A Conversation with Sean Sprague

19 April 2021

By Zoe Koke

Sean Sprague is a photographer from Toronto who now lives in Los Angeles. His work—large-scale singular tableau photographs—stage moments he observes in daily life, then recasts and reconstructs. These are spaces of in-betweenness aggrandized. Questions of labour and class drift through his work, tensions between the real and unreal, yet evidence is always withheld, faces turned away, details guarded, while maintaining that everything appears in piercing focus. Sprague, like many of his references and predecessors, is preoccupied with the gaps around truth. In describing his work he states, “Through staging of documentary scenes, these works seek to challenge the authority of the documentary traction in photography and its narrow definition of truth that excludes so much.”

It is the stilling of physical movement that I am most moved by in Sprague’s photographic work. A woman clutches a fallen gift in a sun-filled alley in Backlot (2017-2018), her formal dress and precarious posture prominent as she reaches for the gift nearby a bag of spilled garbage. Teen lovers are caught in near embrace in the shadowed back entry of a nondescript building in Corners (2017-2018). A woman in an elegant dress stands turned away from men shuffling chairs, in a polished courtroom in Rehearsal (2018). In Sprague’s work, shadows are characters in their own right, sometimes licking across large portions of his images while pressing on the theme of time and its passage. Once he conceives of a scene to create, casts the characters, sometimes builds out an intricate set—such as in Airport Terminal (2017-2018)—and photographs the scene seemingly thousands of times, Sprague creates each final photograph through a time intensive post-production process, stitching together thousands of digital files. This process isn’t obvious to the viewer, but this act of re-configuring a multitude of images serves several functions for Sprague.

Image: Rehearsal, 2018 by Sean Sprague. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida,“When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.”1 This physical act of fastening movement feels like an apt way for me to consider Sprague’s work in its construction, like a dense form of scaffolding. It’s the over-consciousness of the practice, the thorough maintenance of the images, where not one part of each surface isn’t in focus, that alludes most strongly to the age old conversation around death and longing in photography. The focus in his images is consistent in a way the eye cannot be, and this certainty arises from the author, not the tool. The surreal aspect of clarity in these images is the result of a painstaking technical meditation on each image in the editing process, a mechanism that may not be able to be appreciated by the viewer at first glance. Sprague’s work, then, offers a vision so perfect it overwhelms the viewer with the most immaculate details, while simultaneously cushioning the subjects’ gaze from the intensity of the treatment of the surface. Recently, I asked him a few questions to further understand the more detailed formation of his work.

ZK: You use a process wherein you composite thousands of pictures, many fragments of a staged scene to compose one of your final images. Your photographs are often experienced at a large scale. This process of editing thousands of images together from the digital realm must serve several functions for you? Can you explain? 

SS: It started as an aesthetic issue, and so then it became a technical one. There was a certain kind of picture I wanted to make, but I didn’t have the means or the resources to produce it the way similar types of large-scale photographs had been produced in the past. And so I devised this way to get around not having a budget for a whole film crew or the most expensive equipment. Once I started doing it though, the aesthetic quality became only a part of a larger rationale for working in such a way. It opened up a lot of conceptual and theoretical routes, as well as deepened my interest in questions that I had been grappling with before, primarily about truth and the real, and how they function in the photographic medium. Through spending so much time making a single picture out of thousands of images, the definition of a picture and its framework starts to become less definitive and more malleable. And this I think alters one’s understanding of what an unadulterated image is defined as, whether it’s important, or who is defining it. 

For a while, I was really focused on the authorship and intentionality that the process involved—that every part of the picture was an active choice that I made, which I’ve become less interested in as time has gone by. I think some of it was a kind of photographer’s self-consciousness in trying to fulfill a need to prove a sense of worth. Now I really like the mixture of give-and-take that photography provides; there’s the input from me—I shape and direct things and am aware of that, but also the things that are out of my control provide a lot. Generally, I think the act of bringing all these fragments together and making some unity out of them in the form of a composition, was a way of making some sense of the world for me.

