Shaft Composition #7 (Heptagon), 2020, Archival inkjet print mounted on Dibond, wall paint, 40 x 50 inches. Installation view, Sight Lines, Rochester Art Center. Photo credit: Aaron Van Dyke

In this interview, Sophia Chai reflects on the significance and structure of the camera obscura as well as the ideas of space and presence.

Space plays a significant and unique role in your photographic work. You create a physical environment to photograph, and in turn, the photographs create perceptual spaces for the audience.  Can you explain how you arrived at this process, and how you think about space as a process, object, and/or experience?

During my second year of graduate school, back in 2002, out of sheer curiosity to see what goes on inside the camera, I turned my studio space into a camera obscura. I blocked out the three large windows, due east, facing the Chicago skyline, except for a three-inch circle of an opening. Through this opening, light came in and illuminated the room dimly. As my eyes became adjusted to the darkened room, I found myself surrounded by an inverted projection of the Chicago skyline. The experience of being inside a camera obscura opened up questions for me about photography and seeing. What is and how is seeing through the camera lens? And how do we see, know, and come to believe? This work was also my first installation piece, where I took on the entire room as an object. I titled it White Room, as the entire room was painted white, including the three large windows, the walls, the floor, and the chairs in the room.  While the audience mainly experienced the room as a camera obscura, the room became an empty white room once I switched on the light and carried on with my studio work.

Formal elements such as bold lines, geometric shapes, and bright colors stand out in your work. Is there something in particular that attracts you to these graphic elements? How are you using them to convey complex ideas in your work?

I began using rectangles when I first started my studio process, simply as a way to “insert” a two-dimensional shape into a three-dimensional space. Over the years, I began to notice that the height to width ratio of the rectangles I draw out for making my photographs are of the same proportions I see on the floor tiles in the hallway of the building I work at, or the proportions of my notebook pages. While the initial experience for the viewer of my work may be the illusory effect of the photographs, I want the space seen in the photographs to have a direct relationship to the world we live in. It’s become meaningful for me that the space that I photograph and the shapes that I use come from the things that I look at every day.

Shaft Composition #5 & #6, 2020 Archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, wall paint, 40 x 50 inches (each).
Installation view, Sight Lines, Rochester Art Center. 
Photo credit: Aaron Van Dyke

On one hand, it seems that you could be labeled a “photographer,” however, you are working with paint to create environments which you photograph.  Additionally, in your recent exhibitions at the Rochester Art Center and Hair + Nails Gallery, you have started painting the walls where you install your photographs, creating an immersive environment to view your work. How do you feel you are adhering or breaking away from the label of “photographer” in your work?  

I think photography is such an interesting medium because we live in a world where we are all makers and consumers of photographs. There are almost too many photographic images, and with this super speedy cycle of production and consumption, it is easy to forget what we are actually looking at when we look at photographsa fragment of the world seen through the camera lens within a tiny fraction of a second. I wanted to go inside a camera obscura in order to have a glimpse of the original source, that begot photography as we know now. It was the Chinese scholar, Mo-Ti (born 470 BCE), who described first in writing the phenomenon of camera obscura and called it a “collecting place.” This is a phrase I often go back to when thinking about photography.  

The grid seems like an important part of your work, as it shows up in many different forms, such as in the environments you construct and in the final photographs themselves - how would you describe its place in your process?

I use a 4x5 analog view camera to make all my photographs, and I use the built-in grid on the camera’s viewfinder extensively. The grid denotes a plane and helps me translate a three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional plane. The grid is also a constructed system for establishing different elements in spatial relationships to one another, whether something is above or below, or to the right or left. I find that because of its own rigidity, it’s also quite vulnerable. As soon as I move the camera to a different position, everything that lined up straight along the grid lines previously, can fall apart right away. 

Can you talk about your relationship with color? Especially with regards to the dominant use of blue and red?

I began working with primary colors, such as red and blue because I wanted the colors to be immediately legible in my photographs. I was thinking about the first set of colors that children can right away point at and name without any hesitation. I have been drawn to red and blue for that immediacy. This also relates to my use of simple shapes, like rectangles, as discussed earlier. For my most recent exhibition at Hair + Nails Gallery, I used Chroma Key Blue, which is used in film/TV production to replace the background. Because the color is very saturated, it can be easily picked out and be negated. I like that contradiction of the color’s high visibility rendering it invisible. 

Untitled (blue T-square), 2020, Archival inkjet prints, Choroma key blue paint, 16 x 20 and 40 x 50 inches. 
Installation view, Interpolation, Hair + Nails Gallery. 
Photo credit: Meagan Marsh

You’ve talked about how the light and space within the function of the camera inspires your work. Can you describe how you see that concept reflected back in your final photographs/installations?

With my most recent exhibition, Interpolation, at Hair + Nails Gallery, I took upon the physical space of the gallery as an extension of the space in the photographs.  In the innermost corner of the basement gallery, I painted the walls and the floor in Chroma Key Blue, which is the same blue in the photograph, Untitled, (blue T-square), 2020. Several people came up to me at the opening event and asked whether the photographs were taken in the gallery space, even though the photographs were made in my studio space in Rochester, 80 miles away from the gallery and the details in the photograph make clear that that was not the case. I did find this confusion very interesting. With the blue extending from the photograph and continuing onto the wall, the frame around the photograph expanded into the physical space. In turn, there was a back and forth between the space in the photograph and the physical space the viewer was standing in. This is akin to the experience of going inside a camera obscura, where you simultaneously experience the physical space that you are standing in as well as the view from the outside. It is an immersive experience that goes beyond the photographic frame.

How has working with larger-format photographs challenged you and/or affected your work?

One of the things I like most about working with a large-format camera is its slowness. The camera is big and cumbersome and it sits on a heavy tripod. Nothing is automatic, so there is a lot of adjusting and fine tuning with the positioning of the camera, the angle of the viewfinder, and focusing. The larger viewfinder (4 by 5 inches) is more like a small picture plane, rather than a small hole that you look into and that gives me more space to look at the composition before making exposures onto the sheets of film. While my drawing process on paper can feel rather quick and spontaneous, the actual composition with the camera is a much slower process. I constantly go back and forth between what I see in the space and what I see through the camera lens. The image on the viewfinder is also upside down, as there is no mirror mechanism to invert the image right side up. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at looking at things upside down over the years.