Cooper & Gorfer

Many say that photography is about capturing a moment. Would you call yourselves photographers since you do not capture a moment, but, rather, you create it?


Sarah Cooper: I think we are not photographers in that way. We’re not a typical, technical team. Nina and I are more visual collectors. We examine the situation, the location. We do research, we talk to people and we are inspired by landscapes, by weather, by strange circumstances that can happen to us. Then, we bring the project and the stories back to the location, to the people and we try to visualize it together with them. Finally, we create a picture to be viewed by the audience.


Nina Gorfer: I have always had a feeling that photography is a very linear process: you take the picture, you develop it, you have to do post-production and put it on the wall. Whereas, when we work, it’s a much more holistic process. Things can happen during the process, and it can heavily influence the outcome of the image. In the end, the actual image might be only a part of that very moment and there are lots of other parts that we then add to it. We are not linear creatures – and our images are filters for emotions. We highlight wounds, fear, future and the past. And we have to put it all in the final piece: the photograph.


Is this holistic approach one of the reasons why your final work is much more than a photo? You arrange every detail, and the images are accompanied with a text or a quote. Why do you reveal so much aside from just the photograph?


Sarah: Nina and I are visually not very present on our photographs. On the other hand, there is a whole period of time when we work on a project – we read and transcribe interviews that we collect. We write, listen, gather, wait – and, perhaps, this is also why we want to provide more besides just the image. Especially when we make books, we have the possibility to add more layers to the project and to give a viewer a choice: you can either have a glimpse at the artwork only, or you can decide to read the stories – that creates a new, added dimension to the image.


Nina: We spend an enormous amount of time interviewing people and they spend a lot of time being interviewed by us. As such, we often feel that we take so much of people’s energy and we need to give something back. We want to convey and share certain issues in their lives or areas in their culture. It’s our responsibility to share their stories – not only by creating beautiful images, but in a medium that truly allows people to read their message. It works both ways – because it’s such an integral part of our creative process, it’s important for us to share it, but it’s also really important to give back and take care of the responsibility that we feel we have towards the people we work with.


You work as a duo – and as a team you seem to share the flow of energy and an understanding for what you’re striving to achieve. Was this connection present from the very beginning? And what skills does that require from you to create the final pieces?


Nina: Sarah and I come from similar, yet different, backgrounds. I come from an architectural background and worked with graphic design, and Sarah comes from classical photography background and has worked as a music producer. We started to collaborate, having all of these experiences. I think what is really important in terms of how we have developed our visual language is that we didn’t set out to become photographers in the first place. We didn’t define photography – we used it as a medium to tell stories. As a result, we were not afraid that we would destroy a photograph and we didn’t feel any obligation towards photography as a medium. We came to it with all these things we know and we attacked this common vision, to create a visual style that we were both inspired by.


Sarah: When we met, we were students doing master’s in design. Being in art school, we experienced the freedom to create what we wanted. I think that we had skills and we didn’t have any responsibility to anything, which made it also easier for us to experiment and not feel obliged towards one medium or another.


In your projects, besides your unique style, the common pattern is that you photograph women. Is that a conscious choice in your art?


Sarah: In the beginning no, we didn’t think about it. Recently we noticed that we do it all the time. Perhaps it’s about comfort on both sides. It tends to be women who we connect to on our trips. Not always, but usually. In our recent projects, it is conscious choice, we have now accepted that this is what we do and deliberately keep men out (laughs). But, if you had asked us this question few months ago, we wouldn’t have had the same answer.


Nina: To photograph women is also the easiest “in” for us. During our trips we interview and speak with lot of men, but we feel we are not as inspired. In our projects, we work a lot with cultural identity and expression that, in female subjects, has multiple layers. We find it interesting to discover and show the strong role women have in bearing cultural identity.


You meet women from different cultures: do you feel there is a common ground that we all share? Or is there something that we lost in Western culture that you try to recapture in your photographs?


Nina: I think, in general, we share a love for a good story. And I don’t think we lost that. Everyone loves a good story, but what may be different is that we are losing the collective cultural storytelling. But, then again – history plods on and it’s just nice to have a reminder. People respond well to it: they approach us, especially after the Kyrgyzstan project, because it’s story-based and mythical. They would tell us things like, “I forgot that my grandmother used to tell me that.” They start to dig in their own history, and think back on how it influenced their lives or the lives of their forefathers. These are small personal stories that grow into a bigger cultural tale – and it’s just about creating space for storytelling again.


Sarah: I think when we meet different women from all over the world, we also are in different moments in our lives and in our culture. There may be, for example, an issue of equality in a place where we’re meeting women, and this is also a reminder of things that can be lost, that we may not face in our lives right now. On the other hand, one can identify with many aspects of the lives of the women we meet. Those meetings serve as a reminder of what you have. But also a reminder of what you’ve lost and they can even help recall something that has been forgotten.

The works of Cooper & Gorfer belong to a narrative tradition within photography, with roots in 18th and 19th century painting. Their staged photographs hold distinct reference to history, myths and cultural heritage. Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer are choreographers behind their images. Their photographs are realised in close collaboration with the people they portray. Unlike the discrete passer-by who waits for the decisive moment, Cooper and Gorfer carefully direct their productions. Though photographers in origin, they strive away from realistic representation. They distort proportions and shift time and space, stage rigorously, and use stylized poses and gestures to break up the world into parts and rearrange them into an enigmatic and exaggerated ensemble. Like art history’s Mannerists, Pre-Raphaelites, or Surrealists, Cooper & Gorfer strain observable reality through a complex psychological filter of dreams, moods, fears and wounds, both their own and those they have encountered.Cooper & Gorfer consists of the two artists Sarah Cooper (USA‚ SE 1974) and Nina Gorfer (Austria,1979). Their collaboration began in 2006. They live and work in Sweden and Berlin.

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