interview with mark sink for shots
Mark Sink cut his teeth in New York City during the heady art-market boom days of the 1980's. Working professionally as a photographer, in both the commercial and fine art realms, Sink developed close ties to the art world. Realizing the potential and benefits of joining with groups of like-minded artists, he was, for a time, a part of the star-centric world of Andy Warhol's Factory scene.
Ultimately, he found a more favorable fit in Denver, Colorado and established his role in the art culture there. After settling, he began to orchestrate a number of ambitious, community-minded endeavors. He was one of the founders of Denver's Contemporary Art Museum, as well as the owner of the exhibition space and photography resource center, Gallery Sink. Both venues have grown considerably as he has continues to create a world for himself that is saturated with numerous photography and art-related interests.
In pursuing photography, Sink has essentially followed his family's vocation. He is strongly influenced by the life and work of his great-grandfather, James L. Breese. Breese was a notorious portrait photographer of New York high society in the mid-nineteenth century. Sink, following in his great-grandfather's footsteps, has also become known for organizing gatherings of photographers and artists.
Breese's photography has also informed Sink's on an aesthetic level. There are many striking parallels-primarily in their concern for capturing beauty on film. Sink's images, which he cites as being "more for the heart than the head", are often characterized by their soft and dreamlike qualities (for which he often aptly employs Diana and Holga cameras). Whether shooting nudes, flowers, landscapes or portraits, it is indeed his personalized vision of classical beauty that emerges as the core of Sink's photographs.
RUSSELL JOSLIN: How did you become involved with photography?
MARK SINK: It just stuck in art school, though I never really took any formal photography classes. I stumbled along, exploring unusual methods of making art objects, rather than studying the zone system. In the late 70's, it seemed very new to be irreverent with process. I followed my heart, not really questioning my direction. Later, with a little recognition and even some money, [my interest in photography] solidified. I am left-handed and dyslexic, so many things in school were a struggle for me, but art flowed and the camera was a great tool to use. I guess having artists as parents helped that too.
RJ: What artists or photographers have meant the most to you, in terms of informing or influencing your work?
MS: The artists that I have studied or worked for. Early on, it was Ruth Thorne Thompson, [who] set my track in thinking and working with reverse technology. Then came Andy Warhol and being around the Factory-having a chance to shoot a lot. [I was doing mostly] Polaroids-exploring our star-worship culture. Later, I studied my great-grandfather, James L. Breese and Joseph Sudek. That led me into a very gushy and romantic neo-pictorialist period. Then came Francesca Woodman, as well as all the staged artists from Prague, who greatly informed my work. Most recently, it has been Adam Fuss, Robert Heineken, and others making camera-less art.
RJ: Being around Andy Warhol's Factory and the artists there must have been an experience. Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat are "mythological" figures of sorts in the art world. What was your involvement with them? Or any of those in that circle?
MS: Jean-Michel and I photographed his work. I also spent quite a lot of time with him leading up to shows. It was very surreal-the drugs and money. I was pretty convinced [that] the market was going to fall out, that Warhol and Jean-Michel were over-hyped, over-producing, and over-pricing. I pulled back from being a "factory kid" after a couple of years. Andy never paid [me] anything, but I wanted to have him to promote and champion me as an artist. Many of my favorite stories of that time are of a critic who I spent a lot of time with, during the art boom of the 80's, Rene Ricard. He made and was the court critic for Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring and others. He brought Basquiat into instant fame, single-handedly. I have a lot of shocking stories of how and why people were found. I'm still basically in stunned amazement of the power of the pen and how it forms our thought process about something or someone. I am very press dependent with my gallery and my Internet projects.
RJ: Having lived and worked in New York City for 12 years, before moving to Denver, what are your perceptions of being a photographer in both cities? What sorts of pros and cons would you attribute to being a photographer in each city?
MS: Well, New York is, of course, a very exciting place to be during your twenties and thirties. It was where I went to grad school and more. I miss it greatly. I wore many hats to survive as a working photographer and made vast amounts of money in the commercial world. But, creatively, I was very empty. [Therefore,] I concisely started to immerse myself into the gallery world, cataloguing artwork rather than clothing. I also started doing my personal art again. I bloomed, was very happy-and very broke. Also, it was very surreal being around the superstar art world, seeing fortunes trading hands for the flavor of the month. There seemed to be a very big gap between the haves and the have-nots. Denver began to look better and better with every visit. I had established a few galleries and agents, so I decided to move [where there would be a] higher quality lifestyle for the money. I purchased a 19th Century house in a bad neighborhood (the ethnic diversity felt most like New York City) and started my life here. The house jumped in value as the neighborhood gentrified, which allowed me to purchase my gallery building. I was very lucky that I wasn't pushed out of the neighborhood, like most of the other artists living there. In general, the old line, "it's easier to be a big fish in a small pond," was true for me, in Denver. For example, starting a contemporary art museum. That would have been a joke to try in New York City.
