In Conversation With Mark Sommerfeld

Interview Timothy Frazier
Images Mark Sommerfeld

TF: How did you get into photography?

MS: When I was 10 or 11 my parents gave me a disposable camera to take to summer camp. The memory of losing that camera on the second last day of camp remains vivid, it was crushing. I didn't spend much time photographing between that summer and my last semester of university when I enrolled in an Intro to Photography course. A photo from my final assignment was published in Brick Poetry Magazine but I didn't earnestly consider what might come of making photographs until a couple years later. After teaching abroad, traveling and eventually moving to Toronto, I realized I was happy waiting tables and/or assisting to pay for film...or, more accurately to pay for time to make work. Also, I'd be remiss not to mention I'm grateful beyond words for the friends in the photography and theatre community in Toronto who really opened their arms, and my eyes to making work in a slightly more considered, informed manner.

TF: Tell me about your project, Eighty-One Fifty-Five.

MS: 8155 started out as a photographic survey of Hampi, Karnataka, India and its water systems, some of the oldest and most impressive aqueducts on Earth, as an attempt to understand how the passage of time has altered the region's relationship to water and agriculture. I had travelled to India as a backpacker 7 years prior and my curiosity about the region was piqued when, in Toronto, years later, I learned Hampi was at one point the 2nd largest city in the world and had been warred over for centuries, largely due to its location on the mighty Tungabhadra River. For the record, this is a ghastly over simplification of the history of the region, but outlines elements of its history that drew me back. At some point in my research I stumbled upon the life and work of Colin Mackenzie, a Scottish army officer who after being sent to India with the East India Company ended up obsessing over its culture, oral histories and artifacts, which led to his appointment as 1st Surveyor General of India. My decision to travel to his birthplace, The Isle of Lewis, was guided by a desire to find real and imagined links between these two disparate locations, 8155 km's apart, which shared the distinction of having some of the oldest granite rocks on Earth.

TF: Your images feel very dream-like and quaint. Could you walk me through how you approach making images?

MS: At the moment, I try to make space for both chance and control. When photographing family & friends I'm mostly guided by chance, reacting to surroundings. When working on a more research-based body of work or photo I might plan a shot or have a location in mind and then try my best to let things "happen," which I've learned works best with a healthy dose of planning. Ideally, time spent building relationships with new people and places guides how and what I photograph. That said, if I'm working on an assignment where I'm given a few minutes with a subject, I find research and a thoughtful shot list can help compensate for lack of familiarity or comfort with a stranger. I'm also guided by intuition insofar as reacting to light and form are concerned (which perhaps has something to do with the dreamlike quality you mentioned) but I try to marry that with pulling back and making slower, more planned photographs as well.

TF: What do you look for in creating an image? What makes an image 'work'?

MS: What I seek is relatively in flux. Sometimes I'll look at an image I used to love and may not be drawn to it at all, and vice versa. At the moment I'm interested in playfulness, real or insinuated movement and gestures of intimacy and affection. As for what makes an "image" work, I'd say that's up to everyone and no one simultaneously...which reminds me of a Philip Larkin poem a friend showed me recently, "that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless."

TF: Favorite commission or assignment to date?

MS: I recently photographed Jordan Peterson for The New York Times. My editor, Eve Lyons, was specific with what she wanted to achieve but also implored me to experiment and "do my thing." Given that I vehemently disagree with some of Dr. Peterson's beliefs, I found it an intriguing challenge to attempt to make a connection to him. Ultimately, he was cooperative and followed direction well which is often not the case when you have a short period of time with a subject/complete stranger. It was also fascinating to witness his transformation, from a quiet, docile man welcoming me into his home, to a showman, entertaining a theatre of 2,500+ fans with his preacher-like delivery style. It was a bizarre trip to say the least.

TF:  If you could photograph anyone dead or alive who would it be and why?

MS: Malcolm Gladwell. He's a bit of a local hero in my hometown, Waterloo, Ontario (he spent some of his early years in Elmira, a small town just outside Waterloo) and I would love to work on an investigative journalism piece with him about his layered hatred of golf, its culture, history of exclusivity and environmental impact. I guess I'd like to hang out with him more than I'd like to photography him...which leads me to believe an interesting photograph might well be the result of meeting him.

TF: Outside of photography, what are you interested in?

MS: Water...playing in it, drinking it but also how we use it, take it for granted, enjoy it and how it may well be warred over in our lifetime. I'm almost finished reading Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, which I highly recommend. It's a witty, surprisingly fun read about the constant state of drought in the American Southwest. Also making food with family & friends, spending time outdoors (camping whenever possible), reading Joan Didion and balancing my desire to spend more time visiting friends on the west coast against my appetite for reading about the San Andreas Fault.

TF: If you could have any superpower what would it be and why?

MS: Flight because traffic and airports are two things I'd love to do without.

TF: Future plans or upcoming projects?

MS: I recently made work in Augusta, Georgia which is loosely related to and inspired by some of the things Malcom Gladwell despises about the game of golf. Augusta, Georgia has been home to The Masters golf tournament since 1934. The Masters is widely considered the pinnacle event of the PGA Tour season (along with the US Open and British Open). The Augusta National Golf Club is also considered to be the most exclusive golf club in the world and welcomes 200,000 spectators each spring for the tournament. I travelled to Augusta not to photograph the players and golf course but to photograph the spectacle of the tournament. I'm editing this work right now which has been exciting.

Mark Sommerfeld is a self-taught photographer. His work oscillates between portraiture, reportage and observations of the synchronicity and poetry in disparate locations and objects.