Getting out of the city every chance I get helps me cope with living in New York,” Sarah Wilmer says. “I appreciate nature more because I am not constantly surrounded by it.” The photographer does allow that the workspace in her Carroll Gardens apartment boasts a bucolic view, certainly in comparison with her Long Island City, Queens, studio. Outside these windows, the Manhattan skyline floats beyond rows of dilapidated industrial buildings and bright sunlight reflecting off the East River. Much of her work takes place out in the world, with this Carroll Gardens location reserved for studio shoots and the occasional cup of coffee with journalists. “I also shoot a lot in Prospect Park and Central Park—a lot of my photographs where people ask, ‘What is this magical place?’ were shot in Central Park or somewhere right off the highway in New Jersey,” Wilmer says with a laugh.
It’s difficult to do justice to work this cinematic and vibrant, strange and unsettling, without reaching for the term Lynchian. Indeed, Wilmer counts the enigmatic filmmaker as one of her influences. But David Lynch hinges his peculiar genius on juxtaposing the bizarre and the mundane. You would be hard-pressed to find anything mundane in the beautifully twisted worlds that Wilmer conjures. Each image seems to spring fully formed from its own fairy tale, replete with ice forests, doomed princesses and impossibly white birds. Wilmer skillfully blurs the line between fear and wonder, and color and contrast are everywhere—shadowy figures crouch in verdant meadows, baleful children hide in the gloom of tree trunks and a zebra pauses in a clearing, mist rising around it like steam.
David Herman, owner of boutique record label Squirrel Thing Recordings, has turned to Wilmer several times for album artwork. The tension between light and dark in her work captivated him, as well as her unerring ability to maintain that precarious balance. “Even when her images stretch the bounds of what’s logically possible, they always feel completely natural,” Herman explains of her intuition for magical realism. “She distills the image down to its most potent form, so even when she’s integrating totally disparate elements, the whole thing has a very clear sense of harmony.”
Wilmer puts a lot of effort into researching and planning before shoots, so she can fully engage creatively during them. On set, she stays animated and lively, so despite the unusual requests she often makes of her subjects, they are too busy having fun to balk. Commercial assignments are necessarily collaborative, with Wilmer taking on the role of choreographer: “We experiment together with expressive postures, gestures, handmade props, constructed sets, wardrobe and lighting, all to create a feeling of heightened reality,” Wilmer says. “The elements may be familiar, but the composed images take on an entirely new, surreal quality.” Postproduction involves discovery and distillation: finding the emotional center in each image and bringing it to the fore.
Hilary Greenbaum, director of graphic design for the Whitney Museum of American Art, saw these talents firsthand when Wilmer shot the marketing campaign for the museum’s Laura Poitras: Astro Noise exhibit, which opened in February. “The exhibition contained many heavy topics, including mass surveillance, the war on terror and Guantánamo Bay,” Greenbaum explains. “Before the work was even installed, Sarah captured the gravity of the subject matter as well as the experiential nature of the exhibition with a mock- up in the artist’s studio. Her accuracy in representing the tone of the exhibition made the campaign both authentic and intriguing.”
There is an aspect of the absurd when talking to Wilmer about how she brings her otherworldly images into being. You can, of course, probe the nuts and bolts of the matter—equipment, locations, philosophical approach and so on. But ultimately, her bottomless imagination is the font from which all else springs. The roots of that mysterious, timeless world, where much of her work seems to exist, extend back to her childhood in pastoral Missouri.
Wilmer grew up in St. Charles, about 45 minutes northwest of St. Louis. She and her twin sister were the middle children, bookended by an older brother and a younger brother. They were a working-class family: her father, a traveling salesman who later became an engineer; her mother, a jack-of-all-trades, who did everything from secretarial work to dog training.
“The landscape was flat, open fields, woods, soft hills, rivers, highways, fast food chains and strip malls,” Wilmer remembers. “We had lots of animals. I was a sick kid, but also active. I was always the one coming up with weird stuff for us to do, like, ‘Let’s go put on a play or a dance performance’ or ‘Let’s explore in the woods.’”
