Sarah Allegra is an acclaimed Los Angeles based fine-art photographer and visual artist. Her conceptual images and self-portraits amazingly create an out of this world experience with their fantasy and beauty. Her work is abundant with myths, folklore, and dreams that come into surprising reality. Sarah has her ground firm in the skills of drawing, painting, and crafts which help her establish a deeply symbolic theme evident in all her work. It was unsettling for us to find that she is affected by a medical condition known as myalgic encephalomyelitis aka chronic fatigue syndrome. The effects of such a condition could be devastating for a creative individual but Sarah has overcome it through her rigorous pursuit of art. In this very detailed interview, Sarah is telling us a lot about herself and her art:
I was born and have lived in Southern California all my life, currently residing in Los Angeles. Aside from one class on black and white film photography which I took 14 years ago, I am a self-taught photographer. I have always pursued and enjoyed all forms of arts and crafts; painting, drawing, making jewelry, sewing, knitting… just about everything you can think of. I often had grand ideas and had to figure out how to achieve them with what I had available to me as a 12-year-old. It was extremely good training for my life now, as I’m always having to figure out how bring my vision to life on a tight budget!
I started taking photographs about four years ago, and I started with self portraits. Self portraits had a steep learning curve, but they were very effective teachers! Up until I began to learn photography, painting was my main artistic outlet. Around the same time I began photography, I discovered I have myalgic encephalomyalitis (or ME, sometimes still called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS, in the United States). ME causes constant fatigue and chronic pain and made my body incredibly susceptible to injury; if I spent a few hours painting in an afternoon, my arm might be sore and unusable for days or weeks after.
It was an extremely frustrating and trying period of my life, and my need for an outlet was greater than ever, but my regular outlet was essentially unavailable to me. My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, is a very talented photographer, and he sat me down one day and taught me the basics of photography. He helped me get off auto settings and navigate my first, fumbling attempts, and before I knew it, photography had taken over my life!
How do ME/CFS and photography get along? Has photography worked like a therapy in your case as it’s sometimes attributed?
The ME keeps me unable to work a “normal” job, so I consider myself a “professional” photographer by default 🙂 With me, working with the limitations of my body is a constant balancing act. I may want to work on images every day, but that’s just not going to happen; I’d shut down in pain far before I met my goal. There are a lot of days that have gorgeous weather I’d love to be out shooting in, but I can’t travel anywhere because I didn’t sleep the night before and I’m too groggy to drive. It’s the same kind of challenges any other photographer faces, but instead of a day job demanding most of my attention, for me it’s ME being demanding. And with ME, there is no arguing, you just learn to take what moments you get and try to be ready when they present themselves to you.
Photography can definitely be art therapy; it certainly is for me! ME has had a huge effect on every area of my life. It is like a jealous and demanding god, requiring daily sacrifices from every part of my body and soul. My life is much smaller and quieter in a lot of ways than it was before ME took over, but I’ve been able to chop out a little corner for myself still where I can create and forget about real life for a while. Art is how I keep sane, even though I have to create at a much, much slower pace than I used to.
What does photography mean to you? Why do you take pictures?
Photography has become such a huge part of my life. It extremely cathartic for me; I have a whole series called Enchanted Sleep which portrays what living with ME is like. I’m able to raise awareness about issues I’m passionate about (ME and animal rights, for example) and reach people in a way that words alone can’t always do. Words are incredibly powerful of course, but sometimes an image can strike a person in a much more immediate, visceral way. I take photos to try and change the world for the better. I take photos to work through the troubles I encounter in life. I take photos to create entire, imaginary worlds where I can escape and be healed and whole. I take pictures because I cannot not take pictures.
I consider my work to be a combination of conceptual and fine art photography, with a healthy dash of self portraiture thrown in! I’m currently using a Nikon D5100, and I most often use my Nikkor 1.4 50mm prime lens. I have an old kit lens that’s about 18-70mm which I use in cramped spaces and it shoots well despite its age! I usually shoot in manual mode, though if I’m in a situation where I’ll be photographing a fast subject which I can’t control (most animals, for example), I’ll shoot in shutter priority so I don’t have to worry about continually changing my settings to keep up with my subject.
