New York based photographer David Benjamin Sherry (b.1981) has gained success in recent years through his bold experimentation with photography. After receiving an MFA at the prestigious Yale University, Sherry has gone on to exhibit prolifically worldwide, as well as publishing an extensive book with Damiani. We had a chat with David about life, art and smashing very expensive cameras.
So tell me about your introduction to photography...
My first official introduction to photography was in high school, I took a photo class. Although, having said that, when I was six years old my dad gave me my first camera. I inherited a Hasselblad which I immediately took into the woods covering it in dirt followed by smashing it into the ground with a hammer.
You smashed a Hasselblad?!
Yeah, I guess I did. It was a really nice one as well. I regret doing that, I wish I had a spare Hasselblad now.
I know how you feel, my dad gave me a Canon 8mm video camera when I was around that age too. I started by pretending it was a gun, then I took it apart with a screwdriver because I wanted to look at the circuit board.
[laughs] oh, that's awesome.
I guess we had our own simplistic fun...
Yeah, well it actually formed a destructive pattern with my relationship to photography.
What do you mean by that?
The idea of breaking a tool then picking up the pieces and making something new with it interests me; my approach to the medium is slightly strange. I actually started shooting pictures to document my life.
It seems to have taken a more surreal turn, maybe more representational than before?
Exactly, though my early work was very realist, which wasn't particularly exciting for me. I then started shooting the fantasy of how I see things in my mind; how I remember places, people and ideas are all represented in my photographs. The idea of documenting my life still remains. However, it's a closer representation of my imagination and how I was feeling when I took the photograph.
Are the colours you cast over your photographs associated with different memories?
The colours represent how I was feeling at either the time of exposure or printing. I think they probably mean entirely different things to the viewer though.
I guess everything is open to interpretation. Did you find it difficult in the beginning working so differently to your peers?
It was extremely difficult convincing my professors that the colour casting was interesting. They described it as a ''filter'' over my pictures that lessened the beauty of the original photographs. You have to bear in mind that I went to one of the most traditional MFA programs out there.
What did your fellow students think of it?
I'm not sure, but most of the other students were digital printers, so the plus side of that is that I had a gigantic lab to experiment in all by myself.
Did the professors come around to your work in the end?
Well, yes. After the longest and most demanding two years of my life, they finally congratulated me. It's strange because the first thing they told me was that everything had been done and that all we can do is find new ways of doing it.
That's a terrible thing to say...
Yeah, but I worked my ass off in there to find something new and exciting. There were a lot of mistakes but it all paid off. I think all of it has a lot to do with the times we live in, the 00s. In the past year I have felt a very warm welcome to the art world, which I think is down to the decade ending. We are ready for change, I think it will get very strange and weird again. The 90s were celebrating unique sounds and art whereas the 00s were very conformative and mainstream.
How do you feel about creative education looking back on it?
I really thrived in it, though I know not everyone does. It gave me an audience which I felt completely comfortable entertaining. The critiques every three weeks were like a performance for me; coming up with a new body of work, plastering it all over the walls to be looked at.
How about the professors?
Although they were very tough on me, I actually liked my professors a lot. I really grew up in graduate school, artistically, emotionally and even psychologically. I needed to escape the city and dive right in to my work, I felt ready to expose myself in front of some of the most celebrated artists, photographers and my exceptional peers. Looking back, it was a beautiful experience for me.
How did the critiques normally work out?
I was questioned constantly with my every move, which in retrospect seems like a positive way of learning, though at the time I would get extremely defensive and argue my way out. I didn't like being told what to do, I never have, and at times the combination of sleep deprivation and being told what to do equalled aggression. It felt like every three weeks, I would present my thought processes in a journal with my work displayed to be told that I wasn't achieving anything. As the years progress you begin to realise that it was a positive experience and that it pushed me to do things I wouldn't normally have done.
So, after studying, what happened next for you?
I moved back to New York Shitty [laughs] and borrowed some money to get a studio with an artist / friend of mine, Amy Yao. We managed to get a place together in Brooklyn, but my closest friend passed away right when I moved in.
If you don't mind my asking, was that Lily Wheelwright?
Yeah. After that my life took a strange turn as I'd never lost someone so close to me; I was devastated. I decided that I needed to be alone to deal with her death, so I got a credit card and booked a trip up the west coast through the Pacific Northwest. I feel like I brought her with me. I experienced a great deal of paranormal and esoteric adventures during this time, personally and photographically. My work took a new direction and my thoughts towards life and what my purpose was became clearer; I felt like I saw a new dimension and nothing has been the same since.
I read somewhere that Lily and Ryan McGinley were in a parisian restaurant that is pitch-black. Lily thought it would be funny to make out with a guy, then lead him back to their table, where she switched with Ryan so that he was kissing him instead of her...
[Laughs] Yes, Lily was amazing.
She sounds it. You dedicated your book to her right?
How did the book come to happen?
I was contacted by Alice Rose George, a legendary book editor. I thought she had contacted me by mistake, I couldn't believe that a mainstream book publisher would ask me to make a book without even having a proper exhibition of my work. It also seemed surreal that a book of my pictures would be published while I was still alive, I had a strange notion that having a book published is something you achieve after a lifetime's work.
What happened next?
I then met up with Alice and we began the very long process of editing / talking about the work, and slowly the book evolved. I was lucky to get complete creative freedom from the publisher, it would have been very difficult had that not been the case. I then contacted an old friend / designer who I attended university with, called Ryan Waller. He's a Genius with design. The whole process was very natural; Alice, Ryan and I would meet once a week in Alice's Greenwhich Village apartment laying out all the photographs on the floor to see what was working best.
Sounds like you did it the old skool way...
Yeah, she was very against using a computer to make the selection.
How long did the whole process take?
Around one year of weekly meetings. Then, after the selections were made, I flew to Damiani's headquarters in Bologna to oversee the printing; all experiences that I will never forget.
Sounds like a dream. So what's next for you?
The future! I have tons of plans. I'm working on my first NYC solo show, which will happen in about one year's time and I'm also planning on making a video this summer.
Is the exhibition going to be with Team Gallery?
No, not with Team. I can't actually say where it's going to be at the moment.
Keeping secrets from us, eh?
[Laughs] Yes, unfortunately I can't say.
C'mon, I won't tell anyone...
I can't, sorry.