In Conversation: Emily Sheffer + Dust Collective

Emily Sheffer earned her BFA in Photography with Departmental Honors from The Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2015, Emily was listed as a LensCulture Top 50 Emerging Photographer, and was invited to participate in Center Review Santa Fe 2016. In 2017, she founded Dust Collective, a handmade photography book collective, and has since published over a dozen titles. Dust Collective books are currently in the collections of The New York Public Library, The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others. Emily currently works as a fine art photographer and studio director in New England.

Suffolk

These images are a reverie on the tradition of walking on public footpaths throughout southeastern England, where deep time is layered on the immediacy of the present.

An image of a spider web shows a time-worn gnarled tree, with a delicate and dew-soaked spider web clinging onto its’ branches. Years of time layer on top of a single moment, and become one.

The sun and moon float, reflected in one puddle. The disorienting act of looking into a reflection reverses reality. Day and night merge into the same field of vision.

A site along the River Stour is a location where famed landscape painter, John Constable, lived and worked. The sun reflects off of the water, and through a hole in a log in the foreground – the world becomes a camera lens, and the viewer its’ subject. The history of painting and the contemporary tradition of photography layer into one.

Two trunks of one tree become anthropomorphized. Weary figures lean on each other for support- an eternity of life together.

An animal appears in a hole through a hedgerow, seemingly inaccessible but immediate. The white horse becomes one with the back horse behind it – eight legs and two tails appear on a single body.

Two swans create a classic heart shape with their necks, referencing the swan in legend, literature, and art history.

In closing, a bat flies soundlessly over a farm road, into a misty blue darkness. Fear and wonder mingle together.

Kyra Schmidt: Emily, thank you for speaking with me. Your description of Suffolk is compelling. The images seem to embody a space between the sensation of being in a place and the physical representation of it. Your images are soft and poetic yet are not suggestive of an obvious or linear narrative. Can you discuss the relationship between photography, walking, and public space in your work? What inspired your contemplation of this particular landscape?

Emily Sheffer: Hi Kyra! I’m happy to chat with you. Thank you for your beautiful synopsis of my work, I’m glad it resonates in that way for you, I hope it does for others as well. 

Simply put, I want to make images that are about layers of time on a place. I’m drawn to moments when deep time and an instant can be seen in one field of view. I seem to find this most often within the natural world. For instance, the sun and moon play a large part in my work, as they are the earliest tools used in calendars and timekeeping. 

Photography is the perfect medium to capture time, as it is inherent within the process. It takes a specific amount of time, measured by the shutter speed, to make an image.

As I moved through the landscape with my camera, I found that walking felt most like time passing on a human scale. For this reason, England’s public footpaths seemed like the perfect subject for this body of work. I was compelled by this network of public footpaths that are woven throughout the landscape, as they allowed me to move freely through a space that has extraordinary human and natural history layered upon it. It is profound, for me, that many of these paths can be traced to medieval times, and some even farther. 

I think it’s true with many artists that the end goal of a project isn’t often apparent in the creation process. I made photographs on public footpaths in Suffolk, and these are the images that came from it. Wherever work is made, an artist is in conversation with their surroundings, and in this case I was responding to this richly layered landscape of southeastern England.

KS: The theme of time is prominent in this work. Time, represented in your photographs, feels both mystical and melancholic; weaving the past into the present. You have captured the very quiet, yet universal moments that pass us by. The act of walking, art history, signifiers, and bygone times all merge into a single image. What do you hope to communicate with this meditation?

Emily Sheffer: I suppose I would like to convey the awe that I feel about the vastness of human experience within the natural world. I know that’s a tall order to fill… the world is so wondrous and mysterious. This can be a bit scary at times, but also comforting in many ways. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels a wave of unease wash over me when contemplating a sky full of stars. There’s still so much that we don’t know, or can’t comprehend. I want to try to take a step out of the human-scale experience, and consider our surroundings within both the micro and macro time scale. 

KS: That is very beautifully stated. Your description of our vast, sublime, nearly overwhelming world resonates with me on a bodily level. I think what you are trying to convey within your work is important, but I also imagine it can be difficult to communicate as sometimes there are no words for such experiences. Do you find this fact distressing? What keeps you motivated?

Emily Sheffer: Hmm I suppose it’s not a pursuit that will ever have a final answer. So really I feel like I have infinite subject matter to work with. Plus, I don’t think this sensation is anything I have to convince others of, it’s a universal feeling. I’m just pointing it out.

