When Sarah and I met in an online class 4 years ago, I was instantly drawn to the unique quality of her art, and above all to her beautiful soul. She captures light and understands contrast like no-one else I know. She creates images that vibrate with strength and vulnerability, lightness and earthiness, darkness and ethereal light. I am thrilled and grateful that she accepted to share her unique voice with us.
Laly: As a photographer, light is your primary "raw material". And you work a lot in black and white, which emphasizes light even more: how important is it to your work? How do you work with it?
Sarah: I am a true lover of light. The ability this element has to completely change the emotion of a photograph is something that has always fascinated me. The feelings you can create when light plays off of, shines through, or reflects from all number of surfaces gives a whole other layer of endless curiosity to it. It’s one of the most important elements to telling stories in photos, too. Light is where the magic is. More important than all the fancy equipment you can buy, if you know how to wield light to create your stories, your images are going to have something special.
My “Still, Life” series was done entirely with natural, outdoor light, either at sunset, sunrise, or on overcast days, as I always prefer the softer light. I don’t use strobes or any other supplemental lighting, for two reasons: I'm slightly scared of it (don't tell!) and I'm lazy! I suppose I just don't like dealing with a lot of equipment. For me, it gets in the way of the emotion of the moment.
Despite not having control over my light source, I’m still very deliberate about how I use light in my shoots. I learned a lot the year I worked on the “Still, Life” series. This project – doing one self portrait shoot each week for a year – helped me to understand how to use light by moving the subject and adding various props, instead of altering the light source itself. It’s a wonderful process, playing with light!
“Let Go” is a good example of adding props to have a different sort of interplay with light. It was done with a simple, ten dollar fabric shower curtain. Strung up under an open, covered shelter outdoors, the curtain was back-lit softly by indirect light in the late afternoon. Since the sun didn’t hit the curtain directly, it created this soft, eerie effect. This was purely an experiment, something I’d read about in a photo magazine and decided to try. The results were so ethereal, and for me, they spoke to the ideas about the fog in our minds, the unknowns of grief, and spiritual connections. I loved the feel and ideas it stirred in me so much, I spent several weeks using the shower curtain to create with!
Laly: In your "Still, Life" series, you express a whole range of emotions and feelings through a whole range of light qualities, from transluscent and glowy, misty, to raw and gritty. How do you use light to express your truth?
Sarah: Light is very important to my story. I use metaphors of light and darkness a great deal in sharing the memories and experiences of my past adversities. These metaphors evoke certain feelings in us all, tying to the age-old ideas we all have about the meaning of light and darkness. Climbing out of the pit, falling into darkness, walking into the light, the power of hope, all of these stories need the element of light to exist. Whether it’s through use of literal lighting or through light and dark aspects of the image's composition, it’s a crucial part of how I express my inner world.
Laly: How do you play with light to make it your own?
Sarah: With patience, and an open mind! I typically go into a shoot having some idea of what I want to create, and what sort of light will “paint” my image as I want it to feel. But all of this comes from years of trying things, experimenting, and seeing what comes. It's so so important to spend time playing with light to begin to understand it – whether you are taking photos, painting, drawing, or sculpting. I try to leave room for the unexpected still, as sometimes it is the light that guides me, not the other way around. In this way, there is a kind of give and take between us… a relationship where sometimes I take the lead, and other times, the light does.
“The Voyager” is a great example of the light taking the lead. I was out on the edge of a treeline to capture a different shot entirely that day. As I was walking around with the light low in the sky, I noticed how the dry, dusty earth caught the rays of light when I kicked it up. I was instantly fixated on this. As the sun finally set, I was on my knees in the dirt, tossing dust high above my head and all around me, and trying out different poses to go with it. What I ended up with that day was a shot that had been completely unplanned, but entirely relating to the personal journey I was on in my life… about to move across country, just on the edge of adventuring out into the new. The light is what created the magic, and lead me to the image. Sometimes, that’s how it works.
Laly: Do you have a favorite kind of light? Maybe a favorite season or favorite hour of the day when light resonates with you the most? What does it tell you about yourself? In what ways does it echo your own inner light?...
Sarah: I'm a sucker for soft light. In autumn and winter, when the world is dormant, is probably my favorite time to shoot because it's often more overcast and I can shoot in the middle of they day even! The magic of dusk or just before sunrise is almost always the time of day I gravitate to though. There is something about shooting on the edges of the day. You have very little time until you lose your ideal light… so you’re up against something, which I like a lot.
There’s a metaphor there too... of endings and beginnings, life and death, new phases and change. Perhaps because of my own lifelong experience with grief and loss, being on the edges of things seems to connect well with me. It’s an unusual light, just like my own past has been. It fuels something in me.
Sarah Treanor is all about encouraging stories of the human spirit. Her passion to help others become more in touch with their own creative power is shared through her artwork, writing, and teaching from her Northeast Ohio home and studio.
She recently launched her first e-course, called Meaningful Making, in which she is guiding students through creative practices with their grief. She is the Sunday featured writer for Widow’s Voice, a blog written by seven widowed people telling their experience of living on, and writes regularly on her blog about creativity and adversity. If you’d like to get in touch with her or see more from the “Still, Life” series, you can visit her website or follow her on Facebook!