profile of photographer Sarah wilmer

Photo © Sarah Wilmer.

Photo © Sarah Wilmer.

Sarah Wilmer’s photographs offer a view into a dark and mysterious world where it’s rarely clear exactly what her subjects—usually ghostly-pale young people with a striking sense of fashion—are doing or thinking, but it’s for sure that there’s a lot going on. They are pictures full of tension, a kind of existential apprehension, a love of the clandestine, and these are among the qualities one finds in the work of her influences: the painter Balthus, the illustrator Edward Gorey, the writer Banana Yoshimoto (“Her stories are always about some isolated person,” notes Wilmer), and director David Lynch.

At a recent book signing she attended for Lynch’s inspirational tome Catching the Big Fish, he explained that his movie Blue Velvet actually began with an image that came to him of a pair of lips and a car at night. “And I was like, I can totally relate to that!” recalls Wilmer. “Some weird image comes to your mind, and then you make it. He made a whole movie out of those lips. Isn’t it amazing?”

Though she is just 26, Wilmer has been making so-called weird images for years. As a teen in St. Louis, Missouri, she remembers being “addicted” to taking photos of herself and her friends, some of which were staged on location at places like the airport. She later moved to Portland, Oregon, where she played bass in a band and assisted photographer Mark Hooper. He was an important mentor to Wilmer, teaching her the value of crafting a concept. “For him, people are like props,” she observes.

They are for her too. The forest at night, levitation, and sometimes both at the same time are frequent Wilmer motifs. “My photographs are dark and weird,” she acknowledges, “but I think people always look really beautiful in them.”

Wilmer is now based in Brooklyn, attends Parsons, and works as an assistant to photographers including Chris Buck. She plans to strike out on her own after she graduates in May—a risky move, but she’s not the only one who believes in her ability. “She has developed into a serious and accomplished photographer,” Buck says. “Unlike most young shooters I see, her work doesn't come across as inferior versions of popular contemporary photographers. Her vision is unique and exciting—and you can see her excitement and curiosity in the pictures.”

(Published in the March 2007 issue of PDN.)