Primal Sight: Sadie Cook and Efrem Zelony-Mindell in Conversation
Primal Sight, published by Gnomic Books, is curated by the one and only, Efrem Zelony-Mindell. The book is a collection of works by 146 artists, with essays by David Campany and Gregory Eddi Jones. The project surveys the state of contemporary black-and-white photography and includes the works of intergenerational, interdisciplinary, and intersectional artists, each questioning the perceived order of things. These interrogations center on issues of race, gender, philosophy, and praxis, subverting traditional notions of black-and-white imagery into something feral and queered, possessed of previously unimagined possibilities.
These works embody a mastery of what is strengthened or weakened by the light inside them. Beyond our individual differences, there exist universal commonalities in the ways humans try to make sense of the world; as our fluency with visual vocabulary changes, these images change accordingly.
Primal Sight has been featured as a collected portfolio of 25 works in DEAR DAVE, Magazine as well as a 26 artist online group show at In the In-Between.
Sadie Cook makes anxious pictures around queerness, delicacy, and touch. Photographing makes Sadie very aware of her own body. When shooting, she feels very vulnerable and very powerful–like a thing with no skin and big claws. For a long time, she worked solely in book format. Now, Sadie works in books, in drugstore prints, in taped together scans, and in highway billboards.
Sadie holds a B.A. in Art from Yale University. She is the recipient of numerous grants, residencies, and fellowships, including a Sudler Award for exceptional achievement, and a Fulbright Grant for the arts. Her work has been published and shown nationally and internationally. IG @sadieicc
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is a white non-binaray curator, writer, and artist. Some of their curatorial endeavors include group shows: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, and This Is Not Here. They have written about art for FOAM, Unseen, DEAR DAVE, Rocket Science Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. Their first book n e w f l e s h, published by Gnomic Book and shortlisted for the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award 2020, is available now and is in the collections at MoMA, The MET, the Whitney Museum of American Art, TATE, Art Institute of Chicago, and 41 other libraries and archives around the world. Efrem is currently working on their second book, Primal Sight, due later this year. They work, write, lecture, and live in New York.
Sophie Cook: Efrem! I love you! The first time I met you, we were standing in a gallery and I was so nervous about meeting THE curator of n e w f l e s h that I couldn’t bring myself to show you my new work. Then you asked me to be in Primal Sight. Now, a year later, we are so close to holding that book in our hands.
Right up until I saw the book’s layout, I imagined something different. I’d always seen the monochromatic aspect of my work as in dialogue with historical photographers. I imagined a book that felt like an homage to history–something a bit distant and nostalgic. But Primal Sight isn’t at all like that. It’s beautiful and sharp and brutal and contemporary and sometimes so angry that it’s painful. To misquote Gregory Eddi Jones’ essay, it feels more like a fuck you to history than a call back to it. I’ve never seen anything like it. How did the tone of this project start to take form? Did you know it would feel like this from the outset?
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: I’m grateful to have just realized in this moment, I have the opportunity to profess that I’ve been trained my whole life to feel most comfortable in terror.
Yes. From its onset I knew I wanted Primal Sight to be something sharp and formidable. The feral looker that sinks inside me is something I wanted to project back out into the pages of this book. I’ve come to accept that having the opportunity to face such uncertainty epitomizes what my very humanness is. What our collective humanness is. That bridge into these extreme emotions is why I think Greg’s essay hits so hard and why the images and the design of the book seem to shout even when they’re achingly silent. In a lot of ways I like to think of Primal Sight as a horror novel, a genre I’ve been obsessed with even since I was a kid.
What did you feel in that moment when I asked you to participate in Primal Sight?
S: God, that invitation was a rollercoaster. I was smiling so much my face hurt, and each time I opened a text, I was sure it was you telling me you made a mistake. After a few weeks, I began to think critically about the project and I felt wary. Primal Sight will be the first time my work is in a book. I think so much about how photography is a medium uniquely defined by context. My picture, in different situations could be an advertisement or smarmy art or revenge porn. Black and white seemed almost as arbitrary as photographs by people with names that start with S. I trusted you, but who knew what sort of aftertaste all those grey pictures would leave on my photographs?
