Personal vs. Commercial Work: An Interview with Sarah Wilmer

Mara Serdans Posted By Mara Serdans on May 9, 2016 / Comments


Sarah Wilmer has recently been exhibiting some personal work titled, “The Small Hours” at Deutsch and I had the pleasure of getting her take on photography and what inspires her. As a long-time admirer of Sarah’s work, I appreciate that each image has so much depth, emotion, perspective and craftsmanship. Whether it’s personal or commissioned, one can’t help but be immediately drawn into the story behind these rich images.


MS: What inspires you? How do you come up with new ideas for your personal projects?

SW: My driving force is a desire to do and make something meaningful that I believe in. The strangeness and impossibility of the natural world that surrounds and supports us is a great inspiration to me, as is: human activity, otherness, animals, instinct, adventure, fear, making something new, and being surprised. I come up with new ideas for my projects by living and responding: looking, thinking, working, pushing, finding the thread and trusting it.

MS: Tell me about your process for your project “The Small Hours.” How did you choose your subjects?

SW: I spent five years working on the photographs that make up The Small Hours. It was a lot of photo hunting, gathering, and sculpting of imagery to make sense of and define a specific time in my life. The creatures, people, places, feelings and ideas that are the subjects of the work, just made sense to me.

MS: Nature is a common thread across your fine art work. Tell me more about that.

SW: I had been thinking about the nature question while reading “The Reason I Jump”, by Naoki Higashida, in there, the illustrators: Kai & Sunny, put it perfectly, so I am answering your question with this quote: “We use nature in our work to connect with people, to provoke thoughts and memories. We like the idea of showing something you can’t actually see – and ask bigger questions. We use nature-based images as a metaphor for other feelings.”

MS: How do you adapt your work for commercial appeal?

SW: Commercial work, which is made with a team and a crew, is different from what I do on my own. It’s a creative collaboration with a very specific goal, and we all push each other to reach the final body of work in a way we might not otherwise achieve alone. It can be really exciting.

As my business evolved I decided to expand who I represented in the lifestyle and car world. Styles for car and lifestyle jobs can be so incredibly varied that it felt important to represent photographers with different aesthetics within these categories. Each of my car and lifestyle photographers have a unique perspective and way of shooting…and that is very important to me. The truth is that the client is going to choose whichever style works for the job, so competition is a bit of an illusion, when you have photographers with very different styles.

MS: What’s next for you? Any new projects?

SW: Yes, next up is research, development and production of my latest body of work that deals with life, death, transformation, the climate crisis, and possible future realities. I will continue to work on record artwork commissions, editorial assignments, and advertising projects.

MS: How did you get into photography? Do you have a formal education?

SW: As a child I often invented scenarios for my friends and siblings to act out, I’d use disposable, Polaroid or video cameras to document our activities. Then I would plaster the walls with 4×6 glossy machine prints from Wal-Mart’s photo lab. I didn’t know anything about art or photography, I was just having fun. As a teenager I started playing music and thought I’d study that. To fulfill a required class credit, I just happened to take a photography class at St. Louis Community College.

This introduction to photography was an integral step for me and completely changed the direction of my life. I learned so much and discovered a whole new world to go into. Watching my first image appear in the dark room was total magic. I loved the whole process and this was also the first time in my life that I realized I could be an artist. I moved to Portland, Oregon and studied fine art at Pacific Northwest College of Art for one year, then went on to study at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.

MS: How has your work evolved over the years?

SW: The formal elements of my work has shifted over the years, but I believe the essence (that indescribable thing that makes it my own) remains consistent in my body of work.