Reading Room for ‘Dress Portrait’: an interview with Sarah Edwards

As part of their Reading Room project alongside the Chelsea Space exhibition ‘Dress Portrait: Molly Goddard and Sarah Edwards’, MA Curating and Collections students Yihuan Chen, Beining Liang and Zeyu Zhao interviewed photographer and set designer Sarah Edwards, who shared her insight on the show, her practice and collaborating with her daughter Molly Goddard.

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Sarah Edwards in the gallery. Photograph by Zeyu Zhao

Q: Hi Sarah, thank you for agreeing to this interview! Could you explain your thoughts behind the idea for this exhibition in Chelsea Space? Was there anything that was part of your original plan, but changed in the end?

A: Well, the idea was really to take photographs of fashion, but looking at fashion in a different way. I think that is an important part of what I do. I try to capture how I want the garments to feel, how they relate to my surroundings, and how they have a connection with nature, landscape and other elements. If there was anything that changed in the final display? No, not really. I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to look, and I wanted to portray the clothes in a way that was my own personal view of them, looking at them as if they were objects, to show the real beauty about the construction of fabrics.

Q: You are also a set designer. How does working on set design compare to preparing an exhibition?

A: With set design, I have a very clear vision of how I want certain things to appear, and I try to stay away from the very obvious. It’s about making people interested in what they see, and seeing things from a different angle. For example, if I did a dinner table, I would probably put some elements there that are unexpected. So, for this show, I did not want to just hang twenty framed pictures on one wall; I like the fact that when you come up, the first thing you see, that green wall with the quite traditional hanging, looks very different than the rest of the exhibition. I wanted there to be quite lot to see within the small space, that’s why the pasted photographs, and the small frames at the end.

Q: Do you think you were inspired by this space?

A: Yes, every space inspires me. Every space is a challenge, I like thinking what’s the best one can do within a given space. And that is why I had the wall built, I did not want it to be just one room, I wanted there to be a flow, and for people go towards the end of the room, turn around and see these pictures which are quite hidden.

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Installation view of ‘Dress Portrait’. Photo by Zeyu Zhao.

Q: When and why did you start working as a photographer?

A: I started taking photographs when I was 11 years old, and I took it very seriously then. In those days, I used film which was expensive, so I was very careful about what I photographed, and I took a lot of time to set up the composition. I think as a photographer, you look at things very much as photographs, in your whole life you almost look at everything as if you were looking through the camera – and that can be quite exhausting in many ways! I am always composing things, be it picking faces, framing landscapes, anything. Seeing everything as photographs is really wonderful, because that means wherever you are, you are being inspired.

Q: Who have you been inspired by? Do you have a favourite photographer?

A: I would say all photographers, past and present, have had an impact on my own practice. Fashion photography really inspires me. I do not really have a favourite, however. With many photographers, I like a lot of what they do, and I might not like some of their work. But I would say Henri Cartier-Bresson has been a huge inspiration.

Q: We noticed that in your photographs for this exhibition, you focus on details, and your use of light and shadow is very strong.

A: Well, my photography is about composition as much as light to shadow. I am fascinated by light changes, I love when the light is unusual. Like on a sunny day, when the sky is black; I remember being about ten years old, living in the countryside and seeing a sky like that, a black sky on a sunny day, and wanting to capture that. Unusual light really inspires me.

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Installation view of ‘Dress Portrait’ with photograps by Sarah Edwards. Photo by Zeyu Zhao.

Q: So, do you prefer black and white photography because of its stronger contrast?

A: I don’t like dark any more than colour, and I can print my photographs either in black and white or in colour, and I don’t really have a preference. Although when you look at my colour photographs in this exhibition, they look very desaturated, quite like black and white photographs.

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Installation view of ‘Dress Portrait’ with photographs by Sarah Edwards. Photo by Zeyu Zhao.

Q: When did you start photographing Molly’s dresses or using her materials in your photographs?

A: From the first day she started. Alice, my other daughter, is a stylist. I have been photographing them since they were born, so when when Molly started creating her collections, I just kept on recording her life.

Q: Wow, that’s amazing! Why do you choose to photograph her work, rather than other kinds of artistic practice?

A: Well, you know, I take photographs all the time, so this an element of my work, part of the work I do. But I’m interested in doing portraits, or fashion, or nature. I photograph her work, not because it is hers, but because it inspires me and I find it very beautiful. I like the challenge of photographing it in a way that moves away from fashion photography.

Q: How is it to work with your daughter? Do you work together every day?

A: No, we don’t work together every day, we work separately. The advantages I think are that we are inspired by similar things, and I think we both admire each other’s work. You know, we get along very well, we laugh for a lot of things, we just don’t take it too seriously. There are no difficulties, it all happens very naturally and quite organically.

Q: When working with Molly, how do you draw inspiration from each other? As you said, you love similar things.

A: I think we are similar in the way we research, not just fashion, but also related subjects; Molly also does a lot of research, and there are lots of different things that can inspire her for her collections. I really encourage people to look at everything. When you go to an exhibition, look up an artist you don’t know about, study the architecture of the space, notice everything. I think this is important particularly when being a student, you really need to read a lot, and look at different photographers. Molly and I send images to each other occasionally, she knows what I will like and I know what she will like. And that’s just fun, I do that with friends as well.

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Installation view of ‘Dress Portrait’ with photograph by Sarah Edwards. Photo by Zeyu Zhao.

Q: And what are your future plans for the collaboration with Molly?

A: Right now there are lots of things coming up, a lot of things to do! So we will carry on working on more projects together.

Q: Where do you see your practice going forward? Will you focus on either photography or set design or continue with both?

A: I think I want to spend more time on my photography, and I possibly would like to publish something, photographic books perhaps. I will carry on working on set design as well, but allow more time to do photography.

Q: So, would you want to exhibit again?

A: Yes, I’d love to do another exhibition.

Q: Looking forward to it. Hope it will be in London, and we can visit it. Is there anything about this exhibition that you would change or add, or something that didn’t reach your expectations?

A: I am going to say something funny – if I could change anything, I would have liked to have a big comfort carpet on the floor! When working around a budget you can’t always get everything, but in such a minimal modern space, it would be unexpected, you know? And it’s about the whole experience, seeing the show while walking on a fake luxury pink carpet, it would have been lovely.

Yihuan Chen, Beining Liang and Zeyu Zhao