You know, I wonder if you think about things like this sometimes. Like, it’s so crazy. You’re making something new out of all these artists’ work. Does it ever, like freak you out that you might be contextualizing in a way that hurts the picture?
Zelony-Mindell: If you want my heart, you can have it. Thanks for the way you expressed this Sadie!
In a way it terrifies me, but only if I don’t get to talk to the artist at least once. I have the privilege to make my art as a curator in what really feels like ten inches of space. Having a background in making affords me an understanding of how curation is a form of artistic expression. Curating pictures is painting in my head and in my hands. Having the support and confidence of the artists I work with is key. In those ten inches I’m totally free.
S: Yes! That sounds like a beautiful and dangerous feeling.
You know, if you had invited me to be in your horror movie photography book, it would have made much more sense to me from the outset. I’ve always loved that as it gets darker and darker, our eyes stop seeing color and the world turns monochromatic. But for you, why a black and white horror movie? Is there something inherently horrific about a lack of color? You’ve always said that you like to make work that challenges you. What challenged you about black and white?
Zelony-Mindell: It could have just as easily been a horror movie in color. I wouldn’t say n e w f l e s h is particularly THAT easy to look at. That realization in and of itself is most certainly a kind of horror. But I actually just noticed something, and I don’t mean to split hairs. I said horror novel, which is a thing that quite literally happens in black and white, motionless words on a page when strung together just right create a current of progression. I know it may seem extra to draw such a line, but it’s an interesting distinction when I think about the difference between a novel and a film. I was definitely thinking about the horror novels I was reading growing up and how the language in those books, like Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite came to influence how I think about still images and sequencing them in such a way that creates a kind of visual motion throughout Primal Sight.
To lack anything is most assuredly a means for concern. When you lack something it means that two things will likely slip in, desperation and scrutiny. Both are signs of opportunity; they suggest that there’s something that needs considering, figuring out, piecing together. In a moment where we feel something is lacking we allow ourselves to adapt to a situation. We become it, and transform with it. The terror of that uncertainty is our body’s way of letting us know that we may think we have something to lose. It’s in that vulnerable scary ass moment that, personally, makes me want to go swimming.
Black-and-white photography challenges me because it provides these opportunities! The world feels far more inventive and creative. Black-and-white imagery is a ticket to exploration.
S: Huh, that’s so interesting. When I shoot, I feel that terrifying uncertainty. But I don’t ever even think about a lack color. It’s hard to describe, but shooting in black and white feels less like pulling color out of the world, and more like entering a whole new world.
You know, you have a tendency to curate your books based on lack–a lack of bodies in n e w f l e s h, a lack of color in Primal Sight. I wonder if there’s something that draws you to artists who refuse a dominant visual language and flail around in their own worlds instead. I hate to pigeonhole you, but the way you talk about black and white sounds a lot like the way someone could talk about queerness. I know you as a queer curator and a queer artist. Do you see links between your work with queerness and your work with Primal Sight? Is there anything queer about that book? (aside from me lol)
Zelony-Mindell: SADIE!!!! SHHHHHH! JEEZ! Don’t give it ALL away! DAMN! haha
Dude. Of course! Nail hit on the head. Queerness is not individualistic. It’s adaptive, theoretical, free form, free flight. Queerness can be in a body, but it bends and plays outside for us to wield into the way we live our lives and the way we think, speak, and see. Working with a lack of is actually a very natural state that I grew up in, not just as a poor queer kid, but as someone who never really knew how to be anything other than myself. This, more often than not, surfaced in a fluid spectrum of ways that a dear friend once referred to as, “WILDLY inappropriate.”
I like cheap materials, like gunpowder and gasoline, you know what they have in common? They’re cheap.
I also think I was raised by and looked up to a lot of kookie insane pop stars and artists. (I still do.) Jim Carrey stands out in my mind a lot as of late actually. I don’t think I’ve ever really addressed it before but that man, and those movies, especially Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, had an insanely powerful and lasting effect on who I wanted to be, and who I’ve become.