From a young age, she documented these adventures with a Polaroid and disposable cameras, covering her bedroom walls with Polaroid prints and four-inch by six-inch prints from a Walmart store. Still, she never considered the idea of a career in visual arts until she enrolled at St. Louis Community College and, in order to fulfill an elective requirement, signed up for a photography class. It would prove to be a transformative experience.
“Watching my first image appear in the darkroom was magical. I instantly thought, ‘This is it,’” she explains. Wilmer immediately changed her focus, flying through introductory art classes while working at two different photo labs and waiting tables in order to cover tuition. That same relentless drive took her to the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon. It was there, amidst the region’s lush abundance, that she developed her voice as an artist.
As the courses were winding down in her single year at PNCA, Wilmer knew she wanted to go to New York City, but she also knew that she needed more experience. It was 2001, and the Internet was still young, so she pulled out a phone book and methodically cold-called photographers, looking for work. At every interview, Wilmer showed her book to prospective employers only to hear that, with work as conceptual as hers, she should meet Portland, Oregon–based photographer Mark Hooper.
“Finally, I was able to get hold of Mark for a meeting,” she explains. Hooper wasn’t looking for an assistant, but offered Wilmer a paid internship on the spot. “I learned more about photography in three months with him than I had in three years—concepting, lighting, problem solving, directing, managing, editing, marketing. Really, just how to be a professional.”
That internship eventually transitioned into a studio manager position, which in turn empowered Wilmer to strike out on her own as a freelance photography assistant, printer and location scout. She spent three years in Portland before she had an epiphany. “I was driving in my Volvo station wagon to my house with my girlfriend in a really nice neighborhood,” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘If I don’t do anything, I’m going to still be here when I’m 40 years old because it’s so comfortable and nice.’” Wilmer left for New York City a month later.
Like most, her arrival in New York was inauspicious; she rented space in the living room of some friends’ Crown Heights apartment in Brooklyn. The rent was cheap in 2004, but squatters filled the building, and the neighborhood was rough, to say the least. There were several stabbings, and she barely escaped being mugged for thousands of dollars worth of photo equipment. During that time, she befriended two of her favorite photographers, Chris Buck and Kyoko Hamada, and hustled her way into jobs big and small.
“Now that I do my own work, it’s pretty specific,” she says, “but at that time, I worked with travel, story, advertising and art photographers. Such a range of experience—every project brought me something different.”
A year after her arrival, Wilmer secured a scholarship to study at Parsons School of Design, where she would earn a BFA in photography. Former classmate and current creative director and stylist Chelsea Fairless recalls Wilmer making quite the first impression. “I was instantly drawn to how sophisticated and cinematic her work was. So many of her photos have surreal, ambiguous subject matter—you can project all sorts of strange narratives on them,” Fairless says. “But I was also drawn to the fact that her work was much more technically advanced than that of our classmates.”
Wilmer may have arrived at Parsons a seasoned photographer, but it was there that she truly honed her craft, able to pursue her personal work with equipment and studios that otherwise were beyond her means. And Photoshop provided “a whole new dimension,” teaching her new ways to use collage and manipulate density and color.
More and more work followed, all of it equally surprising to the young photographer. Her name began to pop up on blogs, her images in magazines. A musician herself, Wilmer had always done a lot of work with bands, but it was still a stand-out moment when she shot the B-52s while still at Parsons.
In 2009, she embarked on a two-month-long artist residency in an Icelandic fishing village. Working alone in an unfamiliar place proved to be a revelatory experience. “I had to slow down, think simpler and quieter, and figure out how to respectfully work with the locals,” she explains. “I also had to adjust to the ever-changing light, incredible wind and wild nature. The people, lifestyle, soundscape and landscape of Iceland taught me patience, gratitude and the importance of relationships.”
Wilmer scoffs at any idea that she has “arrived” while acknowledging that she is in an enviable position as a commercial photographer. No real line divides her personal work and her professional output—clients come to her because they want her to do what she already does. There is a freedom there, as well as an affirmation of precisely how unique her images are. But Wilmer isn’t stopping to smell the roses anytime soon. For her, photo- graphy is still the same thing she fell in love with all those years ago in Missouri.
“The ritual of photography is the best part,” she muses. “Getting there, having your tools ready, working with people and engaging with the world—that’s where the magic is.” ca