La Pietra Blues
Photography by Sabrina Banta
In Conversation with Mikkel Rosengaard
Sabrina Banta, the Founder and Editor In Chief of Tabula Rasa Magazine, speaks to Mikkel Rosengaard, Danish writer and novelist, about her photography, unapologetic art, and shutting up when you don’t have anything to tell.
Sabrina Banta’s photographs border the cinematic. The Hawaii native and founder of Tabula Rasa Magazine is unafraid to use techniques more frequent in film in her work – casting models according to their personality, creating discomfort between cast members, even incorporating a model’s mother into a shot – all to elicit convincing emotional responses from her models. Banta’s photography lies somewhere between fashion photography, cinema and the elaborately staged compositions of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Eileen Cowin. For her Tabula Rasa contribution, Banta situated her cast within fictional tableaus, depicting scenes reminiscent of her own life as a student at an all-girls high school in Honolulu, HI. Shooting her story on film with the very same camera she used as a teenage photography student, Banta is re-enacting her own memories through staged compositions, while also playing with the coincidental nature of film photography. Her photos— carefully orchestrated, with a strong narrative element —often explore how clothing is used to construct identities. Images of girls in self-altered school uniforms, a student doing her make-up, and a pre-party dress-up ritual are among Banta’s motifs, bringing to mind the insecurities of adolescence as well as the power of clothing to carry personal narratives.
While finishing her BFA at Parsons the New School for Design, Banta founded Tabula Rasa Magazine, a print publication devoted to exploring fashion photography outside of the producer-consumer relationship. With the magazine selling in stores and galleries in Copenhagen, Tokyo and New York, Banta is currently busy preparing the next issue, tending to her job at Baron + Baron, and working on other projects on the side. Late one evening, however, Banta found the time to speak about Tabula Rasa and her own photography, the latter of which has been lying dormant for a few months while she has focused on art direction projects. Her stint away from the camera doesn’t seem to faze Banta, despite her deep interest in the relationship between photography and clothing, identity and fashion. Curious about visual culture in all its forms, Banta is already expanding her work into new areas.
Mikkel Rosengaard: Most of this series is shot at your old high school. Tell me something about your reasons for going back to this phase of your life?
Sabrina Banta: I wanted to involve myself in a project that required a lot of time and research. I just got sick of testing with models all the time, having to take pictures really quick. That got really frustrating. I became tired of looking for inspiration outside of myself, trying to fabricate a perfect balance between assuming another person’s identity or story and using my own style to show that. When my thesis came around, I wanted to shoot something that felt more personal to me. I wanted to draw from my own experiences so I started looking through my old journals, just seeing how I’ve gotten to where I am today. How I’ve grown.
MR: So you were re-creating these scenes from your own life as a teenager. How do you go about staging photos like that? How do you set it up?
SB: The casting played a big part in that. The main character, Rebecca was the youngest of the models I worked with. In high school, when you are 14 and the other girl is 16, it feels like that girl is much older than you even though it’s only a 2-year age gap. So I purposely chose girls that were older than her, and a lot them were also friends or already knew each other. Because of her age difference and unfamiliarity with the rest of the cast, Rebecca was uncomfortable and I could sense the discomfort. It was very intentional. I wanted her to feel the pressure to overcompensate and act older to fit in with this group of girls. I had an initial meeting with her where I had discussed how I envisioned her role and she immediately related because she’s currently attending the same high school where I too was a student. At first she was surprised I approached her for the project because she has braces and no one wants to photograph her because of it – I looked at her and said that’s exactly why I want to photograph you.
MR: It seems to me like you’re trying to blur the relation between reality and fiction with a series like this. What is it about this grey area that interests you?
SB: It’s like documenting a performance. And I think that is very interesting, blurring those lines. How much of this is real and how much is not? One element that was less staged in this series, however, were the characters we created. For this series, I wanted models that were actually in high school because I wanted a sense of authenticity. The casting process involved initial conversations with the girls, and I ended up choosing the final 6 according to their personalities and the specific characters I had in mind. This one girl came in for the casting with pounds of makeup on, the shortest dress, and had such an attitude. Under any other normal circumstances, I would never consider her for a project but she was that “bitchy” girl—the girl whose mom has given up on her and her behavior is out of control. I didn’t even have to tell her to play that role, she just was that way.
MR: A lot of the photos in this story relate to dressing up and staging oneself as a person. There is one photo of the girls dressing up before a party, another of a girl putting on make-up. What is it about all this dressing up that interests you?
SB: I think it is fascinating, in terms of just the basics, how clothing is our uniform. It is how people at a first glance judge us; it serves as a display of how we wish to be perceived. There is a lot of staging that goes into that. With Tabula Rasa, in general, it is a magazine centered on clothes and how clothes factor into our identity. So I was thinking, what was a piece of clothing that had a big impact on my life? And I thought: my school uniforms. Because I wore them four days a week (we had free dress Fridays), around 200 days out of a year for six years. That’s a really long time to wear pieces of clothing that have been chosen for you. In a way, my friends and I would rebel against that on the weekends, trying to personify a more adult version of ourselves, so that’s what I wanted to return to, the act of getting ready before a party with all your friends, dressing up, how ritualistic of a practice it becomes. It’s such an essential part of being a teenage girl. We would feed off each other’s energy and not walk out of the door unless we had everyone’s approval. To be honest, I look back on it, and it kind of seems like a cult.
