Sara Jane Boyers: Photography from the Driver’s Seat

Sara Jane Boyers is a California fine art photographer who, after successful careers in the music and publishing industries, has returned to a serious focus on her photography since 2000 when she focused on capturing the Chinatowns of the United States and Canada. She is also a writer and editor with several books and poetry published like “Her first book, LIFE DOESN’T FRIGHTEN ME.” Boyers completed a B.A in Art History at the University of California (Berkley and UCLA) and later received her J.D. from the University of Southern California. Often out on the “street” but whose work is focuses more on the detail of a scene that attracts her and helps her locate within it the core of experience, evoking the mystery and drama of its light and inherent beauty, Sara’s project GRIDLOCK is currently on display at Leica Gallery Los Angeles through April 13. Below, she details the background and inspiration behind it.

Q: Where did the idea for GRIDLOCK come from?

A: Like so many when we first acquire a digital camera, we take it with us and see what we can do. As a Californian, my greatest amount of time out here is in my car and being in my car means traffic. I started shooting and then started to realize that something serious was coming out of this, the opportunity to capture what we don’t often see in this cementworld of temporary, but ever so frustrating existence.

GRIDLOCK is a state of being more and more in our urban areas and while perhaps not the “decisive moment,” in Los Angeles and other urban cities, even in Europe where I have shot in traffic, needs to be looked at in a variety of perspectives as we determine what the social as well as the economic and just plain frustration consequences are of being isolated, stuck and out of control in our cars and thus in our cities.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use for your GRIDLOCK project?

A: For GRIDLOCK, this multi-year project, I first used the Leica D-Lux 3 and now the Leica D-Lux 5. Their size, precision and great LED screen made it easy for me to capture the imagery I am looking for while stuck in traffic, the premise of this exhibition, and until recently, also driving a standard (stick) shift. My requirements included the speed of capture as I am at times moving quickly from the subject, the precision of capture as I was making prints that were at least 24×36″, the ability to work in RAW and occasionally manual or AP settings and the size of the camera itself so it could be carried with me at all times. The D-Lux cameras totally fit the bill.

Q: Can you tell us about being featured in the Leica Gallery LA – the exhibit is coming to a close soon (April 13). Is there anything that you want Leica readers to know about the exhibit?

A: Since the Leica D-Lux was a key part of capturing these images, it seemed right to exhibit this first at a Leica Gallery.  As one of the smallest system in the Leica catalog, my series offers a look at what the camera is capable of for it is not a toy but a terrific tool, carried by many professional photographers when something small, powerful and quick needs to be utilized.  The new Leica Gallery Los Angeles is absolutely stunning, beautifully designed and so representative of what the Leica stands for: elegant products with amazing capabilities, clarity and sophistication. It is a photographer’s dream to be in the upper gallery space that allows one’s work to be so well exhibited. In Los Angeles, where the Leica store and gallery are combined, Leica’s exhibition of the work of so many terrific photographers who utilize its cameras along with downstairs, the beautiful glass enclosed vitrines displaying the cameras themselves, becomes a visual treat.  Leica also offers its space to other audiences and its outreach has added to the exhibition benefits – we want our work to be seen! – and seen it has been.

The exhibition is closing April 13 after a busy five week run with its last two weeks featured in LA’s terrific annual April Month of Photography LA (MOPLA). Since Annie Seaton, Gallery Director, had curated a show of three photographers, each using a different Leica camera system and photographing Los Angeles, I know that I, as well as my fellow co-exhibitors, will be sorry to see it down.  And even though no longer on exhibition, Leica plans to keep some of my work at the gallery even after the show should anyone wish to see it.

Q: In your artist’s statement you mention “Until recently when I was forced to abandon a standard transmission, I would, brake, stop, shoot; then shift, brake stop and shoot, again and again” – Compared to your other series that you’ve shot – did you find the repetitiveness of brake, stop, shoot, shift, brake, stop, shoot – add a new cadence or effect your approach to work?