KS: I’m interested in hearing about any specific writers, philosophers, artists, etc. that have influenced your work/ideology as a creator?

Emily Sheffer: Anna Atkins is hugely influential as an innovator of early photographic processes, and acts as a touchstone for me to delve into the history of photography. 

Haruki Murakami is widely known for his novels that contemplate themes of magical realism. I find his writing really fun and engaging. It keeps me on my toes, because I can never be quite sure where I am in time and space within his works. 

WG Sebald specifically wrote about a walk he took along the Suffolk coast in his book, Rings of Saturn. He masterfully weaves the straightforward experience of walking with larger themes of life, death, history, and human emotion. Something else I find fascinating about this book is the use of photography throughout it. Small, grainy black and white photos provide a melancholic and nostalgic aspect to the writing.

I also have to say that I have an extraordinary mentor in the landscape photographer, Barbara Bosworth. Her body of work is a lifelong study in awe, wonder, and gratitude.  

KS: What else is in store for you this year? I hear of an exciting book making residency in the near future..

 Emily Sheffer: Yes! So, for the past few years my studio practice has focused on handmade photography books. I’m very grateful to have been awarded this years Maine Media Workshops Book Artist in Residence, where I’m planning on making a modern version of Anna Atkins’ body of work. 

KS: I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we truly cannot wait to see the results. On the topic of beautiful handbound books: You founded Dust Collective, a one-woman initiative that creates, promotes, and sells handmade, small edition photography books. What drove this to fruition? Did you find the process of establishing a small business to be difficult?

Emily Sheffer: Dust Collective came from a desire to provide an outlet for artists like myself who make handmade photography books in their studio practice. Like my photography, many of the titles I carry focus on themes of time, weather, nature, space, and the history of photography. Almost three years after its founding, I design and publish several titles a year, and travel to art book fairs every spring and autumn. All of our titles are also available for purchase online! 

As for starting a small business, there was a lot I had to learn about accounting, invoicing, building an online store, etc. Typical business stuff, really, but it was all new to me. I also have to fit all Dust Collective business in between my day jobs, which I think is an experience familiar to many working artists!

KS: Dust Collective has grown to encompass such a fantastic selection of artist books, many of which are now part of numerous esteemed library and museum collections. And you are the visionary behind many of these. I imagine you are no stranger to viewing/receiving/perusing submissions.. what excites you most in selecting and curating artist photographs/books?

Emily Sheffer: So, having a book with Dust Collective works in two ways. The first method is that an artist will send me a complete handmade book. In this case, I am essentially their art dealer and promoter. The second method is that I will work with an artist’s body of work to design and publish a title that I distribute as a Dust Collective published book. In both cases, I try to choose titles that can live together harmoniously within the same library. Also in both cases, I am able to pay my artists for their work, which has been a really important feature of Dust Collective to me from the beginning. 

I am most excited by photography that is made to be seen as a book, where time, sequence, and the book format are just as integral as the images themselves. I’m looking for a photographic project that is so closely linked to the book as an object. Similarly to walking, looking at a book can be considered time passing on a human scale, and I want to highlight that experience within the Dust Collective library.

KS: It is actually amazing the way in which flipping through the pages of a book – photography, fiction, or nonfiction – can transport us to another world. It seems that an increasing number of photographers, at all stages of their careers, are looking to publish a book. What should photographers think about before they embark on the book process?

Emily Sheffer: I think a lot of artists and publishers see photo books as a way to more easily share their work with a wide audience. They’re more accessible and less expensive than looking at a print on a gallery wall, but more engaging and accurate than looking at work online. It can also be a marker to denote the completion of a project. Photo books are a quiet, immediate, and intimate way to engage with someone’s work. 

At Dust Collective, publishing is more about the craft of the artist book, and the ways that photography and bookmaking become inseparably intertwined. For someone interested in publishing a book I would say: There are infinite ways to combine photography and books. Don’t take anything for granted in the publishing process, experiment with the book as a form, and understand that whatever format you choose to share your work, will change, and hopefully enhance, the audiences understanding of your images.


Spring Equinox by Emily Sheffer as part of the Dust Collective library.


Sky Series by Barbara Bosworth, a Dust Collective publication.

To view more of Emily Sheffer’s work please visit her website.
Click here to see more from Dust Collective.