Sheri Lynn Behr's work is eclectic, a career that has evolved over the years. Her most recent project, NoSafeDistance challenges our ideas of private and public existence. There are important questions being asked here, and the work forces us into realizing that we are all on show no matter where we are.
As Sheri says, "Today we live in a post-privacy world, an image-obsessed society where cameras are everywhere. With or without our knowledge, we are being photographed several times a day."
This invasion of our privacy has taken place without our implicit permission, and yet I know I still cling to a desire to stay private, even when I'm outside. By facing this dichotomy straight on, Behr's photos force us to acknowledge that we have no control of how we are viewed anymore.
"By cropping and enlarging the faces, which are often distorted by the window's reflections, and by removing the context, there is a certain ambiguity created. The images can reference mug shots, identity cards, missing persons, even paparazzi celebrity captures. More closely they resemble surveillance photos, which is what they really are. They are meant to challenge our expectations of anonymity and privacy."
Tell me about No Safe Distance. How did it come about? How do people react to you?
NoSafeDistance started in Chinatown. When I’d photograph into a store window, some people would turn away and hide, and others would smile and pose. And of course, the issues of immigration, terrorism, surveillance and privacy have really become important. What are the expectations of privacy when you are in a space with a large glass window to the street, and everyone seems to have a camera? How do you react when a stranger’s camera is pointed at you?
I’ve been shooting this project in big cities like NY and LA, and in small towns in New Jersey. I’d like to shoot more in other places, hopefully soon, both single images, and series of photos that track the subject’s reaction to the camera.
And no, no one has come out after me.
You seems to have a fascination with Chinatown communities—your book Lucky Cats speaks to that. How did that come about?
In 2004 I started a day job in a school in Chinatown that was supposed to last 2 months. I’m still picking up the occasional part time job there, in part because I’m still shooting there. As I said earlier, I have a need to take pictures when I’m somewhere new, and I photograph a place until I come to terms with it. I’ve created a number of Chinatown portfolios, but I’m still not finished there. It continues to surprise me.
The Lucky Cats project started in Chinatown, but it has moved beyond it to other places and taken on a life of its own. Part of the fascination for me in the beginning was that despite being in shop windows all over Chinatown, Lucky Cats are actually Japanese. In a way, they became a metaphor for the kind of photography I do.
Tell us how you came to photography
I come from a family that took a lot of snapshots and home movies. My mom had a lot of photo albums. I think the earliest pictures I took myself are from when I went off to camp at 14. They were the start of my need to take pictures when I was somewhere other than home. Later on, when I started taking photography classes after college, I realized how much I just wanted to be taking pictures, looking at pictures. All the time. So I do.
Who influenced you? Whose work do you admire?
The list is endless. It probably starts with Edward Weston’s peppers. How such a mundane object can look so beautiful. I just saw one at AIPAD that I had never seen before and found I could still be amazed by them.
These days, I’m really very eclectic in my tastes, and I appreciate so much of what I see, old and new. Eggleston, who I didn’t like much at the beginning, but whose work I’ve grown to love. Lucas Samaras’ manipulated Polaroids. Lately, I’ve been really loving the work of Michael Wolf, Jeff Brouws and Phil Toledano.
You spent many years photographing music. How did that come about? When I was taking classes I wanted to keep photographing for myself and not just for class. I didn’t want to do street photography, so I started shooting concerts. It was much, much easier back then.
One day I tried to get into a sold-out concert in Central Park with my camera around my neck, and ended up meeting the record company’s publicist. He let us in, but also asked if I had a portfolio, which I had been putting together. He gave me my first official photo pass to see the Jefferson Starship in Central Park. Shooting backstage, on stage and at the party afterward was just amazing. I definitely wanted to do more.
What made you leave that?
The music business was changing, and some of my favorite places to shoot were closing down. And bands like the Police (who I had photographed a few years earlier at the Hotel Diplomat in Times Square with maybe 50 people in the audience) were suddenly asking for the right to approve all photographs. That’s unfortunately pretty common now, with artists like Lady Gaga trying to own the photographer’s copyright. But it was pretty rare at that time.
Also, I had just started working with a Polaroid SX-70. I liked what I was getting from that camera, and I was really tired of using my tiny bathroom as a darkroom. It was really time to do something new. I love getting new cameras, new technology, it always has an impact on my work.
What are you working on these days?
As usual, I’m juggling several projects. I’ve been scanning and printing the rock and roll, trying to get it out in the world again (a photo of Deborah Harry of Blondie was auctioned off for Housing Works at their yearly benefit in May), I’m writing a blog so I can get the stories written, and eventually, I’d like to do a book and have another exhibition of the work.
The Lucky Cats is at a new gallery space in LA now, and I’ve been showing NoSafeDistance at portfolio reviews and online. And one day, I will get the Chinatown project edited and finished, whatever that means. My motto is not enough hours in the day, not enough days in the week.
In terms of business, I’ve always made sure to always have some kind of day job, because I never wanted to have to depend on photography to support me. When it came close to that, and I had the opportunity to do rock and roll photography full time, I realized I didn’t want to lose the passion in the need for a paycheck.
What is the best/worst thing you’ve seen (heard, thought, etc) recently? Don’t get me started on crowd sourcing.
What else do you want to tell us? Photography can be a journey, not just a job. Explore, experiment and see where it takes you. And enjoy the ride.
If you're in LA, be sure to go to the Artist Reception/Book Signing for "Lucky Cats-To Bring In The Money" on Saturday,June 25 at No Roses Gallery, 13624 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks from 6pm - 9pm.
Check out more of Sheri's work here:
NoSafeDistance and the Chinatown projects