An Interview with David Samuel Stern
David Samuel Stern is a photographer, artist, and teacher now based in NYC. His work attracts huge audiences in the way he translates a photographs and portraits into tangible objects. Through the variety of work produced by the artist, this interview focuses on his Woven Portraits series.
"Let's go back to the beginning, how did your journey through the arts begin and develop?"
As a child, I drew constantly—airplanes and sometimes animals. I remember visiting art museums with my mother when I was young, but I didn’t think about art much until I took a darkroom-photography course at a local college during a high-school summer break. I had enjoyed photography in a casual way before that, but when I learned how the medium actually worked, and got to know its weird machinery and chemicals and their smells, it seemed special and I began to take art as a whole seriously.
"The role of the darkroom is so important for many photographers at the beginning of the career when they are learning their trade. Could tell us more about your Woven series and your interest in making outside of the darkroom?"
My Woven Portraits series touches upon portraiture quite a bit, as well as the nature of images, particularly their physicality. As I’ve become more familiar with making this kind of photography, the work also increasingly embraces the theme of craft, and I honestly believe the process of making something is as important as the thing itself.
"Totally. Process is so important, when making images that are have more elements than pure photography, the meanings evoked come from the craft that aids the photographs."
Portraiture contains a kind of yearning, whereas weaving and patternmaking in some general way are mechanically indifferent. A central theme—as I’m thinking about it these days anyway—is the harmony or discord between these two things. As a photographer, I want to show the subject in an evocative way that sparks a meaningful human reaction. That’s what all artists want. But as a crafter of objects, I want to be a robot; when I’m cutting and weaving the photographs together, I do not think about how a viewer will react to looking at the piece when it’s complete.
"Is your work political?"
These days, especially here in the States, the way one defines oneself is a political act. And portraiture of course has a history of being used as a political tool. In that sense, the Woven Portraits can be seen as apolitical because, by physically weaving multiple photographs of the same person into a composite artwork, they insist on a more complex definition of their subjects. I want the work go beyond the political realm and into what it means to be portrayed in the first place.
Your work feels very human in its complexity. Do your pieces aim to express the identity of yourself to those depicted?
Not in the sense that I attempts to express something about ethnicity or race, etc. My portraits allow their subjects to become abstracted and more complicated, which I think is more truthful than what single definitions can do. The identity of the sitters probably gets more mysterious from the viewer’s end, but I hope that this begs the question how much did we ever really know about the person pictured in a portrait by looking at that very portrait? What does looking at any kind of image ever really get us? When we look at images, I don’t think seeing the thing we’re looking at is where the truth is.
"I love that. Thank you."