A Conversation With Scott Alario
In his series <em>What We Conjure</em>, Scott Alario uses black-and-white film and a large-format camera to picture his wife and children as the cast of a mystical and elegant play.
Scott Alario is a photographer based between Providence, RI, and Alfred, NY. In his series What We Conjure, Alario uses black-and-white film and a large-format camera to picture his wife and children as the cast of a mystical and elegant play. Tonight, Alario's first solo show in New York opens at Kristen Lorello Gallery on the Lower East Side. We talked about what it means to use your family as subjects, other photographers who have done this, and selling personal photographs as a commodity in the art market.
VICE: Let’s talk about your show. It’s at Kristen Lorello Gallery, which is a place I’ve never heard of.
Scott Alario: The gallery just opened—in April. It had one other show, and I’m the second. The owner, Kristen, worked at a bunch of different galleries before starting her own, and she’s well versed in painting and sculpture. It’s interesting to talk to her about photography.
I think it’s good for photographers to be in a gallery that shows painters and sculptors too. I mean it’s cool that there are photography galleries, but I think it’s better for everything to be together. You teach photography at Alfred University?
Yeah, but that’s another multidisciplinary place because there aren’t majors, or defined specific majors. It’s like everyone’s just doing whatever they want.
Does your family come to Alfred with you when you teach there?
Yeah, they’re there with me hangin’ out. And my daughter’s five and a half and she’s going to school. And we just had a baby in October.
What’s his name?
His name is Marco, Marco Moon. His five-year-old sister named him. She was like, “We have to call him Moonlight; we’ll call him Moony for short.” So that’s what we call him.
The pictures in this show are of your family.
Yes, the pictures are a continuation of my series What We Conjure. There are ten pictures in the show. They’re grouped in terms of palette, mostly, and formal things, like darkness. I shoot a large-format, 8x10 camera. I had a pretty formal photographic upbringing.
It’s work about your family, and the relationship you have with your daughter and your son. What are you trying to do with these pictures?
For me the work has become less about my specific family and more kind of about little performances or little stories that my daughter, Elska, and I create together, and it kind of became about play. I was really excited when they started to speak to something more spiritual or symbolic. I guess we’re kind of spiritual in like an animistic sense. We put spirits in everything, like the trees, the rocks. It’s a thing I do with my kid.
What do you mean you put spirits into everything?
It’s interesting for a kid to project life into things. So the work includes these gestures towards spirituality and these performative ritualistic elements, but this all all happens in the context of the everyday. I’m always so worried about kitsch and cliché and being cute, so I want the work to also have visceral content. I want it to talk about the value of life, the nature of fear, and stuff like that.
Why do you stick with black-and-white?
Originally the black-and-white thing was a practical issue. I had the 8x10 camera, and I was able to make contact prints inside my home. I didn’t really miss color. It’s just another filter, another interruption in the work for me.
What is your process like? Seems like these pictures happen over the course of your life.
Making these pictures is something I really enjoy, but sometimes asking to moderate my life, like asking my family to take pictures of them all the time, can be a challenge. Sometimes I have to coax them into participating, but I think when they see the images, when they see the prints, they share the excitement that I have for them. I’m always trying to plan things out, but oftentimes things that happen inadvertently are more interesting. I think photography is very good for that—freezing these amazing accidents.
How do you feel about Sally Mann?
I really like Sally Mann. Her pictures have a sort of 90s vibe to me, but maybe just because that’s when they were made. There’s a lot of sexuality and darkness projected into the work—perhaps by Sally. Maybe that’s how their life was, but maybe it’s all a performance, and that’s really interesting too. I like Sally Mann’s work.
How do you feel about Emmett Gowin?
I like Emmett Gowin.
Yeah, I think Gowin’s better.
Emmett Gowin’s a little more comfortable with taking a bad picture. You know what I mean? Like taking a picture that doesn’t make sense. I think Sally Mann’s work might make too much sense.
Thomas Roma. Harry Callahan. I’m just thinking of other black-and-white pictures of photographers’ families. These people have made work about their personal lives for a wider audience, but they still end up with a really beautiful family album.
Yeah, it does become a documentary of my family. I’m not afraid of that happening. Emmet Gowin talks about making work about things that you love, putting your head down, and not really caring if it’s going to be read well, or if people are going to connect to it. He talks about staying close to the things that you are passionate about.
I worked at the RISD museum when I was in grad school, and I would get to dig through prints of Harry Callahan’s work. I really felt a sincere connection. I did my undergrad at the Massachusetts College of Art, and studied with Nicholas Nixon.
He’s another 8x10 black-and-white photographer who photographs his family. I think it’s a good thing whenever pictures can be useful in a real way, in peoples’ lives, but it’s interesting to think about selling pictures like this in the marketplace. Is it your first solo show in New York?
Yeah, it’s my first show in New York. It’s just ten pictures, so it’s pretty small. The gallery is really tiny and cozy. It’s the most ideal way to show my work in New York City because it’s pretty alive.
How much does a picture of your daughter go for?
Ten pictures from Scott Alario's What We Conjure will remain on view at Kristern Lorello Gallery from June 5 through July 18, 2014.
Matthew Leifheit is photo editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.