Working on an interview with Nina Gorfer and Sarah Cooper, known as Cooper and Gorfer was a truly amazing experience. The imagery is absolutely beautiful, rich in colour and texture but most importantly so abundant in meaning. Sally Jennings, who worked with me on this interview writes in the introduction: “These people were real. I felt that this was how we should live. This was who we really were. Instead, we impose on ourselves a world that’s pragmatic and disciplined and mechanical and we ignore the sweeps of our giddy brain. I want to leave my world and enter theirs.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The body of work produced by Nina and Sarah is remarkable not only in its artistry but also in its intellectual richness. Below please find an excerpt from this interview.
Who are Cooper and Gorfer in their own words?
Two women searching and changing, and communicating this through art.
How did you meet, get together?
We met in grad school and over several beers decided to create a book together. This became our first body of work. The rest, of course, is history.
Nina – what is so special about Sarah that you decided to work so closely with her?
Sarah and I share a lot of inspiration and often have the same visions. Sarah is a doer. I like her forward energy and drive; she has an ability to make things happen almost effortlessly; it seems to be part of her DNA. She is an incredible artist and creative thinker and one of the best people I know to brainstorm with. She is also one of the most compassionate and positive people I know. We are very similar in many respects, but we also complement each other really well. Most importantly, after 13 years of intense collaboration, we are still best friends.
Sarah – what is so special about Nina that you decided to work so closely with her?
This is an important question to reflect on after over a decade of working together. I’ve joked in the past that Nina is the Mother Ship. And I suppose we have both been each other’s lifeline over the years. But through Nina, I’ve been able to achieve a level of creativity, performance and confidence that I’ve seldom encountered on my own. She has the ability to create an overview of clarity on many of the things we do artistically and strategically. Nina is a person that searches for change, inspiration and knowledge. She pushes you to be your best and, in turn, she gives you her best. I always look forward to our brainstorming sessions or just free-flowing conversations over a long meal. She is fearless with humble vulnerability which is mirrored in my own actions and way of being. She is my friend.
What are the difficult, surprising or rewarding aspects of your collaboration?
It’s important to keep the friendship alive and remember why you think the other one is so damn cool. The path to success is a tough one and if you aren’t having fun, it can be daunting and simply unbearable. We’ve noticed that the most rewarding aspect of our collaboration is probably this sharing of ideas and the braiding of ambition and competition. But ironically enough, considering that we work so much with issues of identity, it is just this shared identity that can also make things so difficult, where you can almost feel lost. So, as much as we love the joint “No Ownership” aspect of our work, it’s important to regroup and celebrate the individual, our own selves. You have more to give to the pot of ideas, if you have more to give.
What inspires you? How do you translate that inspiration into your visuals?
This can be different between us. Inspiration comes through learning and reacting to what excites you. At times, it can be more existential and/or personal questions about life, or a fascination with a person’s biography or the arc and energy of a place. Sometimes it is just innocent curiosity about the mundane moment. It can be a great book, a work of art, some fantastic music, or a ridiculous experience. We are collectors.
When we’ve decided a certain theme will be the foundation of our next artwork, we use a rather journalistic research method, including interviews and the gathering and creation of imagery. We create an inspiration pool, a collection which we react to and then execute our artwork.
What visual storytelling techniques do you use as part of your process?
Our books are the brainchild and thesis behind our work. This is where we are able to present the perfect symbiosis of text, research, biography, imagery and flow. For our physical artworks we have used everything from the cinematic progressions of imagery to the compositional iconography of symbols within the work to tell the story.
On your website, you said: “We re-imagine the tradition of portraiture by visually examining and deconstructing the narrative of those you portray.” Could you please expand on that?
Our work is inherently traditional, in that we are portraitists. We are not the first and we won’t be the last. But what we can add is our personal encounter with those we portray. Our images are always based on an interview process where we seek to define a narrative of that person based on their own words or the circumstances that surround them. What we ask and then choose to focus on is subjective and what is shared and remembered by our subject is selective. In the end, it can create multiple ways of defining that narrative and the arc of one’s life. Time is also a factor and as we are dealing with stationary imagery, the artwork is always a collapsing of these many layers in time, and how we choose to see and understand this is also selective. We are inspired by the act of portraying something that is real, but the way in which you define that collection is sensitive to the non-linear memes of memory.
