Sophie Pellegrini: I don’t know how to articulate it, but there is a kind of image that makes people feel something more than “that looks nice.” I’m still trying to figure it all out, how I want to articulate it and explain it. At the end of the day, it’s more trying to create a sense of connection with the viewers. That’s the best way I can explain it.
Bates Review: When did you start shooting in film? Or getting serious about photography in general?
Sophie Pellegrini: I started in middle school; I found my family’s old Polaroid camera which we used to take family snapshots. I started playing with it and I thought it was so charming. Then I spent a lot of time on Flickr, online, and was really drawn to the photography I found. I found a number of accounts that I really liked and started following them. When I saw images I liked, I thought to myself, I really want to make this, I really want to do this. I went ahead and got a camera and started shooting. It was digital, a small Nikon. I pretty much just did self-portraits for the first two years. Sometimes I would take photographs of my sister as well, but it was really more of a private, self-reflective process. I was dealing with a lot in the beginning of high school, the way that everyone does. My way of processing was through photographs—it was therapeutic. I started mixing in film, 35 mm film, probably when I was a junior in high school. I was always shooting Polaroid throughout—I still use Polaroid cameras.
BR: And you keep all the Polaroids?
SP: Yeah. It’s sad because they don’t make film anymore for the first camera that I shot with. It’s still my favorite film. But yeah, I usually do a mix depending on what shoot I’m doing. If I’m going out somewhere where I know I’m going to be taking photos I never just bring my digital camera. I bring a bunch of cameras.
BR: Do you like shooting on your iPhone?
SP: Not particularly. I mean, I don’t dislike it.
BR: Is that because of the quality, or the fact that it is imbued into everyday life so it isn’t as meaningful?
SP: I think it’s probably the mix of the two. It’s mainly the lack of control, I hate not being able to play with the focus when you’re in different conditions. I definitely do it, but its more memento things, not trying to create art.
BR: Do you see the Polaroid similarly? Because that was initially the niche of the Polaroid. If not, what has changed?
SP: It’s an interesting question. I think for me, I’ve always used Polaroid to make artistic photographs as opposed to snapshots.
BR: What’s the difference between something that is “artistic” and something that’s a snapshot? The intentionality, the framing?
SP: I think it’s the intent; taking a picture of my friends out to dinner vs. wanting to create something founded in beauty and aesthetics. When I’m taking pictures of my friends, or of the sunset or something, I’m just snapping it and not thinking too much about it, whereas with a Polaroid, especially because the film is limited and so expensive, I like to think through my shots and compose them.
BR: How has your conception of composing a photograph changed? Has going to the Glasgow School of Art and learning a lot about film and composition changed the way you organize an image? Or is it always spontaneous and changing?
SP: I think it’s more the latter. I learned a lot at GSA, but it wasn’t so much about how to construct images. In Year One they go over the fundamentals, but I already had that knowledge, so I entered in Year Two.
BR: Because of your education at Bates, or was it self-taught?
SP: Yeah, mostly self-taught. And GSA was incredibly independently driven. You put into it what you want to put into it and then you get out of it what you put into it. We did have critiques, and lectures and workshops. During those things composition would be noted often, as something that was strong or weak in an image.
BR: Do you think that photography at Bates as a field of study is also very independent? How do you fit your photography into the academic setting here?
SP: A huge motivation for me to go to art school was that I felt like I wasn’t getting the full, comprehensive art education here. Part of that is being at a small liberal arts school, you aren’t in a crazy intense art program. Photography and ceramics are often pushed aside by drawing and painting, especially these days. It was really nice to be at GSA because these people had committed themselves to try and make a living out of photography. No one was there because it was “easy.” We had a lot of conversations about the difficulty of being an art student in general, responding to questions from family like: “when are you going to do the real thing with your life?” Anyway, within the photo classes here it is a lot more structured. You get four projects across a semester, everyone interprets the theme and then you look at the images together. It is always self-motivated to a point, because you have to go out and take the images, but GSA didn’t even have content matter for assignments. Our first project was to create an exhibit. Most of the students did photography, but one of the guys made a kite, another guy use a photocopying process…some of the people don’t stay within photography, which is really interesting to me. It’s completely open, free-range.