I use Photoshop CC for all my editing. It definitely takes a while to learn well, and there are still many buttons and settings which I have no idea how to use! I think the important part is just figuring out what settings and effects you’re going to want and focus on learning those well.
Photoshop is a double-edged sword if I’ve ever seen one. On one hand, I love being able to make the impossible possible through post production. But on the other hand, we’ve all seen images which have been edited to death; I’ve even edited some images like that in my early days! There’s no one way to determine what is the “correct” way or amount of editing to do, each image demands its own method. My rule of thumb is to try and make the impossible completely seamless so the viewer wonders if it was achieved in post production or if I somehow created that in front of the lens, but that’s my aesthetic. Yours may be different 🙂
Yes! If there was ever a suitable age of innocence, yes, I’d want to return there! I find comfort in sifting through the ages of history, though I’ve never found one era that feels like “home” to me. This age is certainly not home either! The closest thing I’ve found to home is my DreamWorld series; that is where I feel like I truly belong.
“Introspective: A Photographic Quest” is an online class I created which teaches self-discovery through photography. I began conceptualizing it while I was going through the beginnings of my own journey with photography; it was so therapeutic, so helpful, so enlightening, but I couldn’t find anything online which mirrored that journey. To fill that void, I began constructing “Introspective.” This is part of my attempt to spread the wonder, joy and wisdom I found through photography with the rest of the world!
It’s an eight-week course which you can do from the comfort of your home (in your PJs if you want!) while still exploring and learning about yourself. Each week, students receive a different theme and take a photo based on what that theme means to you. At its core, “Introspective” is really about self portraits, since every image will be so personal and so reflective of the person who took it, but you are not at all required to place yourself physically within the frame.
This is a hard question for me to answer! There have been a lot of really amazing highlights so far, like being able to be a part of the Kickstarter for the ME documentary Canary In A Coal Mine, raising awareness about this issues brought to light in Blackfish, the documentary about SeaWorld’s horrific animal handling practices, raising awareness about ME, and getting to know all the lovely, beautiful people I’ve been honored to photograph, many who have become dear friends of mine!
If I have to pick only one highlight though, it would be getting signed on to Conlan Press, who represents author Peter S. Beagle, and through that, having the chance to photograph Peter himself. Peter has written scores of books (which are all excellent) but he is best known for his modern classic “The Last Unicorn.” “The Last Unicorn” was made into an animated film in 1982 and both the book and film have achieved a rabid, cult following. “The Last Unicorn,” in both forms, has had an enormous effect on my life. While it’s often assumed to be a children’s movie since it’s animated, the story is really for all ages. I distinctly remember gleaning new ideas and insights from the book as I read and re-read it through my life; it grew up with me, so to speak, and was a defining force in my life.
I had been taking “Unicorn-“inspired photos from the very beginning of my journey into photography; the second self portrait I ever took was a direct reference to the book. The “Unicorn” photos got better as I improved, and a little over a year ago, I was contacted by Connor Cochran, who runs Conlan Press. I can’t give away everything that’s been discussed yet, but it’s safe to say we will be working together for the next five years at least and will produce wonderful artwork together!
But the single most exciting part of this union so far was getting permission to photograph Peter himself as the King in my DreamWorld series. My favorite author, who wrote one of the books that most defined my life, portraying the King in my deepest, most meaningful photography series, along with two of my favorite models, Dedeker Winston and Katie Johnson… it was truly surreal and heavenly. Leading up to the shoot was quite stressful as I had a LOT to create and not much time to create in, but it was worth every moment of worry and headache. I will truly treasure that experience for the rest of my life, no matter what else happens!
I usually have my concepts pretty well planned out before I do anything to make them happen. I have a clear idea in mind of what I want the finished image to look like; sometimes this just means being in the right setting while the sun is in the right place but other times there will be months of preparation put into it.