MR: You shot this series on film and you also run a print only magazine. Why do you think you are drawn to these offline technologies in an age of smart phones and social media?
SB: It was a very intentional choice to shoot these images on film, because I wanted it to feel nostalgic. I actually went back to Hawaii and saw my old photo teacher and I said I wanted to use the camera I learned from back then, a Pentax K1000, when I first ventured in the dark room. In regards to why the printed medium, I always crave something tactile. I crave something I can touch, so I get frustrated with digital photography. It is too fast. One of my favorite photos from the series, where the girls are walking, was not even staged. That one photo was a complete happy accident. I didn’t tell them to walk. They were just walking to the next shot, on their phones, couldn’t give a shit, and I was just there and took a picture. I only have one, and that’s it. There is something beautiful about that. That’s it. I don’t have 500 variations of the same picture. That was a decisive moment, and that is hard to replicate.
MR: You often hear with photography that you can go from fine art to fashion, while it is difficult to go the other way around. With your work falling in the borderland between fashion and art, is it important to you that fashion photography is taken more seriously?
SB: Yes. In photography, people don’t like that “in-between.” You know, they like to put you in a specific category. Is this a fine arts piece that goes on a wall in a gallery, or is it something that goes in a magazine? But a lot of the time with my stories, there is no indication of me trying to sell anything with the pictures, and I don’t think it needs to be so black and white. With fashion photography, most people associate it with a white background, Richard Avedon, beautiful clothing, beautiful girls. But why can’t it be a photographer like Gregory Crewdson or Alex Prager, who does these very stylized pictures? Those photographers are projected into the art world, but they use clothes incredibly much to aid their visual narrative, and still it is not considered fashion. But fashion photography is just photography using clothes. The problem with fashion photography today is that it has become so attached to commerce and making money that it can’t even be taken seriously as an art form. And I think it should, because at the end of the day, if you are talking about people, clothing is a big part of it.
MR: You are obviously drawn to staged and narrative photography, but your photos are still very realistic. How do you relate to staged photography that is more fantastical or ironic in nature, like the work of Cindy Sherman, Bruce Charlesworth and Nic Nicosia?
SB: I look at images every day and in this extremely saturated world there are two things that I look for when I view photography; that is the aesthetics of the photograph and the photographer’s “hand” or intention. I am always attracted to photographers that are unapologetic in the work they produce. You can tell the image is just an extension of the photographer as a person – that they are quirky or somber or curious, and that is why their photographs look that way too.
MR: So this is almost a romanticist idea. That there is some sort of kernel or essence in every photographer that comes out through their art. Do you believe in this idea?
SB: I guess so. Take a tried example, like Ryan McGinley. Everyone deviated towards his images because he is that awkward hipster dude. Obviously he maximized on it, but that is who he is. Or take Terry Richardson, his sexually perverse nature is reflected in his photos. They are by no means the photographers I idolize or draw inspiration from, but they are extreme examples of how their photographs reflect who they are as people, and they are not shying away from it. And that’s all they shoot, because that’s all they are. There’s something to be said about that. You know, rather than trying so hard to be someone else.
MR: So who are you? An insecure high school girl from Hawaii?
SB: That’s not far from what I am [laughs]. No, but that’s always an interesting question because sometimes you change and your work should reflect that. It was even funny, at the time when I was shooting this story, I felt really insecure even being around these teenage girls again. All those feelings came back, and I thought, what the fuck is going on? These are little 16 year old girls, how are they making me feel intimidated?
MR: But let us try to get closer to this kernel of yours. Let us say you could shoot whatever you wanted every week and make a living from it. What would you shoot?
SB: I wouldn’t know. I really wouldn’t know and that’s kind of what I realized with my photography. Who am I? What do I need to depict anymore? And that’s why I went back to my past with this series, because so much of my life has been about moving forward, just going from one thing to the next and less about experiences, sadly. So I was thinking, when was a time when my life wasn’t just about moving forward? I think that is why I deviate more towards working with and hearing other people’s stories, because I don’t have too much to tell.
MR: That is a brave thing to say. I don’t think a lot of people in your industry would dare admit to that.
SB: It's the truth. Honesty can be a breath of fresh air in this business, but it’s also what I seek from other photographers I work with because I want to see more of that in the “fashion” context—honesty, integrity, so it becomes less artificial. I’m also not going to force myself to take pictures just because that’s what I’m “supposed to do” if I don’t feel compelled to document anything. That’s why when people come to me with a concept for Tabula Rasa or another project, in some ways I assume the role of an actor. I start researching everything: how do I depict this, how do I make this happen and do their ideas justice? I always get so engrossed in other people’s ideas and personal narratives, and in making it a reality for them. I’ve been finding more joy in that.