RJ: You founded the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, correct?
MS: Yes. It started with a conversation, with a friend of mine, in our community garden. [We felt that] we really needed a museum here, for contemporary art. So I formed a board, my friend put together the 5013C form and we headed off. It has been a hard, long haul, with many near collapses, until the pistons eventually started firing. We have had to fight the constant naysayers and counter productive critics and still do. It's mostly the insulated academics and big-money art supporters that cause the worse problems, which I find so very strange. It can all be very defeating and irritating sometimes. But there are talkers and there are doers. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves, put your side blinders on and do what needs to be done-and things fall into place.
RJ: How is it going currently?
MS: Things are cooking now-we had the last laugh. We have been picking up speed and are busting a million dollar budget. In these times and with lots of art politics, that's a true feat. I'm very proud that MCA started with board meetings in my own backyard. I've learned mountains from this experience, which I have also applied to my gallery. Having started my own gallery, I am now immersed in even more politics.
RJ: How would you describe the direction of Gallery Sink?
MS: It was conceived and designed as a resource center, for the educational support and promotion of fine art photography. I exhibit regional and international cutting-edge fine art photography. The gallery has work available from over 150 photographers. We also occasionally exhibit painting and sculpture and [present] experimental music and performance as well. During the first half of the week, [Gallery Sink is] a commercial-photography studio. We serve clients with corporate needs, provide documentation of artwork services and do portrait, product, and fashion photography. We now have a new framing business, in a newly remodeled attached building.
RJ: What sort of advice would you give photographers who want to get their work shown in galleries?
MS: It's all a name game, getting an ear and eye on your work. This can be best achieved [by attending] the zillions of photo festival portfolio reviews around the world. When your work is reviewed, ask for suggestions of people that your work would be best received by. Then go to that person and say, "So and so said I should show you my work…" It's a name game. I review work at as many photography festivals as I can make it to. There are many great ones, all over the U.S. and the world (see www.festivaloflight.org). I have found some amazing talent that way-they're a great springboard for photographers. I'll be reviewing work at Photo Americas this spring.
RJ: Other than festivals, does anything else come to mind?
MS: Entering competitions is another way [that] many greats got going (see www.studionotes.org). I have also been having success with marketing my artist's work [using] inkjet printed books and enclosed CD's. I have found artists that way too. Some other ideas would be-to get grants, or to get a show in the spotlight (with a budget to promote it). Or put together a salon, or gathering of people whose work you admire in your area, curate it, and propose the work to galleries. [It is also important to] be professional.
RJ: When you critique work, can you pinpoint the things you're looking for? Or is it more a gut reaction?
MS: It's a gut reaction. My search has a very wide [range] in style. I like it best when the concept is thought out really well-not when the photographer is presenting a "work in progress." I hate it when an artist has a long list of apologies-like "these are just work prints" or "I've been meaning to get these mounted" or "I'm sorry these are hard to see, my book pages are all scratched." I like it when an artist has great respect for the treatment of a photograph-immaculately printed and presented, handled with great care; When they have a clear idea of what they're presenting and don't apologize for anything.
RJ: Tell me about your photographic group, the Denver Salon.
MS: We're in the process of healing now. We had a bit of a rift when the group was approached for an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum last year. Only a third of the group was curated into the show and egos were hurt. So I was dog meat, for canning members of the group for our big hometown show. The main museum curator had limited space and she chose the more exploratory and conceptual work. The staged and classical shooters in the group were left out and thus [feelings were] hurt. The whole show became the tale of some messy politics that were brewing. [Especially since] I was pushing "the powers that be," at the Denver Art Museum, demanding a photography department. All it did was make everyone mad at me. Things have settled down now, though and I am about to push our group for meetings again and start writing letters to the director of DAM again.
RJ: What is the general focus when you meet with the Denver Salon? What do you typically do and/or discuss?
MS: It is basically show and tell. We discuss new projects and news, or even more general interests like books and equipment. We dress up a little and sometimes have a great meal with wine.
RJ: What has being a part of these groups, or the leader of these groups meant to you personally as a photographer? How have they affected your work and the way you think about and/or approach photography?
MS: It has helped my work get noticed-[doing] the shows [that] we got as a group. I always felt I self-created this wave, that I could ride, realizing the power in numbers. The group hasn't changed my approach, other than the small style influences we have on each other's work.
RJ: Were the photography groups that your great-grandfather (James L. Breese) organized something that inspired the Denver Salon?
MS: Oh, yes, very much. I remember thinking, early on, how much I wanted to recreate one of his meetings.
RJ: Tell me about your great-grandfather.