I’ve gotten a bit off the rails here, but think it’s all interconnected to the core of your question. Play is a very formidable thing. I was allowed to have that freedom and privilege to experience growing up. It’s integral to making anything. Maybe it’s better to live in one’s own head. Besides the lie of it all is much more honest. The world that blooms in our mind is much more organic because we invented it. Queerness is just a jumping off point. What’s so deeply rewarding about it [queerness], to me, is it’s inclusivity and togetherness. It transmogrifies and reconfigures even the most unlikely things. We just have to allow it too.
There’s also something very literally queer about Primal Sight. As things came together I noticed there were many different themes, stories, and narratives happening inside the book at once. One of those things happening inside the book is, there’s a group of 20-30 year old queer folx who I don’t think know one another just yet, but are absolutely peers. Then there’s this 30-40 year old queer peer group that know one another and the 20-30 year olds know of. And then there’s a 40+ group of queer folx in the book too that feel like an upper echelone of influence that the 20-40 year olds look to in the work they make! It’s fascinating to see how this generational narrative came together because, as I’m happy to confess, I didn’t intentionally set out to have that happen. It was clearly just lurking around in my subconscious somewhere.
Would you mind talking about entering into that whole new world when you’re shooting black-and-white? I’m possessed by different peoples feelings on why black-and-white.
S: Hmm, that’s such a lovely answer. In an odd way, along with everything else, this book feels a bit like one of those old victorian albums of calling cards. Like, I go through it, and I see so many people that I want to talk to. That’s why I’ve been bugging you to get us all together in a digital primal party.
Also, omg that question!!!! I’ve been asked that so many times in so many different studio visits. To be honest, I’m not totally sure. It feels right to make black and white work. To me, at first glance, black and white feels kind of arty, and nostalgic. But that prettiness/monochrome distance means that you might stay with pictures of difficult things a little longer. I want my viewer to choose to continue to look. I want that complicity.
Of course, there’s also HISTORY. I love Diane Arbus, Larry Clark and Lee Freidlander. That said, when I make straight photographs, I feel so female and so queer. I wanted to push into that feeling. I didn’t want to break the mold, just push its sides a little bit to make a shape for me.
But the simplest answer is that I love black and white. I love how light looks. I love how textures rhyme with each other. How else could I make skin rhyme with clouds? When I remove color, it can make everything feel so wonderful, uneasy, and strange. Just like being a person in the world feels wonderful, uneasy, and strange so much of the time.
And it’s so satisfying to build a whole world in black and white and then rip it open with a color photograph.
I brought up history again, so now we really gotta go into the history question? You can’t make a book on black and white photography and not think about history. Tell me!
Zelony-Mindell: A primal party sounds like quite a time! I’m so down.
I’m really glad to hear you allow black-and-white photography, not just its history, but the grace and humanity of your emotions, of its emotions. For me the core of Primal Sight, and indeed image making in this way, needs to be far less canonical and allowed to explore far more personal interpretations. Black-and-white feels like a story that needs some sort of figuring out . . . some assembly required/objects may appear closer than they actually are.
YES! Back to history because it is an important piece of the puzzle! We can’t make black-and-white imagery without engaging with history. Also as an aside, I would also say we can’t make photography without entering into a history of whiteness as well! So to connect back up to what you were saying early on about Greg’s essay, 255, I absolutely DO mean for Primal Sight to act as a sort of fuck you to history. But every best f-u is not without its agents of the past. There are absolutely some canonical figures in Primal Sight. They’ve had their time, some still are having their time, but today is a different day and the histories that those artists have solidified are great, but the future of these canonical figures narrative’s are going to be, and were always going to be, in the hands of those who come after the maker. The pictures of the past are inherited by those in the present; those pictures and histories will find new voice through conversing with what’s happening now.
The only way to drive forward is for those of us making now to find new ways to add voice to what was, what is, and what will be. THAT’S how new ideas are formed from the histories of established institutions and figures. My greatest hope is that one day someone will tear all us young contemporary folx down so that those future artists might realize what our work will be capable of in the future.