BR: Did you have a big final project?
SP: I was there the second term of their year and the project was to create an exhibition. We had to work on how to print our work, how to frame our work. We did all the things like stripping and painting the walls, curated the show and decided where each piece would go, and hung everything up. That was the project, and within that you could create whatever you wanted. The focus was learning how to create an exhibition. During the second term I was there, the project was to create a book, a group catalogue, and a group website. That was to look at vehicles through which you can express your photography. One student made a book that was a wine bottle. You can really do whatever speaks to you. It was really interesting. That was the case with most of the departments. You’re given a lot of freedom which is really cool, but it means you have to motivate yourself. It is also more intimidating.
BR: Was the environment of working towards professional presentation instead of creating a project good for you creatively?
SP: I know that having the freedom was huge, and having the ability to commit all my time to photography. I created more work during my time in Glasgow than the past three years combined. I also explored the field of fashion photography for the first time. It was rich in a lot of the ways that Lewiston, Maine is not, so it was exciting to be able to take advantage of that! In a lot of ways it was helpful in preparing me for thesis. Even though I still don’t know what exactly I’m doing, it put me in the mindset of exploring different things. I learned that I don’t always stick with my first idea. A lot of times what I intend to create ends up being just a step, and then I take the project in a completely different direction. Actually the pixel project was one such thing. I was considering making it into a bigger project but it evolved into something else and then I dropped it all together and moved onto another project, so it became a freestanding series of work.
BR: How did you come up with the idea [for the pixel project]?
SP: I was editing photos, and I accidentally zoomed-in too far into the picture. If you zoom in far enough on Photoshop you eventually expose the pixels, to the point where they are just boxes with white borders. I thought it looked so cool—I loved the interplay of colors. It was so interesting to go from a picture of a model in a field to some shades of pink and not knowing what it was. What I ended up doing first for a project was take an image, most of them were landscape images, and have a pixilated version next to it. Once I saw the effect, I went through a bunch of my images from Glasgow, found ones that had cool mixes of color and gradients and then zoomed in and cropped the image down.
BR: I think the reason we chose that collection is not only because they’re super beautiful, contemplative and abstract, but also a real commentary on our society. That is our unit of sight, but it’s so obscured under the sense that everything has to be such high definition. You don’t expect pixels to be there unless something is really slow loading.
BR: There is a sense of anxiety; it makes people nervous to see pixels. The pictures are really beautiful in and of themselves but its like, what are you really seeing? That’s the truth to the image.
SP: It’s weird; it’s weird that a little box corresponds to a number. I don’t understand that side [laughing], the mathematical technical side. I like the way it translates. It’s definitely true, in general, that if I have a pixilated image, that’s bad. But when its that pixilated, it doesn’t feel pixilated, it feels like something else, I don’t know what.
BR: So what’s your editing process like? Are you big into editing or do you try to keep the images as natural looking as possible?
SP: It really depends on the series. With the pixels I didn’t edit them, and I kept the colors the way they were. I usually change tones, and the highlights and shadows a bit. I have certain Photoshop actions that have certain tonalities and color. I use [the action] in a lot of my images that people tend to notice. For some reason I’m really drawn to it. So a lot of time I will apply that to an image, and that changes the color palette, very slight filters and the feel of the image. I don’t like to totally over-process it unless it’s an image that I want to look super processed, which I don’t do that often. Another thing, it’s a bit backwards, but a lot of the time I try to make my digital images look like film, by adding a grain to them, and that’s where the inspiration for the colors come from. A lot of times people think it’s a film image but it’s actually a digital image, which I love because that’s what I’m looking for.
BR: Are you looking to create an aesthetic experience, or is every image a commentary, or an emotional experience?
