Photos by JEREMy Liebman 

In the Studio with David Benjamin Sherry

BY Alexandre Stipanovich | Wed. August 1, 2012 | 12:00 AM | In The Studio
As you may have gathered from his last show at Salon 94, the artist David Benjamin Sherry is more than a photographer (David shot our SS10 lookbook). He is a celestial rover––half-geologist, half-mystic. He divides his time between the confined space of the dark room, where he prints his photographs, and the wide expanse of the desert, where he explores different mineral textures, shapes, surfaces, and landscapes. OC first with David back in 2010, when he shot the Spring/Summer lookbook. I dropped by his Brooklyn studio with Jeremy one recent afternoon.

Alexandre Stipanovich: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
David Benjamin Sherry: I was born in 1981, and I grew up in Woodstock NY. I left home at 18 and went to Rhode Island School of Design for four years, then I came to NYC in 2002. I went back to school in 2006 at Yale University and received my MFA in Photography.

AS: How do you think growing up in Woodstock influenced your work?
DBS: Everything about Woodstock––its funky (literally), liberal character; its place in history during the political and sexual revolution of the late 60’s––was naturally part my upbringing. My friends and I had a lot of freedom growing up as kids in the 80s and 90s. There was a huge emphasis on art in the community, so I began creating things organically. 

At 12 or 13, we started taking buses to New York City and going to raves. My friends and I discovered this underground culture and adopted this great style that was still foreign to our small upstate community. At the height of the rave scene, I could have described myself as a “polo” raver. I'd wear 60-inch wide jeans called Aura’s E, which was a brand by this girl in Long Island named Aura. I shaved my eyebrows completely off, pierced everything on my face, put platforms on my running sneakers... I’d work day and night in the mall upstate so that I could buy my rave tickets and take bus trips to get all the cool clothes in the city. I found out about everything from shops like Liquid Sky and Satellite Records––they would put flyers out and you had to call hotlines to find out all the rave info. All the great mixtapes were sold at the stores too. It was a real beautiful time to be a teenager and so close to NYC.

AS: Is that how you were introduced to the clan of New York artists that you know today?
DBS: No, that didn’t happen until after I graduated from college. One of my dearest friends whom I met while at RISD was Raina Hamner, and she grew up in Tribeca and knew a lot of people in the city. Right after we graduated, Raina took me out one afternoon and just introduced me to the whole group. I remember one of my first days in the city in 2003, when I went to The Hat on Ludlow Street and met Marc Hundley, Ben Cho, Dash Snow, and all these great people. Ben really took me under his wing. Marc was the first man I ever kissed.

I spent the next two years here having an incredibly fun time and taking tons of pictures. I was really broke at the time and was living in an apartment in Brooklyn with about ten other friends, and we were all sharing beds. It was a very messy, glorious, carefree, youthful, and dreamy moment for all of us. It felt so real and innocent, yet in retrospect I was also getting sidetracked from my own dreams and work. I realize that I was quickly swept into a wonderful family of friends, and that each person around me was so extraordinarily attention-demanding, wildly creative, loud, complex, and beautiful. I needed to step outside of it all for a moment. I wanted to continue my studies in a graduate program and also figure out my personal and creative identity.

AS: How so?
DBS: Well, during my first years in the city, I was coming out and I was starting to form my first relationships with men. So my work at the time was very personal––kind of a sexual awakening. Then in graduate school, it was as though I just suddenly came to life, and my work completely changed. I think I needed some distance from the city and all of its craziness to transform myself and my work.

AS: How did you become so passionate about the desert?
DBS: I was drawn into the desert for its sheer brilliance of fossilized time, the blinding luminosity of its stones and rocks, the infinite desolate space, the wildly varied and brightly colored sun-bleached palettes, the supernatural light, the invisibility of space and surroundings, the supreme silence like no other natural landscape, and the infinite horizon and endless repetition in minimal form. The harsh terrain is otherworldly, and I found myself tripping over rocks and staring at the sediment, ultimately taking photographs of the changing patterns, colors, and forms that were beneath my feet and surrounding me.

AS: You're like a geologist sometimes.
DBS: My practice does seem to involve a lot of research––at times it’s just about gathering from the land and nature, and then going back to document what I've found and seen. I guess you could say it's scientific because it deals with raw materials and collecting data.

AS: Why do you stick mainly to monochromatic photographs?
DBS: I’m interested in the monochrome in photography because I find it very new and exciting to work in one palette. Individual hues activate one another and colors activate the human senses. For me, monochromatic printing and then displaying the works creates an environment––a performative stage for viewers to interact with them, almost the way that a John McCracken installation functions. When choosing colors, I definitely consider the space that they will be shown in.

AS: Are the colors you use real or modified?
Well, "real" is relative. But yes, I start with the colors as they existed at the time that I photographed them. I then push the saturation while printing in the color darkroom. All of my printing is analog, as well as the shooting process. I use a 4x5 camera and sheet film to make my work.

AS: Do you have any good stories about your travels in the desert?
DBS: I have so many wild stories from the desert. I guess the strangest would involve visiting a UFO sanctuary and being contacted by “light beings.” I was a changed man from that experience and it opened up my mind to endless possibilities.

 How did you come up with the sand painting technique?
DBS: The work you are referring to was in the Salon 94 exhibition Astral Desert, and it was the first time I used the sand-on-photograph technique. I gathered sand, dirt, and debris from each location. I also photographed the rocks, cliffs, and desert floor. It felt natural to incorporate these materials in the works as evidence of my process and discoveries I made in the desert. I also wanted to draw attention to the grains of sand as well as the grains of film––not pixels––that I worked with. Covering a photograph in the dyed sand dust gave the print an illusion of depth, too. These prints were displayed in the gallery's Freeman Alley space, creating an atmosphere that felt infinite and soft in opposition to the harsher, more contrasting photographs in the Bowery space. The Bowery pieces, for me, tied together the opposing hard and soft forces of the desert in one exhibition.

AS: What artists are you currently obsessed with, and which ones have had a big influence on you so far?
DBS: I am interested in many artists––it would be hard to narrow it down to only a few. In making this body of work, I think I was very influenced by the Light and Space artists of California. Robert Irwin, John McCracken, and Larry Bell as well as many Earth artists such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and Nancy Holt, to name a few. Every day I find another artist that inspires me. More recently, I’ve been mesmerized by the works of Jimmy De Sana and also David Wojnarowicz.

AS: What are you listening to these days? Will you be DJing anytime soon?
DBS: I’ve been listening to Frank Ocean on repeat since his new album Channel Orange came out, I think he's a musical genius. And when that's not playing, I listen to a lot of American minimal music. DJing is fun. I love music and sharing it with people, though I go through phases with music and I can only really play what I’m listening to at that moment, so it would be difficult to make a crowd happy at times. Unless they were very open-minded.

AS: What is your next project?

DBS: My next project is moving to Los Angeles from NYC! I'll be driving across the country in a few weeks and setting up my new house and studio there to make new work. It’s too early to say what I'll be making but I promise it will be very exciting!