A: This is a series about driving… or not. So the actual activity of driving was very important in defining what it is I could do and capture. The majority of prints in this exhibit were photographed when I still had my standard shift cars and the element of chance involved in getting the image and the physical act of driving, especially with a geared transmission, became very much a part of the project: could I stop and take the picture or did I have to move on? It was less about repetitiveness and more about timing. What I would miss because I couldn’t stop in time or had to move on: a very California image of a surfboard on the inner lanes of the freeway; one strappy high heel posing against a concrete backdrop raising questions of what type of act and person flung it there; words, open books or a photogenic fender in great light.

The motion would also change the look of the work. Given the conditions of the shoot and again, my own requirements – car running, sudden stops and sudden movement, slower ISOs (None over 400) – not everything is entirely in focus and I grew to appreciate this look, making it part of what it means to be in transit. Strangely in a place where time is characterized as being wasted, I rarely had the luxury of time to capture what I wanted. The added chore (although I loved my standard shift cars) added one more challenge to the work and one more reason to love it when I got the image I wanted.

Q: You’ve said that you search for that “iconic element of ordinary experience that defines the whole, choosing to render it subtly and with a sense of beauty that is provocative and demanding.” Do you think by having more time in your car you got to reflect more on the mundane?

A: I believe there is inherent beauty and character in most of what we see and experience. The formal elements of a good image are everywhere and I have loved the challenge of finding that sensibility in a place where it is unexpected. Your question, whether having more time in one’s car offers more opportunity for reflection, is interesting for there is actually little time even in my temporary immobility as I try to drive, brake, shift, and watch that I don’t run into someone all the while looking for great perspective, light and subject matter! In fact, GRIDLOCK seems more street photography (no pun intended) than most of my other series just because of the sense that one has to see and shoot quickly.

Throughout my work there runs a theme of abstraction and searching for presence in the most unnoticed space. Faced with something that is not so definable, I am interested in questioning not only what it is but what it means. Something within me unconsciously inspires me to focus on detail or light in such a manner. Again, I have a strong fine art/contemporary art background and time and again I look at an image I’ve captured and I see allusions to some of my favorite artists.

Q: Have you ever gotten looks from people wondering you’re doing? You didn’t take any photos of other people isolated in other cars – was this purposefully done?

A: Just the other day, someone rolled down their window and asked what I was doing. When I said I was shooting “traffic,” he gave me a disgusted look, rolled up his window and crawled on. The freeways, toll roads and highways of America (and elsewhere actually) are worlds designed to permit us to get somewhere, not to stop. When stop we do, the surroundings of our little temporary prison induce not curiosity but rather frustration, anger or we just turn up our music louder, something I do anyway after so many earlier years in the music industry. Perhaps it takes the more visual to find something to see, something to do positively during the time we spend in-between.

Occasionally I will take photos of others in their cars but rarely. My photographic focus is more about the terrain, the landscape; the architecture of the road and place. Within that, I feel that I am capturing human presence. With respect to shooting on the freeways, there are already many photographers who have photographed people in their cars; it is just not what I do.

Q: Some of the photos are of walls. Were these taken from your driver’s seat too?

A: All of the GRIDLOCK photographs are taken from my driver’s seat, a part of the parameters I gave myself. Many of the fences/walls were median strips/barriers and I would be shooting from the number one – or “fast” – lane. Occasionally I may have leaned across my car to shoot through the passenger window. My family and friends were not always pleased to be driving with me!

Q: It’s interesting that you mention you’re just now exploring pairing copy with images. The image with “Evoke” seems to capture the whole series. How did you decide to title these images, if at all?

A: I love “Evoke,” call it my homage to the painter Ed Ruscha, whom I know and whose work I collect. Of GRIDLOCK I like all the work but the ones hanging on my own studio walls presently are “Car Shadow” and “Evoke.”

There is another print, not exhibited in the present Leica exhibition that includes the words “Slow” that I love for the same reason. The words are out of context in the middle of the freeway, not quite graffiti and a bit surreal. I enjoy the joke and the way they force you to think about where you are and what you are doing. I don’t usually title my work but in this series, they are titled geographically, i.e., “405 North,” where they were taken except for several like Evoke that just seem to be defined by their word or subject matter. Much of my work is untitled or simply descriptive of its subject or site.

Q: How did your work in the music and publishing industries influence your photography, if at all?