Once I get to the stage of actually taking the photo, I try to get the physical world to match up as closely as possible to the vision I have in my head. After I feel I’ve photographed that, I’ll usually let the model (or myself) play around with the concept a bit. I feel it’s important for how I work to set out with a clear goal, but also leave room for the unknown. Sometimes my favorite image from the shoot will be something unplanned! This is where working with great models who understand your work and your style comes in; I am extremely thankful for the wonderful models who work with me so often!
Directing models will always vary slightly from person to person, but this is always true: be respectful, be encouraging, and try to make the mood as fun as possible. If my model is doing something gross or uncomfortable (laying in filthy water, holding a nearly impossible pose) try to shoot as quickly as possible while still making sure you got “the shot.” My modes have always been very understanding, but I don’t ever want them to have had to do something unpleasant and not have anything to show for it!
Most of the time I’ve been able to get to know the model at least a little by email before the shoot, and we usually have a chance to chat while we’re making our way to the shooting location. Everyone feels more comfortable when they’re around people they know and trust, so try and establish a connection with them. Never, ever, ever be rude or disrespectful to your model. They can’t read minds, so giving them direction is useful for both of you, but always direct in a positive, respectful way.
Tell us about your views on contemporary photography. A major part of images we see everyday are about self-portraiture and conceptual art. It’s becoming very difficult to find something really out of the box. How do you retain freshness and originality in your work?
Self portraiture is a great way to get started in photography, especially while you’re still learning. For myself, it took a while for me to feel comfortable and confident enough to ask someone else to spend their time with me while I took their photo. But you are always available to yourself, and if the photo doesn’t turn out, you’re the only one who’s disappointed! In addition, having experience on both sides of the lens is very helpful when you are directing models. You’ll know what it feels like to hold uncomfortable poses for what feels like an eternity; it gives you greater empathy.
Obviously, I also firmly believe in the transforming nature of self portraits and art in general. I don’t think you can take self portraits without learning about yourself. So if other people want to try their hand at it, I’m all for it!
No matter what style or medium you use, there are always other people who will be doing similar work. I think it’s important to not get too caught up in worrying about what other people are doing. Spend the time figuring out what makes you excited to shoot, and hone your skill on that. When you are creating something that is true to yourself, it doesn’t matter what the trends are, your work will be distinct because it genuinely reflects you. That’s what I always strive for. Being authentic and bare in your art is something no one can replicate because no one else can be you. Cherish that, and use it!
Tell us about your inspirations, motivation, ambitions etc:
I find inspiration almost everywhere! As I mentioned, Peter S. Beagle and “The Last Unicorn” is well I draw from often. The other author I find always inspiring is Robin McKinley, especially “Deerskin” and “The Hero and the Crown,” though I can’t read any of her books and not be inspired! The music I listen to, usually Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, Wintersleep, Brand New, System of a Down, Emilie Autumn, Mumford and Sons, and Wintersleep leads to a lot of images. Even the TV shows and movies I watch seep into my work! Nature is endlessly inspiring as well. Though I can’t go walking as often as I would like because of the ME, I love going for a quiet walk in the woods, and I never leave without a new idea for an image. There might be times when it’s very early and I’m waking up to catch the light of dawn for an image where I’d rather go back to bed, but the promise of the image always gives me the motivation I need to follow through.
I have many plans for the future… books, workshops, commissioned work and some really lovely things I can’t divulge yet but which are very exciting!
The biggest piece of advice I can give to someone starting out is to just keep shooting and working on developing your own style. What is it that really excites you, that makes you want to get out of your warm, soft bed when it’s cold and not even dawn? Shoot that, whatever that is! Create for yourself first. Create what excites you. There is never going to be another you, so don’t waste your time creating inauthentic things!
My second piece of advice would be to utilize the internet. There are tutorials to answer just about every question you could ever have, just do a little digging online! There are tons of helpful photography sites which regularly post articles and videos for free. Use them!