Beate Sass, a self-taught artist based in Decatur, became fearful that her memories of her parents would fade to mere shadows after they were gone. For the last five years, Sass has collaborated with her father to photograph moments in his daily routine during her visits to New Mexico, her childhood home. The colors of the desert, the mountains, and the light of the Southwest are all intertwined with her feelings for her father. Her project led to the solo-exhibition, Beate Sass: A Good Life, which will open with a reception on August 17th in the Ted and Gloria Maloof Gallery at APG. Esther Griffin talked to Sass about this very personal project.
Before we moved to the South, my husband and I were living in San Francisco where I was studying at UCSF to become a physical therapist. When we moved to Atlanta seven years ago, I found myself immersed in a totally new environment. I immediately took to the streets with my camera. My intention was to familiarize myself with the culture by meeting the people of this region, and to listen to their stories. I typically am a shy and private person, but somehow when I have my camera in my hand, I feel more comfortable approaching people and striking up a conversation. Likewise, people will often approach me and are curious to know what I am photographing and why. My camera is a conversation starter. In a way, the way I interact with people on the streets or in the community is not so different from what I do as a physical therapist, which is to observe and listen.
What do you find is the biggest challenge in photographing people?
The most important thing is to gain somebody’s trust and that takes time. I know there are some street photographers who go out and go ‘click, click, click’ and who are not interested in engaging their subjects. For me, what is most meaningful is the ability to establish a rapport with the individual I want to photograph whether that happens on the streets or in someone’s home. When I can make the individual comfortable, we can then collaborate in the process of creating a picture. It is at that point that I believe I am able to create the most successful images.
In your project, My Mother’s Last Gift, you photographed your mother as her health declined until she passed away in June 2013. In this project, A Good Life, you focus on your dad. Both these projects are very personal and stem from your desire to create tangible memories of your parents. What made you decide to share these photos with the world and what do you hope that people will see in them?
By sharing these images with others I am telling my story. I hope people will understand what I was experiencing and feeling through these pictures. It is interesting, regarding the project My Mother’s Last Gift, I have a hard time looking at those pictures now; they are too painful. Up until my mother became ill, I had not taken many pictures of my parents. Perhaps I was in denial and did not want to consider their mortality. When my mother was placed in hospice care, I spent more time with her, sometimes just being quiet, being in her presence, observing, soaking in every little essence of her. The photos of my mother capture her decline but by photographing her I was etching her very being into my heart. When the time comes, I don’t think I will do that with my father. My father is such a vibrant person. I want the images that I capture of him to celebrate his life, the vigor with which he lives every day. The time we have collaborated in creating these pictures has also brought us closer together. We laugh and have fun during the process. He is so flattered that I am taking pictures of him and have created this project. In fact, he is flying out to Atlanta for the opening of A Good Life.
How do you capture that life in the photos?
I watch him like a hawk! And, I know when I’ve got a picture. I can feel that something is coming, something is unfolding. It is a feeling that I get, because of a particular look or gesture. When you know somebody in such an intimate way, you can almost predict what is coming next and be ready with the camera.
Does the fact that he is your father and you know each other so well, make it is easier, or can it also make the project in some ways more difficult?
Both. In some ways, it is more difficult for me to photograph the familiar and capture something new and fresh. On the other hand, when you know your subject on such an intimate level, it becomes easier to anticipate their gestures and actions. There is a greater likelihood of capturing an authentic moment. There is a look my father will always give me when we are joking around or when one of us says something funny; he will raise one eyebrow and give me that look that is so Dad. I was able to capture that look in one of the photographs in this exhibit.
But then again, when I look at the photo where he is falling asleep in the chair I think that could be my Dad!
I do think there is something universal in these pictures. If someone can look at one of the photos of my dad and have it evoke a fond memory of their father, I think that would be a very nice thing. In terms of the particular picture you are speaking of, when I walked into his study he appeared to be asleep in his chair. I noticed this gorgeous light coming in through the window that illuminated his head propped up by his hand. I tiptoed around very carefully to compose the picture and of course the camera goes, click, click, and he says, "Beate, I know you are there!" Even though he knew I was there, he patiently waited until I was finished to move.
You usually go for the spontaneous pictures?
Definitely. The one pseudo-staged photo was the pool picture, in which he is looking at me. He was at water aerobics and I said, ‘Dad, don’t look at me, just do your aerobics.’ But after a full hour, I hadn’t captured anything. So, I said, ‘Dad, come over here, come talk to me for a minute.’ As he rested at the side of the pool it was at that moment when I noticed the beautiful light coming in through the window illuminating his face. I said, ‘That’s it! Hold it right there,’ and I took the picture. My dad is so photogenic. He has these chiseled facial features and piercing blue eyes. He is natural in front of the camera. He is not self-conscious which makes it easier for me to photograph him.
Do you have a favorite photo of your dad?
I think it is the picture where he is resting at the side of the pool. I love it because he is at his most vulnerable, yet there is something regal and powerful about his look. He is vulnerable because he is undressed. He was willing to expose all his wrinkles, blemishes, and moles, and open himself up to me. It was as if he were saying, 'Here, this is who I am.' I love that picture, I will always remember him that way.
Do you have favorite artwork by other artists that decorates your wall and where do you draw your inspiration from?
I tend to be a minimalist. Most of the art in my house is from the Southwest or folk art from the Southeast. I have some pottery, paintings, woodcut prints, and weavings. Two of my favorite photographs of my dad are on the wall. When it comes to inspiration, I rely on the internet, museums, galleries, and my colleagues here at APG. Georgia O’Keeffe is an artist who I draw a lot of inspiration from. I love her use of color and negative space, and her sense of composition. Of course people are my ultimate inspiration.