ZK: You used the terms “picture”, “image”, and “photography,” in your response. Are these terms interchangeable for you? If not, how do they differ?

SS: Sure, I’d say that I use them pretty deliberately. I use “picture” quite a bit  in lieu of using “tableau,” and that term might be the most accurate to describe my work. I think “picture” is the closest English word  to “tableau”. I also use “picture” when describing a work of mine as a way to place it in a historical tradition that does not just begin with the advent of photography, but a longer one that includes painting and drawing specifically within a frame. Placing my work within that history is important to me because my method is related in many ways to the production of painting, drawing or collage. Since a work of mine is made up of thousands of different images, calling it a photograph doesn’t seem quite right or encompass what’s involved. So by using “picture” it avoids some of the medium specific issues and connotations that I find comes with describing a work of mine as a “photograph.” “Photography,” on the other hand, I certainly use to refer to the medium when it’s appropriate to be medium specific or to place my work, ideas or thoughts as it relates specifically to the medium. As for “image,” I probably use the term to include a greater range of things like illustrations, design, cinema, graffiti and more. Unlike “picture,” to me an “image” can be frameless and also unplanned in a way, like I would describe a screengrab of a single frame from a television show as an image rather than a picture because for me there’s an intentionality associated more strongly with “picture” than with “image.”

ZK: You make photographs that act independently, but when I consider your practice as a whole, I see the ways in which the images are related. Can you elaborate on themes that you address in your work and the process by which you form your narratives, which then become your tableau subject matter?

SS: There are certainly recurring themes that come up, even though most of the works are autonomous. Most of the recurring themes stem from questions regarding photography as a medium. And so the overarching theme of my project is using photography as a site to reconfigure our conceptions of truth. In my photos, I can find multiple instances of figures picking up things off the ground or actively looking, subjects placed at the edges of the frame, fragments or multiples of things, among others. All of these instances relate to photography in some way, whether as an activity, object, or medium. To speak to one specific recurring motif, I frequently depict people with their faces being out of view. One reason I do this is certainly a nod to historical references to such as Millet or Courbet. However, my intention isn’t just about making a specific reference to a specific work or artist, but rather to use this motif found originally in painting in order to signal to a viewer that what they are looking at is not really reality, or is not intended to be viewed as such. 

One of the subjects that I have focused on in my most recent work was injecting multiple narratives into each picture as a way to avoid a reading into a singular narrative. And I think this is reflective of the process of combining the multiple images in one: that there are multiple pictures and multiple narratives that can be contained within the frame of a scene and I’m trying to make that a bit more explicit by literally using multiple images. It’s interesting to think about narrative as I have this contradictory feeling about it in regards to photography. On the one hand, I’m of the view that a single picture can’t be narrative—as in narrative is defined as a story of connected events, something resembling a beginning, middle, and an end. But on the other hand, if a single work contains multiple images, then it may be possible to overcome this. I think many pictures imply a narrative which can be completed by the viewer as to what happens next in that narrative—as though the picture is the opening scene with the viewer finishing the story in the way they see fit.

As for subject matter, in general I’m always trying to relate to current events and social and cultural issues to issues in art and photography and draw out the parallels. I think this comes from the fact that I originally wanted to be a documentary photographer. The subjects I was most interested in school were always art, history, and social studies. Over time, what I realized was that I needed more separation in terms of time and distance to contemplate these current events and the world around us, rather than being in the midst of it. I’m trying to think about the things I care about that are occuring out in the world and how they may function in a photographic space, and how that space might reveal things about the subject matter and, in turn, how the subject matter might reveal things about the medium.

Image: Airport Terminal, 2017-18 by Sean Sprague. Photo courtesy of the artist.

ZK: When I consider your process, I think about this need to meditate on the image for so long, this need to still things historically. There’s deep sentimentality to this approach, a deep care for the situations you present the viewer. Can you describe your reasons for pursuing photography and when you realized you felt connected to the medium? In saying that, can you also describe when you decided to make large images that now define your work?

