Your Best Photos Are Only Your Best For Now
A tortured path to find his best images led Mark Sommerfeld, eventually, to a photobook
Mark Sommerfeld’s new photobook has humble beginnings. Midway through the process of shooting and preparing a portfolio with the images, a friend’s choice words helped him see that the work was far from his best. He returned to sift through the negatives with renewed discipline and found, to his surprise, that the images told him a story of their own. The finished product is For Now, a sensual collection of scenes with strangers and friends.
I spoke with Mark about the images, his process, and the heartbreak of faint praise during a project’s adolescence.
Emily von Hoffmann: You’ve described your new photobook “For Now” as telling a “joyful, perplexing and subtly erotic story,” taking place over four years in 18 cities. Can you tell us more about the concept of the book, and how these eclectic images fit together?
Mark Sommerfeld: Last year I was preparing a portfolio for the New York Times Portfolio review. I felt the context of the photos I wanted to share, along with the photos themselves made for a powerful portfolio and story. My friend Marra disagreed, bluntly. She said, “These aren’t your best photographs and the story will be foggy to someone who doesn’t know the details.”
I was too close to the experience to see the photos objectively. It was a mess, mostly because I didn’t want to let go of the story behind the photos; it was traumatic. With grace and some convincing, she prodded me to identify photos I thought were my favourite, or strongest photos, not photos I thought might seem significant for an esoteric or emotional reason. It was more difficult than expected but the push I needed at the time, in my life and my practice.
This conversation was the main impetus to start working on the collection that became ‘For Now.’ At the time I was shooting non-stop. I’m grateful my friend helped me pause. I was shooting mostly one-off, candid travel photographs and portraits of friends and strangers.
When I seriously considered making a book with these photos, I sifted through the negatives in search of a story and themes began to appear. I discovered intentions and themes I didn’t see in my own work but which came as no surprise when laid out in front of me. It was an education.
EvH: How did you plan your travels for this project? Are most of the images’ subjects people you already knew, or else how did you go about meeting the subjects of your portraits?
MS: The subjects in ‘For Now,’ are mostly friends, maybe a third are strangers. During this time I was always carrying a camera so whether the photographs were taken while traveling, or as outtakes from another shoot, they’re all pretty spontaneous. I’ve always liked the way Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about reacting to your surroundings instead of looking for scenes to photograph. As much as any, I like to think this was a guiding principle to the photos in ‘For Now.’
EvH: Can you describe one or two of your favorite images from the collection, and the situation surrounding them? What makes these particularly affecting or surprising or lucky?
MS: Two of my favourites are ‘Nap,’ and ‘Mona Lisa’s Squad’ (below). ‘Nap’ was shot in the East Village, Manhattan in a park/picnic area. The man in the photo was asleep or meditating, he didn’t notice me. There’s not much to it. I love the stillness alongside his sunglasses and headphones which both add an element of mystery to the scene. What is he listening to!?
‘Mona Lisa’s Squad,’ was shot in Coombs Old Country Market in Coombs, British Columbia. My girlfriend and I were on a road trip from Tofino to Fernie and we stopped at Coombs because, well, they have goats on the roof! Real goats! Anyway, it’s this eclectic market full of health foods, local fare and knick knacks from around the World. I was framing the two Mona Lisa paintings in my viewfinder and I saw these boys walking into frame. It was a lucky surprise.
EvH: You’re currently in Flint, Michigan, the site of a national tragedy and governmental failure to protect vulnerable residents from lead poisoning via the city’s water. Can you share any details of your work there? What led you to Flint, and what kind of story do you hope to tell?
MS: Yes, I just returned from Flint. You’re right, it is a tragedy, laced with human error.
I went to university in Detroit and have been keen, but until now inactive, with what’s happening in Michigan since graduation. Its natural landscape is similar to Southwestern Ontario, where I grew up, but it’s history is much different. I think this is one of the reasons I’m drawn to stories in Michigan. It’s a familiar landscape with unfamiliar stories. I think any new place has the potential to blow our minds and teach us things about ourselves, humanity.
It’s a fascinating city with optimistic, hopeful people despite the fear and confusion of being neglected by all levels of government for decades. The people I met welcomed me with open arms. Surely I’ve only begun to scrape the surface, I’m eager to learn more about Flint and its people.
I started reading about the water crisis when it became national news last year. Finishing ‘For Now,’ helped me realize I want to work on site specific photo projects. My aim is to make a photo book or series of books that shed light on Flint and Flint River, including but not limited to the water crisis and Flint’s history (last century). Focusing on specific symbols and areas of Flint and Flint River along with abstract landscapes and alternative printing methods, I am not thinking of this work as pure documentary photography.
EvH: Who are some artists or creatives in any medium who give you joy right now?
MS: I recently received a book of interviews with and essays by Wolfgang Tillmans, and I’m devouring it. Otherwise, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ryan Heffington, Jennifer Castle, Francis Bacon, Alec Soth, Jeff Bierk, Mary Oliver, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Lou Doillon and Louis C.K. have all managed to bring me joy recently.