Seattle-based artist Erica Sterling is a recent transplant from Florida, and that has naturally brought big changes for her. Her attachment to film photography as a medium, however, is unwavering. She’s been at it for nearly a decade, refining her approach to portraiture, both in and outside a studio.
“I have been photographing the queer community, and it has now turned into my focus,” says Sterling. “I really enjoy photographing people intimately, and ideally creating a relationship with these people and photographing them through an extended period of time.”
Photographer Sebastián Guerrero Cárdenas sat down with Sterling to talk about the medium, her relationship to it and her influences.
Sebastián Guerrero Cárdenas: Before practicing photography. Was there another medium of art you created in?
Erica Sterling: I didn’t do too much art before, but when I started, I started with photography. Also, it has always been film, because I took a darkroom class back in high school. I’ve also done sculpture and other things while in college.
SGC: So why film photography?
ES: There is something about the process, and waiting to get the images back. Also, not being able to review them with the people I am shooting with is amazing. Looking at the digital photos can take away from the experience.
In my work, I focus on spending quality time with people and being in the moment with them. In regards to the film though, there is something magical about waiting. I also get to spend a lot of time with the film, which is weird. Yeah, I also don’t develop the film anymore, since I don’t have access to a lab. I take it here to Panda and have gotten to know some of the employees. [laughs]
I love the process, the grain, the color, how soft it is. Something that doesn’t matter to me is sharpness, but that’s okay. I think it turns people off my work, especially really intense photographers that believe good images are sharp.
SGC: Why do you think your photos not being sharp, turns people away?
ES: I just think it is one of those rules they teach you, about how good photos need to be sharp.
SGC: Why do you keep taking photos like that?
ES: Mmm, I think it is something that I wasn’t concerned about until I spoke with another artist from the area. I think something that plays into it is social media. I don’t think it would matter if it was at a gallery, but the platform of Instagram is a strange thing. I think their algorithms are looking for certain things, a lot of the time, like brightness and sharpness. Pictures with those traits certainly seem to do better? So I try not to get caught up in it.
I think I need to try to focus on making my work into a physical space, and dealing within a physical shape. Also, I wouldn’t have to deal with censorship, something that affects me in my online work.
SGC: How much does social media impact your photography? How present is it?
ES: I think it really plays a role in finding people to photograph.
SGC: Does it limit you?
ES: Yes. I wish there were other platforms, where there aren’t as many gendered rules. Instagram’s rules prohibit me. But, yeah, it is also me getting caught up in it. I don’t just make things for Instagram. But it has allowed me to reach new people. Yet, it makes me also see others, and makes me compare.
I would love to have a book show, and not post all of it in social media. Something on the side. It will take a long time, but also getting to know some new people along the way. And hopefully, build relationships with them. That is going to be a focused project.
SGC: What do you shoot with?
ES: I shoot with a Rolleiflex, a 6×6 square medium format camera that you look down into. It is one of my favorite cameras right now. It is a little bizarre, but I do prefer the images that come out of it over the rest of my cameras. And yeah on standard Kodak Portra film. Pretty standard for film photographers.
I also have a Mamiya 645 af3, which is way too long of a name. Also one of my favorites, a total tank, and very heavy. Those are my mains. I have a 4×5 camera, but since there is no one out in Seattle who process that film, I kind of have been lazy about it
SGC: Why the candle shape in some of your photos? Religious?
ES: So I do not necessarily think all the images I put out there resemble religion. I do enjoy the spiritual nature of them. It really picture them if people have altars in their rooms. I don’t think they have to be used for that purpose either. I think they are a pretty thing I like to make.
SGC: What role does Seattle play in your creativity?
ES: That’s a good question. It has changed what I focus on a lot. Not my style, but it has changed the community I photograph. The LGBTQ community is larger here than it is in the south, and a lot more accepted, so it has allowed me to dive deeper. In the south I wasn’t so open about it. The communities were small, so Seattle has played a huge role in becoming part of a queer community and identifying myself and feeling comfortable. In that respect, I have changed my work a lot.
There is also the landscape itself. A big reason why I came out here was that I was interested in photographing nature.
SGC: Are there photographers who you count as inspirations to your work?
ES: When I was in school, I was really into Nan Goldin’s work. So many people are inspired by her, but who cares? She is one of my biggest inspirations. At that time, I was photographing the people I lived with and spent a lot of time with. The work reflects the time she spent with the people she photographed. To be with Nan, was to be photographed. That was so awesome to me.
Sally Mann is a big inspiration. I don’t shoot black and white, but I don’t think that does too well online.
SGC: Do you feel like a voyeur?
ES: No. Definitely no, but I do feel like it is not my place to be in someone’s space so intimately, and I don’t do it for pleasure. I don’t want any negativity associated with my work, but it is hard to avoid when the work involves being in someone’s personal space. Especially when it looks and feels like you are watching someone’s life. That is the reason why I also try to be friends with them.
SGC: When you are photographing someone you love, what does it mean to you? Or them?
ES: I think it is really important that people are themselves around me. That is my biggest focus, especially when working with marginalized people. I want them to feel safe, especially when I am in their space. I want them to feel empowered and that they can be themselves and know that that is a good thing.
In regards to what it might mean for them, I am not so sure. A lot of the time I’ll spend the whole day with that person. We will talk for a couple of hours, and then we will take the photos. Even when I get paid to do a shoot, I don’t charge for that time, because I don’t want to force someone into photos. I treat them like a friend.
Featured Image: Detail from “Ruby” by Erica Sterling. All images courtesy of the artist.