SP: That’s a really good question. It’s something I’m still grappling with, especially through thesis. I think, for the most part, its not just aesthetics, because often times I’m putting myself into the images, in the form of self-portraits. I don’t have it in my head that I’m creating an image to make people feel sad, or to make people think about this or that. It’s more that what I’m feeling ends up translating into the image and then people read that as different things. Something that frustrates me about the photo process [at Bates] is that people always ask for the meaning or the purpose, and sometimes there isn’t one, it’s just meant to be a beautiful image. It really depends, but if it’s “just about the aesthetics”, it’s not really just about the aesthetics. I don’t know how to articulate it, but there is a kind of image that makes people feel something more than “that looks nice.” I’m still trying to figure it all out, how I want to articulate it and explain it. At the end of the day, it’s more trying to create a sense of connection with the viewers. That’s the best way I can explain it.
BR: Talk a little bit about your self-portraiture.
SP: I shot all self-portraits at the beginning. When I was in Glasgow I didn’t do very much self-portraiture, I was mainly working with models and landscape. When I came back, at the beginning of thesis, we all brought in old work. I went through my website and printed a bunch of images, those that I was especially drawn to and that I thought were my strongest work. I put them all up on the wall and I found that a lot of my favorite images are my self-portraits that I have created in the past. And some of my favorite photos I took in Glasgow were some of the few occasions where I did do self-portraits. Responses from other people, from friends, other artists and professors, expressed that those were the strongest works. I think a lot of the reason is that it goes past the aesthetic image; those are the ones that have more feeling just because of the way they were created. That’s where I started the whole process, the whole journey. I’m in a completely different place now than when I was first doing self-portraits but I want to return to that with my thesis. I’m more likely to create images that I really connect with, which sounds super egotistical [laughing].
BR: You are literally face-to-face with yourself, how you were at that moment. Speaking of conceptions of self, you started a magazine for young girls? Could you take a little about that?
SP: Yeah, I’m the co-editor. Almost three years ago, in April, a singer-songwriter Freya Bennett from Australia contacted me. She had seen a feature of mine in a magazine and really liked my photos. She emailed me telling me she was creating a crowd-funding campaign and trying to create images for her album, asking if there was any chance I would like to shoot for her. So I ended up collaborating with her for over a year, creating specific images just for her album and songs. We became pretty close. She was always talking about wanting to create a magazine for teenage girls. A little less than a year ago she decided to really make it happen. She spoke to a couple women that she knew, that she thought would be interested in contributing and started collected pieces. I offered to help her with the website design, so I started with that and eventually became more and more involved. Now she considers herself the founder, and we consider ourselves to be the co-editors of the magazine. So it’s ultimately hers in a lot of ways, but I have become very attached to it. It’s been a journey, really cool and really interesting.
BR: So you publish online regularly?
SP: Yes, a couple times a week. The intended audience is teenage girls, but there is definitely stuff that’s valuable for older women, younger women, and people that don’t identify as women as well. It’s a place for viewers to contribute creative work, and hopefully find some sense of connection, get advice, be inspired. I’m in charge of the art part of it, artists features and photography galleries, things like that, but I do other things as well.
BR: Was it very hard to start, to get submissions and viewers?
SP: Freya was really committed…she reached out to every person she could think of and I reached out to some people as well. She wrote some pieces and I wrote some things. We started with a pile of pieces and when we had a good stock we launched the website. One way or another we have a constant stream of submissions. I also spend a lot of time reaching out to people asking if they would be willing to contribute. People are generally responsive to that. It’s not where she wants it to be yet; there is a lot more we want. We will do crowd-funding in half a year or something. We did get a pretty steady following within the first couple months online. We had 4,000 likes on facebook, I don’t know how that happened.
BR: Do you see that as a long-term thing?
SP: I don’t know, I would love to. At this point, we aren’t making any profit so I couldn’t support myself off it. I hope to be involved in it as long as I can in some capacity. We have an intern and people we are trying to bring on as steady contributors. There might be a point where I’m no longer as necessary; it depends on what I end up doing after I graduate. It’s very hard to predict, especially because I would have never guessed a couple months ago where I am now.
BR: That’s how it happens though right?
SP: Yeah, and its pretty cool.
BR: Are you trying to do photography after you graduate?
SP: I’m not really sure. I mean, I’m sure that I want to always be creating images. But I don’t think that I would be fully satisfied just creating art. I want to be involved with people, to help people. I hope to always be photographing, if that’s a way of generating additional income or no income at all, I don’t know. I can’t imagine my life without it.