A: Photography is what I always wanted to do but other career trajectories made more sense for me earlier, or so my parents thought. Music and publishing have always included the arts from amazing, often photographed, album covers; billboards and stage performance design;  the intricacy of melding lyrics, sound arrangement and voice to the design and sense of story inherent within a composition; to the challenge of melding imagery and word to create new tales or reinforce the strength of an essay. Photography does much of the same: looking for story, sharing experience. While an executive in music companies, I would hang out in the art department and A&R (the “editors” who find the artists) and when creating or writing books, even one on politics for youth, imagery was an essential element of my work always.  Moving into photography itself was very inspired by all that I had experienced in these other lives and I always had backstage passes in music so I carried cameras even then (lost a lot of negatives in a home flood unfortunately).

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography’s ability to capture a moment, provoke ideas is what interests me always. I am very visual and I want to be stopped, whether I wander around my own home seeing images on the walls or whether I am wandering on the street or through a natural environment; stopped by an image that holds me, evokes a memory or raises a question and takes me out of myself. As a photographer, I try to make those images that inspire others to do the same. In most of my projects, I rarely photograph people but in my mind and in my prints, they are there, evidenced by what remains.

Q: You’ve also published several books. Can you share your thoughts about this?

A: I love books: fiction, non-fiction, illustrated art and photography and books for youth. Reading, viewing an actual physical book is heaven. A beautiful art book is the ultimate. I read some on an iPAD but I am a writer and a photographer and I like the tactile feel of a real book, of flipping pages and the aesthetics of design – the choice of fonts, paper weight, and composition – that adds to the experience.

As an artist, I think the challenge of creating a book of one’s work accomplishes much of the honing of a project necessary to finish it. A writer wants to read a manuscript aloud, to see where the cadence and structure really lies. One has to approach an art book as a story, not necessarily just a catalog of one’s work but a different perspective with a beginning, middle and an end.  It is an opportunity to see one’s work anew and to share it with others.

I have created several self-published paperback books on various photo projects that I consider interim experiments that help me see where it is I am going with the project. I sell them via online sources but do not consider them truly finished work. Due to my background, I am used to working with professional publishers, editors and designers and that remains the way I would like to see my photographic projects ultimately published.

Q: It was interesting to look at them individually preparing for this interview, but the way that they’re presented at the gallery side by side in a grid changes the experiences and gives them different context. Can you tell us more about the decision to present your images in a grid?

When I first brought the work to Leica, they suggested installing the work in a grid as a means to making a more powerful statement and…they had a good wall for that.

I was intrigued by the challenge of placing 12 of the prints in this arrangement, also seeing what they would look like a bit smaller. To do so however required that each print would need to retain its individuality as well as become a logical part of the greater story of GRIDLOCK as a whole. As a writer/editor I was intrigued by this new perspective and while putting it together, learned even more about my own prints, which ones I chose and, by looking back into my image files, found several more I had not considered previously. The presentation required a new look, more contemporary as a result of the grid, and I decided to frame each print individually in a white box frame. The large prints looks terrific this way and the grid, with the 12 individually framed smaller prints, are cohesive as a whole.

What I love about photography is not only the capture but making the story and often finding within it something I had not thought about before. Art is always about conversations between the creator, the viewer and the work, and there are also conversations within the context of photograph to photograph. I have been spending time at the gallery and am amazed by how many viewers have been struck by the strength of the grid installation.

Q: You mentioned that you’ve been inspired to continue the series and shoot it in the square format – what appeals to you about this format?

A: Well, I am still stuck in the middle of traffic in my car. Now that I have been working on this series for so many years, I have been questioning how to take it further and I have loved what happens in a square format ever since I so long ago [layed with my father's Rolliflex]. I love that the D-Lux cameras provide me with this capability today – granted the iPhone will do square but it is nothing like a Leica – and have been exploring it not only with GRIDLOCK but also with other projects. The square format imposes a restriction on composition that directs one’s eye to the most essential element of the subject. In GRIDLOCK, the square format feels even more “street” than the larger panoramic prints that are on exhibit and results in even greater emphasis on line and design. I also occasionally include people in my pictures.  I am having great fun with it but it is early. I am contemplating making compositions for GRIDLOCK filled with multiple square images.

Thank you for your time!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Sara on her website and Twitter.