities and our coming together as friends. We wanted to do this collaboration because we like each other’s work. I like Sarah’s approach to photographing people. Her work is portraiture like my own. Sarah is not so predictable and she gives her pictures her own twist. I think she takes some very interesting risks in her work.

Sarah: I like the way Terttu can mix still lifes and portraiture. Her way of representing women and the way she is able to hone in on quiet moments that create a sense of intimacy is something you feel in her work. The viewer can definitely see what she saw in the moment she took the photograph. Terttu well represents the people she chooses to photograph. They are beautiful, but slightly off. She finds something beautiful in the women in her photographs even though you might not notice them if you saw them on the street. She questions them in her photographs by how she depicts them.

Elizabeth: Do you feel like the collaboration completed something about your own work through working with each other?

Terttu: When we started, we were just started to learn what we liked taking pictures of. Up until the point of this collaboration, we had just taken the beginning photo classes here at Columbia. We didn’t really know what we liked doing as individual artists . Doing this work together and by being playful, I have learned a lot from Sarah. We are different, but there are so many things I admire about her. I still learn from her. I have a strictly German approach to things. I like perfection, but Sarah is free and more playful. I like that. It has influenced my work.

Sarah: Both approaches came together, the formal and the improvisational, in this collaboration. We feed each other. The work in this project is something we couldn’t have produced on our own. We needed each other to complete this work. We admired each others ideas. There is no one else I would have done with this. We appreciate enough of the same things, but we also bring something different to the table.

Terttu: In working on and off for two years, our individual work has grown, but it doesn’t look like our collaborative work. I couldn’t carry the same ideas on my own because the work was about the two of us, about our relationship.

Sarah: The photos were about our relationship at the beginning and that’s what they stayed about throughout the project. The narrative of the relationship in the photos changed.

Elizabeth: Some of the photos looked like you were trying to go back to childhood by creating scenes from a remembered idea of childhood. In the photos, you seem to be in this transitional place between being young and entering adulthood.

Sarah: I definitely think that transition is a heavy theme in our work: teen to young adult, young adult to more adult. Even being together in a friendship and an artistic collaboration, we are in a transitional place. In some ways these images are less about having to grow up and more about the process of growing apart.

Elizabeth: What did you learn about your own work through this collaboration? Did it help you more clearly define your own work?

Terttu: I learned about risk taking, but that is directly from Sarah’s approach. One example is the picture of the mermaid on the shower door. There are no people in this photo, just the mermaid. I liked it, but I didn’t think we could take a picture of the mermaid for technical reasons. I would have walked away and not taken the picture for purely technical reasons. Sarah got excited about the idea of the mermaid in order to create a metaphor about our relationship. I framed the photo, but we were struggling with it. From this experience, I learned to not walk away if something doesn’t seem right or perfect. I never would have taken that photo, but now it’s my favorite picture.

Elizabeth to Sarah: Do you think Terttu is more technical?

Sarah: No. The tables are always going back and forth with ideas and other issues. It all becomes one thing. One of us has the will and the other resists, but we end up pushing each other. I would never have gone to the house where we took the photos if Terttu hadn’t suggested it. We made it work together. The initial challenge was like working on a math problem together. It’s hard, but it was satisfying to have figured it out.

Elizabeth: Did you figure out anything about your own aesthetic after this experience?

Sarah: I think I have started taking more risks and pushing boundaries. I’m not afraid to show an ugly or weird awkward side. Just take the photo and worry about it later. Push the moment as much as you can.

Terttu: We have always compared this collaboration to being in a marriage. We have to make decisions together. We surrender things in the name of the project.

Sarah: We choose our battles wisely.

Elizabeth: Did this collaboration help you to think of what you want to do next?

Terttu: We started the collaboration to get away from heavy thinking. Being in school you are forced to think about a series and larger conceptual ideas. For us, the collaboration was an escape, but as we worked on it, the things we learned in school started to make sense. We had to come up with bigger ideas and really think about what is was we were doing.

Elizabeth: What was the bigger idea?

Sarah: About being friends and what that means. It sounds elementary and sweet, but that is at its core. Maintaining strong relationships have a push and pull affect. Whether it’s your lover or your friend, you want to be with them, but you also want to maintain and uphold your own identity.

Elizabeth: Was there any attraction to Terttu because she is from Estonia and is not American?

Sarah: Maybe it did and I didn’t even know it. I like things that are different than me. I’m sure subconsciously, I was probably like, wow, I want to know about Estonia.

Terttu: Sarah seemed like she was from another place. I’ve never met anybody like her. She is not a typical American. I can remember the first picture I saw of hers. I was very attracted to her work. She is mysterious and her work has a lot of mystery that comes across. I’ve gotten to know her better over the years, but she and her work are still very interesting to me. In the future, I am exploring the idea of doing documentary work. I still question what the documentary is and how much words can add to images.

Sarah: I’m listening to our answers and thinking that maybe we are very different. I want to explore music and Terttu wants to explore documentary work. Maybe one of us is more formal and one of us is more loose. We need these opposites. Our answers reinforce that we are different, but those differences are wonderful. We have different things to bring to the table.

Thanks Sarah and Terttu. Please leave comments about this interview. Thanks everybody.

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