Interview Marla Sweeney


Marla Sweeney is from Lowell, Massachusetts. She received an MFA in Photography from the State University of New York at New Paltz . She also completed the Masters Class in Photography with Stephen Shore and Larry Fink.  Her work has been exhibited widely including solo exhibitions at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City; Fotofest, Houston, Texas; Galleri Image in Arhus, Denmark; Galerie Lichtblick, Cologne, Germany; Her work is included in several permanent collections including the George Eastman House Photography Collection, Rochester, NY; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; and the Harry Ransom Center Photography Collection, Austin, TX.

About « Chance Encounters »

These are photographs of people as I find them.  They explore the tension between our personal and public selves, addressing our ideas about ourselves as a people and a culture.  The commonplace and the ordinary are in these images; there is also a sense of loneliness and isolation. There is a beauty in these common places that is both familiar and uneasy. I took these photographs in different American towns, small and large, rural and suburban.


« I’m interested in showing a sense of place through the photographs and how people live. »

What is the starting point of this series? When did you decide to work on this topic and why?
I had worked in a similar way on several other projects. There is a kind of random approach to exploring an area and photographing people I come across there. I began this when living in upstate New York and continued it from around 2001-2003. I travelled through many interesting small towns. You are fairly obvious as an outsider with a camera and so my approach was to ask people to photograph them. I’m interested in showing a sense of place through the photographs and how people live. The subjects may be posing but the photos are unstaged and the surroundings are important. Of course they are also reacting to me and the camera but I try to capture a candid, real expression.

How do you process in your preparation of your project?
I did not really do much in the way of preparation or research beyond repeatedly going to some of these areas and neighborhoods with my camera. I would sometimes research for local events where people would gather such as parades or festivals. I’m not sure I even knew if it would become a series at its initial stage. When I started to get photos and see which ones stood out and could stand together I felt I had the beginnings of a series.

Did you have any constraints in this project?
There are always time constraints and practical weather constraints shooting outside especially in the winter. I shot with film and printed my own work for this series so that was additional time spent outside of shooting. I’m a shy person so approaching people always causes some apprehension and there is a sense of rejection when people don’t want you to photograph. I realized that when I did get a successful photo I was most present and aware- on many levels -socially, physically, psychologically.

What type of camera did you use?
I shot this work with a Rolleiflex 6003. I always liked the square format. The camera itself is fairly big and interests some people. Again its obvious that I am photographing. I shot with Kodak color film and printed these as Cprints. I like the saturated colors you could achieve.

Do you have any new projects in progress ?
After this I completed a project photographing people at Beach towns in New England titled Salisbury. I’ve been photographing the surroundings and landscape more in addition to people in recent work. I would like an extended period of time to travel and photograph in USA, particularly the South. I think there are still some places that have their own character and don’t look generic.

If you had to keep one picture what would it be?
Justine- the photograph of the girl on the bench is my favorite of my photographs. Everything at that moment was perfect- the mirror was already there and the petals on the ground. To me it represents childhood innocence.

« Diane Arbus and Helen Levitt work has also influenced me. »

Can you tell me when/why you decided to be a photographer?
As an undergraduate, I studied film studies. So I was thinking about images long before picking up a camera. After college, I moved and drove cross country and bought a camera to photograph the trip.  I liked documenting things and seeing the results. I took some photography classes and later ended up at SUNY, New Paltz for MFA. My first long term project was as a grad student when I did a series at a state psychiatric hospital in New York.

your favorite photo books? your inspirations?
I have studied cinema and am influenced by it. Visually I like the style of Wim Wenders. I like photography books based on projects. Some that have influenced me are Stephen Shore’s « Uncommon Places », Larry Fink’s « Social Graces » I also like Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s series the Family Album of Lucybelle Crater. Diane Arbus and Helen Levitt work have also influenced me.


Interview Kalel Koven / In Frame


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