Photographer Margaret Sartor is one of the great North Carolina artists whose work is featured in the Museum's permanent collection. I recently reached out to Sartor to get her thoughts about girlhood, photography, and how being a southerner has influenced her work.
Margaret Sartor, Katherine in the Playhouse, Monroe, Louisiana, 1989; printed 2005, pigmented inkjet print, 22 x 21 13/16 in., Purchased with funds from the William R. Roberson Jr. and Frances M. Roberson Endowed Fund for North Carolina Art
Margaret Sartor, Will with Bubble Wand, Monroe, Louisiana, 2000; printed 2005, pigmented inkjet print, 22 x 21 3/4 in., Gift of the artist
Patricia Gomes: Many of your photographs in the Museum feature young girls and children. What is your interest in exploring and capturing images of girlhood?
Margaret Sartor: A huge part of why I photograph women and girls is the practical outcome of the fact most of the time those were the people I was around. During the years I was most actively photographing in my hometown in Louisiana, I was there with my own young children … which means I was hanging around the children and the women (it was most often women) who were watching over them, as I was watching over my own son and daughter.
But, of course, it’s more than that. My photographs are a form of memoir, as is a great deal of my work as a writer as well as a photographer, and so the pictures are about the people I am drawn to and which, in some way, are a reflection of my search for belonging and identity, for understanding how we become who we are. I often photographed my children as they were growing up because I was always acutely interested in them and paying attention to them.
Oddly, I rarely photographed them in our home in North Carolina, whereas I am always drawn to photographing them when we are in Louisiana. I think because there, I am photographer. I’m looking all the time, and listening, paying attention to everything, often frustrated by a very traditional culture that is reluctant to change, feeling both a part of it and apart from it. In my hometown, I am aware of my own childhood and the people and social forces that shaped my sense of self, both positively and negatively.
The other reason I only photograph in Louisiana is that that is where I FEEL like photographing. It’s there that my searching started and where it goes back to: home, family, the heartaches and humiliations, the ghosts of the past, the secrets of childhood, the physical landscape that I know best in the world, and the people I have known and watched my whole life. So my sense of the world is dense with meaning in that place, and especially my sense of being a girl growing up and a woman in that culture, which is not the same as it feels here in the life I’ve created in North Carolina.
The roles and demands of and on women and girls in this, our American culture, have shifted dramatically between my mother’s childhood in the 1930s and 40s and mine, growing up in the 1960s and 70s, and my daughter’s in the 21st century, and they continue to shift, because they must. But in a small town, cultural changes often happen grudgingly.
PG: You were born in Louisiana and now live in North Carolina. What, in particular, does being from the South add to your work?
MS: I am irretrievably southern, from the rural Deep South, and that is a complicated inheritance, both culturally rich and profoundly troubling, in ways that I feel daily, hourly. I spent time working with a racially diverse group of photographers in South Africa in 1985, photographers who were on the front lines fighting and attempting to dismantle apartheid, recording faces, funerals, homes, schools, towns, work—documenting a history that the government wanted to keep hidden. I learned a lot from that experience. Those photographers loved their country deeply, were committed to making it better. So they showed me that it was possible to simultaneously love and hate the place that made you. It was after that experience in South Africa that I began to photograph in my hometown in Louisiana, to really look at it, see it, and feel the complexity of my emotional connection to it, accept that some emotions conflict and can’t be reconciled.
PG: Why is photography the best medium to express your artistic perspective?
MS: I love the medium and have since I was teenager and made my first darkroom prints. I love how photographs tell us things about real people with real lives … I think it’s about photography’s connection to reality that is so magical. Photographs are built from things that are concrete, and the tension of being both a factual description and a poetic interpretation of the surface of life never ceases to fascinate me. It’s all about the power of description: facts become metaphor, the photograph transcending the thing it describes.
And the role of luck. A photograph describes not just what the photographer notices, but all those details you don’t notice in the moment of releasing the shutter and only discover later in the editing. Photography is all about the editing, so it, too, is a kind of curating. And the impulse behind photographing is much like the impulse behind collecting: I see something and I am drawn to it, I trust my instincts and I make a picture. Sometimes something magical happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Margaret Sartor, Emily at Gulf Shores, Alabama, 1987; printed 2005, pigmented inkjet print, 22 x 21 7/8 in., Purchased with funds from the William R. Roberson Jr. and Frances M. Roberson Endowed Fund for North Carolina Art
PG: One of my favorite images of yours is Emily at Gulf Shores, Alabama. What is the story behind that image and young Emily?
MS: That is a photograph of my youngest sister, and it was made on a family vacation to the Gulf Coast not long after our father died. He died suddenly of a heart attack. Emily was 7 years old when it happened. I was already in my 20s. And I have three other siblings. The shock and grief and sense of loss we all felt, including my mother, was a through-the-looking-glass experience. And it was only after his death that I understood that love was inextricably connected to loss. To love is to accept the risk of pain.
I think at the moment I made this picture of Emily holding on to the edge of the pool, mostly submerged and looking up at me, I felt her as a mirror of my own feeling of being on the edge, that I might drown in my grief, but hanging on. But there is also the consolation of the photograph’s formal beauty—the solidity and symmetry of the square format, the soft lushness of the grays and blacks. The tension created by the image’s formal beauty and its emotional content is part of what makes it work.