She resists the tendency to make her shots about the subject; instead, she is drawn to the way light interacts with the objects within the picture, sometimes obscured beyond recognition. Indirect light from a north-facing window seeps in consistently throughout the day, giving her time to construct an image slowly, with the curves of fabric hanging on a wall creating interesting shadows and ghostly shapes.
Her exhibition, “Seen/Unseen,” remains on display through July 16 at [Artspace] at Untitled.
Stern didn’t pick up a camera until she was 35. Attending a photography school in New York City that was heavy into photojournalism, she realized she was a “round peg in a square hole” after showing her instructor a series of shots of strangers in her apartment.
“He told me, ‘You’re not photographing the kids; you’re photographing the light,’” Stern said. “And I was too embarrassed to say, ‘Yeah, now that you mention it, I am.’ I would also have instructors tell me to stop worrying about the craft and just figure out what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. I can’t say what I want to say until the image looks the way I want it to look.”
Her work harkens back to her father’s substantial collection of abstract expressionist paintings, where the emotional response was meant to begin with the entirety of the image, rather than subjects within it. One work in her “Animus” series contains a skull on a pedestal, obscured behind fabric. Light pours across like steam, giving the impression of a meticulously painted canvas, rather than a photo.
“It is like drawing with light and shadow,” Stern said. “I’m composing the image with light, and it can be a very frustrating, slow process. ... It really is quite maddening.”