S: Speaking of tearing down histories, assumptions and protocols, you did something entirely unexpected a few weeks ago. You released Primal Sight as a pdf for free online. When you texted me that you did that, I had this moment where I was so boggled that someone could do that, that I just blinked at the screen for a few seconds. Can you talk about why? Did you have doubts?
Zelony-Mindell: Everyone should have doubts about the things they do! It means they’ve got shit to figure out, and important work to do.
The why is complicated. It crisscrosses and could be answered in many different ways. I don’t mean that as an excuse, I just want to preface with that because I’m going to answer the why on a very personal level.
The only way for me to truly understand the thing I’ve made is to allow it to go have adventures that I’ll never know about, that I’ll never understand or see. Maybe one day someone will tell me how much it meant to them, or how they saw it and it may totally blow my mind. Or maybe it’ll be totally in line with how I saw it. Perhaps it will feel like a message in a bottle coming home. Either way, I’m currently at my ultimate level of being with the things that I make. If I want to learn anything else from them that isn’t already answered by the object itself I have to let it go.
Also, we already do this in the world of independent publishing and artists’ books. There’s almost always a beautiful flip through video of books. Making Primal Sight available in this way just makes sense to me. I don’t mean to boil this down to right or wrong, but allowing people to access the book digitally is just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing in my mind, and it’s in line with the mission of the publication. It can’t take away from it, it only adds to whatever it already means because this is just something else it’s capable of.
I can’t help but feel like you have similar feelings and desires with your own images and their relationship to ownership, viewership, etc?
S: I was so touched by the gesture of putting that book up online as a pdf. When I was little, it would have meant the world to me to have a REAL photobook, even a real photo book pdf.
You know, one of the things I love most about photographs is how many different forms they can take. And none of those forms are any less true or real than any other. The print I make at CVS isn’t any less of a photograph than the print I make in a lab, or the picture on my website. So it makes so much sense to me that a photo book could exist in the same way–both as pdf and printed object, and one wouldn’t detract from the other. A painting could never exist like that.
Zelony-Mindell: Sharing our work in these ways is projected to us as such a “problem,” like we should be scared of it. It’s projected that way because the institution and market of art NEEDS is to be true. Where in fact it’s a benefit! All those forms of your photographs you describe ARE THE PHOTO! The production, execution, and materials embellish and elaborate the work in a visual, visceral, and tangible way. Just like making a physical book, or flip through video, and even a pdf available online. It IS wild to think of all the lives art can embody simply from the way it’s produced or presented. There’s so much freedom and power there in that potential. Why should we be afraid of keeping our work to ourselves if we are able and have the means to share it?
S: Yes! It’s the most incredible thing! Pictures are so fluid, while, simultaneously so stuck in the particular moment of time they depict. Ugh, dude, it’s crazy. I just love this medium so much.
Well, it’s been weeks, and I love you, but we’ve written five pages and it’s almost time for us to give this to the Lenscratchers. So, to wrap up, how are you doing, my darling?
Zelony-Mindell: Here’s a quote that some people may recognize and others may not. Either way, it’s exactly how I’d like to answer. And at this point, I think psychologically, exactly the edge on which a lot of us may be, or feel like we’re, standing on when we think about how’s doing:
“He come to me with money in his hand, he offered me, I didn’t ask him. I wasn’t knocking someone’s door down, I was running from that. When I got out, I was in that, I was already through that. I had that. I had the studio, I went to the studio. I went to Fox Studios! I had it all. And I looked at it and said, “This a bigger jail than I just got out of.” I don’t want to take my time going to work. I got a motorcycle and a sleeping bag . . . What the hell do I want to go off to and go to work for? Work for what, money?! I GOT ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD! I’m the king man, I run the underworld, guy. I decide whose does what and where they do it at! What am I gonna run around actin’ like I’m some teenybopper somewhere for someone else’s money? I make the money man. I roll the nickels. The game is mine. I deal the cards.”
Thanks for this Sadie.
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