Frida Kahlo once said, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” She was talking about her own stunning portraits, but she could have been describing the method behind the work of Cooper & Gorfer.
The contemporary art photography duo (the American, Gothenburg-based Sarah Cooper and Viennese, Berlin-based Nina Gorfer) have been collaborating on their enchanting, dreamlike images for more than a decade, ever since they met as graduate students at the University of Gothenburg’s HDK Academy of Design and Crafts in 2006.
Since then, they’ve travelled the world, exploring and documenting remote places, hidden communities and ancient cultures in a process that is part photography, part collage, and a whole lot of detective work.
What do people really tell you when they tell you a story
“I wouldn’t call what we do photography, even if we use a camera and it ends up in a frame,” said Gorfer, in a recent conversation in Berlin. “We’re much more interested in exploring a place through storytelling and cultural heritage. In [asking], what do people really tell you if you say to them, ‘tell me a story’?”
They plan their trips meticulously, often enlisting the help of locals, some of whom are photographers themselves. Their work has taken them to rural Kyrgyzstan, the Sami communities of Finnish Lapland, the vast steppes of central Argentina and the emerald green Faroe Islands—places that, by virtue of their remoteness, have long been inaccessible to women travellers.
But regardless of where they choose to go, that simple directive—“tell me a story”—has remained their guiding light. As Gorfer tells it, this makes choosing their subjects “an entirely intuitive process…. We ask people, ‘where do you want to be photographed?’ and ‘Could you bring something that is meaningful to you?'”
The resulting images are sumptuous and richly layered, turning their subjects—often girls and women, from children to the elderly—into icons, with help from texts and textiles, fairytale forests and magical realist backgrounds, accessories and everyday objects that, by virtue of their value to the subject, are imbued with a near-talismanic importance.
These vivid photographic collages, with their golds and greens, their patterns and textures, evoke comparisons to the likes of Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Italian Renaissance painters and Old Dutch masters. They appear timeless and yet completely new; it can difficult to pinpoint what era they come from, and surprising to find they were all created in the last ten years.
Relentless authenticity versus contemporary sarcasm
What’s more, in a political and cultural moment increasingly fascinated by the power and liberation of women, Cooper & Gorfer’s work has positioned them firmly at the centre of the zeitgeist. They’re accomplished, world-travelling women whose subjects are mostly women. What could be more “the future is female” than that?
We’re quick to praise works of art for their apparent effortlessness—a ballerina who smiles all through a pas de deux, the perfect photograph captured entirely by chance. But Cooper & Gorfer’s pieces look like they took a lot of time, so the viewer feels compelled to spend a lot of time looking at them.
They’ve also tapped into a hidden yearning within us to turn away from the ironic, the sarcastic and the trite—the Jeff Koonses and Damien Hirsts of the art world—and embrace the relentlessly authentic. There is no inside joke or sly pop cultural wink to these works: they are the result of thorough preparation, and they reward deep contemplation, promising viewers a moment of calm in our warp-speed, digitised world.
No coincidence, then, that their books—intended not as exhibition catalogues but as standalone works of art themselves—boast mysterious titles that pique the reader’s curiosity while revealing little about what lies within: My Quiet of Gold (2011), The Weather Diaries (2014) and, most recently, I Know Not These My Hands (2017). The atmosphere at their recent show at Stockholm’s Fotografiska was much the same: nearly silent enough to hear a heartbeat, not a single selfie snapped.
“If you look at our images, you should feel a connection in your heart more than in your mind […]. You should be reminded of something within you,” said Gorfer, hitting on a central tenet of art through the ages, which has perhaps been lost in the commercialisation of the contemporary art world. “The more places we travel, the more this is clear: we are all the same, we all are human, and we all have the same love and hate.”
People are a huge collage of identities
To be human is to carry your past with you, of course, and Cooper & Gorfer’s work shows the value in that. Our past experiences don’t necessarily have to be baggage; they can be adornments. We are not damaged, but wonderfully complex beings growing into ourselves. So these images—an old woman with piercing blue eyes handling a sumptuously woven belt, a young woman with sheaves of wheat among apple trees, twin girls dissolving into leafy green—are something to aspire to.
It is nearly impossible to look at them without wondering what object you would bring to Cooper & Gorfer, what story you might tell—and whether the resulting image would be just as astonishing. Certainly you’d find yourself burrowing deep within your own psyche—a virtual therapy session ending in a work of art instead of a doctor’s prescription.
“People are always… the product of both our collective memory—the culture we come from—and our personal experience. So we ourselves are this huge collage of identities,” observed Gorfer.
In much the same way, to Cooper & Gorfer, the time behind the lens is only a small part of the process, the image only a small part of a larger story. Photographs can be multifaceted objects of art, revealing the personal history of both subject and creator, as well as the cultural and communal histories that surround them. That is how a single photograph can become symbolic, telling a story far beyond the moment the shutter clicks.