Could you please expand on your idea of hybrid portraits?
We have always felt that our artworks are on the edge of photography and, as a result, have never thought of ourselves as photographers in the traditional sense of the word. Our work is more about enabling the image that we are striving to create to come forward, and we use any means to achieve that. The hybrid refers to this blend. It can be purely technique, the collaborative effort of the portrayed and the portrayer, and the duality of our collaboration as artists.
There is no question that your imagery is grounded in strong research and close cooperation with your subjects. Having said that, there is also a very strong “visual deconstruction” process where your imagination (or may we call it visual intervention) enriches the final imagery. How far are you willing to go with this intervention? Is there a balance between staying close to the story and enriching it through creative means?
Yes, there is definitely a balance. Because our projects involve so many lives, quite literally, there is a struggle to honour the truth. But in the end, it is about giving back a sense of empowerment to those we portray, and a sense of personal wonder or perplexing contemplation for those who encounter our artwork, not a transcript. Our images are about the play between the reliability and unreliability of memory. A visual intervention can sometimes be about destroying the image or distorting the way in which one views the subject and or artwork.
What idea have you tried that you thought would work but, in the end, you decided not to pursue it?
We don’t want to burn any “ideas” at this moment as we are in the middle of a project. We’d say it is more that you put ideas on the shelf. Save them for that day when you feel you have the lust, time and or right circumstances to do it well. Sometimes the idea is good but the subject matter doesn’t suit the technique or vice versa. We always do continuous small experiments. Often, they remain in the understory of a final body of work.
What advice would you give to those who are seeing their own visual voice?
You have to really want it, as it takes a ton of dedication. But try and enjoy the path. It can be interesting to map your goals and pinpoint and envision how you should feel in these goals. Sometimes you won’t always believe in the work or yourself, for that matter, but it’s important to move ahead as if you have blinders on. Our studio tends to be our cave for creation.
Your images are very sensual in a symbolic way, but how do you avoid generic over sensual imagery?
We have alarm bells or one of us will zoom out and remind the other that “that thing you have been working on for the past two weeks, it just isn’t working.” But we try to not think about this too much. We’ve noticed that so long as we as artist or the artwork and/or the process is always grounded in something we are generally interested in (whether subject matter or composition) it leads to some exceptional work. Not everything we do is perfect, and sometimes the artwork is terrible. Creating art is emotional and it’s hard to know how to edit the ideas of your mind, and if you even should.
How do you see women in art and why your imagery is different?
Women in portraiture are in a continually vulnerable state of being looked upon. Our images are about the weakness and wonder humanity has for that which is beautiful, and using it as a tool to attract the viewer. We are women who are artists, portraying other women, and we are constantly subjected to the dilemma of how we choose to see ourselves or others. This is the result of centuries of definition fiascos, instigated by both sexes, ending unfortunately in the marginalization and objectification of women. Our images are often attraction masks for the complexity of what lies beneath. These are not sexualized women, they are empowered, staring back or hovering in a moment of sensitivity. We choose to depict women in the way in which we hope to see ourselves.
You chose a medium format camera to shoot your recent project. Why?
We need quality and Hasselblad completely delivers for our work.
You print large and present your work in print, and then embellish it. Is this where you find the strength of medium format?
Yes. Our work is often oversized and towering. We need a camera that can give us a filmic colour range with high resolution grain. This enables us to create more embroidered imagery without the distraction of digitalness.
Where can we see your exhibitions?
We will be premiering the full body of work that we are presently working on (Utopia or the Mistake of the Intellect) with Fotografiska at one of their international venues in early 2020.
Interruptions will be shown in Sweden in the autumn of 2019 at Lidköpings Konsthall from19 October to 31 December 2019.
The full The Weather Diaries exhibition (toured by The Nordic House Iceland) will be touring the Baltics throughout 2019 beginning with the Latvian Museum of Art, continuing to the Lithuania Art Museum, and lastly the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design.
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