SS: My answer is a bit sentimental and not particularly unique. In childhood, I recall times of being bored and picking up old magazines that would be around my grandparents house or somewhere during a family holiday. I would look through a National Geographic photo essay on Tiananmen Square and feel like I was transported. It was fascinating to see and to learn about events, places, and people I had little or no prior knowledge of, and the images brought that to me in an impactful and immediate way. I could, and would, draw for hours on end while having the news on in the background. Pursuing photography seemed to make sense when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, as it seemed like a good way to combine my interests. I think maybe a better way of answering your question is to focus on how my connection to photography progressed and developed over time. 

Part of making larger-scale work was motivated in an investment in the medium with a great amount of care. I started making the bigger work that requires more attention, time and energy, in response to our online and digital world. How the online world was affecting the kind of photography that was being produced for editorial publications and advertising, and how that influence began to shift the values towards volume and quantity was something I found myself opposed to in some sense. I wanted to treat photography with the same level of attention as a painting, a film, or a sculpture, as-in, I wanted to dedicate hours, days, weeks, months to a single photo. This is also what influenced me to work in the tableau form2 as I wanted to produce pictures that could hold their own on their own. I wanted to do this as a kind of defence of the medium.

The thinking was also that if I invest so much into it, that value could be transferred to a viewer’s experience. It’s also why it became important to make the large-scale work physical as an art object to be contented with in person. So much of it has to do with the Internet and how that has affected our experience of images, both in production and in consumption, and to try to challenge that, or at least offer an alternative.

Video: Plant, 2015 by Sean Sprague. Courtesy of the artist.

ZK: The staged and polished quality of your work lends itself to connections with cinema, can you speak to that connection and what it means to you?

SS: My younger self was impressed by “the show” of big productions. I worked on sets in various capacities for a number of years in Toronto and carried many of the things that I saw and learned on them over into my own work. As I’ve gotten older, that kind of big production has become less interesting to me and finding the right solution for a particular scene is more important than just how much production I can put into it, which I think younger me was certainly doing at times. It’s not that I no longer appreciate the production characteristics of cinema, but I am much more interested in films that aren’t showy just for the sake of it. Sometimes that means using more minimal techniques, doing something on my own, or at the time of day that everyone tells you is bad to take photographs.

ZK: You wrote: “These kinds of concerns regarding a  tension and meeting between two poles are embedded in discourse on semiotics and the referent, the distance between what is discovered and what is intended, in otherness and severing, in photography’s propensity to make visible what is not, in questions of documentary practice and in debates of indexicality and iconography. I recognize this “between-ness” of things in my own practice—my works not immediately themselves to be staged or natural, constructed or found, and so on. There is an openness for questioning on this cusp. This is also a place that is analogous to the contemporary experience where things are increasingly unclear and uncertain. My practice intends to represent uncertainty through a very intentional means. Maybe, in a way, to gain control over uncertainty without becoming certain of itself.” 3

Can you talk about the in-between-ness in your images and what you mean by gaining control over uncertainty in your practice without it becoming certain itself? How do you achieve this in the images you make? Do you make photographs outside your central method to collapse the certainty? What is that process like?

SS: I suggested earlier that photography has a give and take quality that I cherish more and more. One of the things I’ve aimed to do is demonstrate the slipperiness between what is constructed and what is discovered and how those blur together. I think ambiguity is an important characteristic of photography as it represents this uncontrolled aspect of the medium. And so even if I produce a really intentional picture, I still want it to represent this characteristic of ambiguity even if I’m doing so by controlled means. The ambiguity, uncertainty, or out of control-ness of photography allows for a viewer to enter and make of the picture what they want. There’s a sense of discovery that gets lost when a photograph is too contrived, too certain of its own direction. On the other end of the spectrum, work that claims to be unadulterated and just a matter of capturing uncontrolled reality is a bit disingenuous in my opinion. So I also want to reveal more explicitly the artistic intervention that’s involved in the creation of a photograph which means having those fabricated or controlled elements also present within a work. And so an intentional-ambiguity or controlling-uncertainty is less about me dominating something and more of a communion of sorts with what’s provided. Say in a particular scene there is a certain way that light falls on a building at a particular hour during a particular time of year. By returning to that location and photographing that building over time, I usually discover a specific set of circumstances that works for the picture, and many times it’s not something I could come up with beforehand. Through the act of looking and paying attention to how that particular light falls over a period of time, I can discover what the light can offer. This isn’t a binary situation of either something being totally fabricated or totally found. I can’t control the weather, time of day or year, but I’m clearly intervening by returning to a place and selecting what I want from it. Maybe on a psychological level the act of photography for me is about coming to terms with what I can control and what I can’t. 