MS: He is [one] among many wonderful and historically important photographers, who got left out of the history books. [This] can be fairly easily traced to Beaumont Newhall and Edward Weston. They hated many pictorialists and did their best to erase them from any of their writings. So, it's been a trail of rediscovery. Breese and William Fraser were photographers and founders of the New York Camera Club in the mid 1880's. Breese had a well-known studio, called the Carbon Studio. A lot of wild events happened there. The story of the photographer-line in my family goes much deeper though. Breese was the nephew of Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the "Father of American Photography." Few know that Morse was the first to present Daguerre's process, in the 1840's, to his colleagues, including Mathew Brady. All of this has been really exciting research for me, it keeps growing and growing-it's a book someday. The Internet has helped me with this research greatly.
RJ: Earlier, you referred to your "romantic, neo-pictorialist phase" and a lot of your work does recall a certain "classical" beauty, romanticism, pictorialism, etc. Is beauty enough in a photograph, or do you strive for more? Is it enough when you're considering the work of others?
MS: Gushy beauty is what got me going in art photography. I have used the phrase that my work is "more for the heart than the head." I'm a gushy romantic still. At the gallery, I regularly have floral shows. There is traditional landscape work there also. During the last several years, I have become more informed with the world of photography and I enjoy a much wider spectrum of styles. It's been fun exploring a few of those [styles] myself, recently.
RJ: Regarding your work with nudes, how would you say that your approach differs from when you're shooting some of your other common themes, such as landscapes or the floral images?
MS: My recent nudes are staged fantasy. [They reference] paintings and drawings of Greek tragedies, as a starting point. My large, color florals, are taken from the old Dutch master's paintings, so they are very allegorical too. But much of my single nudes, florals, Diana images of famous spots and things like that are just straight, gushy, romantic work. I still love doing that too.
RJ: Regarding the Diana camera, you've said, "I see a dangerous similarity with Polaroid transfer, it's too easy to be arty." I imagine that since you've used the Diana for much of your work, that this notion has presented a challenge for you-you're apparently working to push your work, to transcend the "easy" and cliché Diana photograph. What have you done to overcome this? In your work, what elements do you feel must be present in an image for it to transcend the "easy and arty" Diana image?
MS: Oh, Diana and Holga are very easy. One needs [to begin with] a good concept and then the choice of camera really doesn't matter. I find that using [toy cameras] removed from reality works really well. Meaning working in a studio, with a minimal backdrop-not much "busyness". That basically hides the effects of the camera. Most are surprised [when they learn that] my recent work was done with the Diana or Holga. I don't like [the Diana and Holga] much anymore for landscapes or social documentary work. It is so dishonest. The cheap, easy illusion feeling [that the camera creates] is distracting in many cases. So I've set a higher bar for myself. When I teach workshops now, I give away all my older methods. On my travels, I will still shoot the super-romantic and idealized wonders of the world with the Diana or Holga-those are big money makers. I am still living off images I made during my European trips in the 80's. I need to get back out and make some new ones.
RJ: You also teach photography…
MS: I teach workshops with the Diana, Holga and the digital camera for a couple of workshop groups: the Denver Darkroom and Working with Artists (www.denverdarkroom.com and www.workingwithartists.com). I was also given a part-time faculty position at Colorado University-they have some fresh blood for cheap. My favorite statement, in the syllabus, is that this may be the only class that you can get an "A" for failing. I'm really pushing chance and experimentation. I'm hoping that my passion will be infectious. I only wish the University wasn't so cheap with [the budget] for fine arts. It gets really depressing to see how [large] the sports budget is and the [relative] pittance the arts get.
RJ: This reminds me of a David Bowie interview I listened to once where he made a comment that stuck with me. He said that he was more concerned with "failing interestingly" than being "successful"-which kind of sounds like your teaching approach. What do you bring to the classroom and what is your general approach to teaching your students?
MS: I do have a little problem with using the word "failing", but it best describes the need to let go. Growing and truly exploring is like being on a trapeze. You're swinging, holding onto one ring, and you've got to reach out, let go of the first, and make it to the second ring. There is a moment where you're hanging in mid-air and you might go crashing down. That is what everyone is so afraid of, in our overly homogenized and safe world. But I say, "So what?" Jeez, let go-so what if you drop. Brush yourself off and try again! Get over it. You're not under the eye of Art Forum yet.
RJ: You wear so many hats that revolve around photography. Do you ever tire of photography-in terms of your own work, or looking at the work of others?
MS: Not really, regarding looking at other's work.
I have become a bit of a snob in ways and recently have enjoyed drier
intellectual and conceptual work. It's a natural progression, I think.
But I haven't grown tired of encouraging developing work. As far as
my personal work is concerned, I'm always afraid I'm going to tire of
it, because I'm always seeing such great new work and ideas. As I see
the different styles of work and my influences grow, it just makes me
confused and insecure of who I am and where I fit in the canon. Also,
it seems harder [for me] to get into the darkroom-but I'm pleased to
say things keep jumping out and I still love dancing in the darkroom.
I use the phrase "dancing in the darkroom" when something wonderful
is coming up in the trays and that wonderful feeling rushes over you
and you totally lose track of time. Knowing [that I still feel this]
makes me very happy.