Another aspect of certainty and ambiguity that’s been central to my conceptual interest in photography is its relationship to truth. Having both staged and unstaged elements are  key features in my practice,  and I want to be open to the possibility that truth in a photographic space isn’t easily definable. An actor’s performance in a photograph is a performance and it is staged, but in a certain sense it is also indexical. Many news events are staged whether they’re press conferences, rallies, debates, town halls, photo ops, etc. and they are all created to be documented—they’re professionally produced. If you’ve dictated everything about the event until that point, who is really in control and what’s really the truth of the event? It’s the mirage of the real. This is not to say that there’s no truth, but that truth itself is constructed from a variety of factors.

ZK: I can’t not think of photoconceptualism and the Vancouver School of photography when I experience your work. Can you explain how your practice is conversing with these artists thematically?

SS: It’s funny because in Canada, not many people ever brought this up with me. It has been primarily when I’m outside of Canada that people bring up the comparison, which I’ve always taken as a compliment. It’s also been something I’ve had to contend with and consider how my practice distinguishes itself from their work. That said, my practice wouldn’t be what it is without the Vancouver School, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, Cindy Sherman, Philip Lorca diCorcia, Thomas Demand and others. Generally speaking, I think it’s hard to find a photographic artist who doesn’t have an interest in the pictorial form. My specific connections will vary from artist to artist. So with Wall and Wallace I look to their affinity for painting and its history and how it works in dialogue with photography. With Douglas and Sherman there’s the shared interest in cinema and how photography might be a space to re-conceptualize and reframe history, and bring that reconstruction into the present. With diCorica I find an affinity with his way of pushing on the boundaries of documentary practice. And with Demand, I admire his process of constructing a picture and how he implements this process that deals with both aesthetic questions as well as contemporary issues and how images play a role in our understanding of the world.

ZK: What are you dreaming of photographing next? How would you go about making your next work and how would you wish it to differ or change in relation to your current work?

SS: Given the current state of the world it wouldn’t be a surprise to say that I think my next body of work won’t be featuring as much unity or cohesion as might have been in my past work. At least to the degree my past work was concerned with those as aesthetic traits, I don’t think it’s the time to have that kind of veneer. I recently received a Canada Council Grant to produce a new body of work and I’m grateful for the support. Our post-truth moment seems ripe to dissect and I’m excited to do so. Most works will continue to be mise-en-scènes similar to past work, but will be distinct from past works as I plan for them to feature more explicit aesthetic fragmentations than anything I’ve done before. Over these past couple of years and how things have gone socially and politically, I think photography needs to reflect these divisions. If our world is one in which people who are living in the same physical space are living in totally different conceptions of the world, experiencing them in entirely different ways, then photography needs to depict that somehow. If photography can be a truthful representation of our world, I think it needs to feel like it, to get at deeper truths that go further than the verisimilitude of the medium.

1. Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

2. A term coined by French art historian, critic and curator Jean-Francois Chevrier to describe a form of photograph that possessed the following properties: 1) It was made to be hung on wall 2) Be an autonomous object 3) Creates a confrontational experience with the viewer (The tableau form is also commonly associated with a large scale, though that is not a necessity.) 

For more details, see: Jean-François Chevrier, ‘Les aventures de la forme tableau dans l’histoire de la photographie,’ 1989, or Before The Tableau Form, Oliver Lugon, Études Photographiques, number 25, May 2010 https://journals.openedition.org/etudesphotographiques/3440#ftn1

3. From a conversation with the artist.

Feature Image: Backlot, 2017-18 by Sean Sprague. Photo courtesy of the artist.