Edie Sunday’s images are mystical, touching and intimate. The 26-year-old photographer, who has been fascinated by film since a very young age, draws inspiration from the female form and explores a realm between the conscious and the unconscious by playing with color and light. In this interview, she talks about the role of experimentation and failure in her artistic process.
I understand you first picked up a camera very early in your life. How has your approach changed over the years? What has stayed the same?
I think as a 9- or 10-year-old I was playing with Polaroid cameras the way most kids did — completely in awe of the chemical magic, watching a piece of my reality, a memory, appear before my eyes. That aspect has stayed the same, aside from the sad fact that it’s so rare I can actually watch an image develop now — I am down to the very last of my original Polaroid film.
What has changed is that I’ve developed intentionality, mostly. Until the past three or so years, taking photos was a spontaneous act and I really was just capturing what I saw around me: snapshots of sunsets and kids doing keg stands, interspersed with the occasional photo of my own face. When I finally met my first friends who were also photographers around age 22, we would venture out somewhere with an intent to “shoot.” My best friend always had concepts and outfits and techniques and preplanned ideas that I would be a part of as a model but not really know what to do with as a photographer, so instead I just sort of circled around her and interpreted what was happening between us.
Almost four years later and I still do a version of that, but it’s like I have this backlog of ideas and visions floating around in my unconscious, and if the moment is right, I can pick up a camera and start drawing from this almost endless inner source — but believe me, the moment is not always right. So much of being a photographer for me has been the moments in between, the moments where you struggle desperately to forge your way through a complete brain haze and make a photo that you feel something for, but it doesn’t happen. Every attempt is empty and it hurts but it’s good because you learn what works and what doesn’t, both on an emotional and personal level as well as a technical and conceptual level. That “failure” so to speak integrates itself into my psyche, over and over again until I eventually know what I’m trying to say and how to say it, and that’s when the magic happens.
That’s a vague and rambling answer but I think what I mean is that the spontaneity will always remain. I still carry a camera everywhere and am liable to pull it out at any moment, but after you’ve taken photos for so long you can’t help but have real ideas to actualize, visions you can’t live without seeing, and that requires a very different approach to photography.
Your photos have a very intimate feel and often show women in a seemingly emotional, sometimes even vulnerable state. How do you manage to capture these moments?
I actually have no idea, other than that I am often both the photographer and model, and I’m drawn to photographing myself when I am feeling overwhelmed with emotion. My intention is always to communicate myself to the camera, to reveal something about what I’m feeling so that I may come to make meaning out of it eventually. It’s my own version of exposure therapy — an exposure to my own raw feelings both during the photo and after, when I have to look at and live with the immortalized vulnerability. In a way it is strengthening.
When I’m taking photos of others, it’s usually of people I’m close to and have shared many intimate moments with. It’s only natural then for what we make to feel vulnerable — it is. We’re often in the middle of talking about our deepest pains and anxieties and joys and loves — real conversations are happening and in-between, photos are being taken. For this reason I find it extremely, intolerably awkward to shoot with people I don’t know and don’t connect with on an emotional level. I stay away from shooting with strangers now and almost exclusively create alone or with my best friends — it’s the only work I’ve ever really liked, probably for this very reason.
How do you find the right connection to your models?
The only thing I am in control of and make sure to always do is to be authentic, to say how I’m feeling even if it’s like shit, and to make the other person feel as comfortable with me as a human being as I possibly can. I feel suffocated by small talk so I probably always bring conversation to a deeper level without even knowing it, and I have a terrible habit of being myself literally no matter what the situation — sometimes this is not great, but it really works for making art.
What techniques do you apply to manipulate the outcome of your exposures?
I used to be more experimental than I am nowadays. I like to say I am learning photography backwards because for so long my emphasis was on manipulation of content and colors and I got quite good at it, all along failing to ever actually compose an image well. I think the last time I tried to manipulate photos was in May last year and I became so frustrated with how much the manipulation was taking over the images and I just stopped altogether, although I didn’t realize it as a conscious decision at that point. I still take multiple exposures and I still use my favorite expired films that turn certain tones that make my heart flutter, as well as under- and overexposing and pushing and pulling film. I used to do a lot of film soaks and use of mixed media, which just sort of looked like a bomb of bleach and watercolor went off, but I don’t see myself going back down this road. Everything evolves, and my evolution is toward simplicity and sincerity.
What role do the development process in the darkroom and other techniques play for you in realizing your vision?
I don’t work in the darkroom much anymore but I did use to print a lot when I lived in my old apartment. My bathroom was windowless and perfectly set up for a darkroom so it was wonderful. I would spend hours exposing images over and over and every which way on different types of papers and mixes of chemicals. I relied pretty heavily on these techniques for a while, particularly when I was shooting black and white. I would then take the finished prints and paint with watercolors on them, and that’s what gave way to my first series that I was really proud of. I have imminent plans to get my darkroom set up again, and may even be teaching a class in color printing this summer at my university.
Right now, the techniques I rely on are mostly traditional techniques — like the right combination of film, lens, and light. This process is much more intricate and nuanced than I ever imagined — I didn’t realize how “experimental” you could be without ever taking the film out of the camera. I have always been drawn to dark, murky colors that I thought I could only see in paint, but now I’m making them in my photos without the use of any paint or extra chemicals.
In another interview, you said you mainly rely on intuition and spontaneity rather than rigorous planning. Do you feel that’s still true today? Shooting double-exposures and self-portraits usually require quite a bit of thinking ahead, so how do you find a balance?
That interview was probably from the days where I really was relying mostly on intuition and the only thing “planned” was the fact that I was going to take a photo. Even though I’ve transitioned into mostly self-portraits, intuition will always play a huge role in my process because it’s such a big part of my personality in general. Planning makes me feel tense and crazy, so if I over plan I make really bad photos that look nothing like what I intended. However, if I have no plan whatsoever, it can be hard for me to direct my energy and I become overwhelmed by possibilities. This isn’t intentional, but what usually happens is that I have one image in mind I feel I must create and I never really create it, it just gives way to five or so completely different images that come to make up a series.
What is it about photography that constantly keeps you inspired to do more work?
That is a really good question and in fact I asked myself this earlier today — why can’t I stop? Probably because I don’t want to; at least not for more than a few weeks at a time. I just fucking love taking photos. It calms me and helps me find a connection to myself and my surroundings. It gives another layer of meaning to my experience. Every day, I am closer and closer to something I haven’t seen yet — I feel myself moving and I don’t resist it. The possibilities are literally endless: from cameras to films to landscapes to emotions to collaborations to light. The same thing is never created twice and you learn something new about one of these things, or just about yourself, each time you shoot. Growth is inevitable if your heart is in it.
You’ve just published your first zine, which has already sold out. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
It has been in the works for a while! Kaiman and I first started talking about the ideas last summer and shot during a super moon at Enchanted Rock, about two hours outside of Austin. It was the first time I had really shot at night and I was so nervous that the photos wouldn’t come out so I was diligent about the technicalities of shooting, which was completely exhausting but worth it. It was one of those instances where I was able to adequately attend to technical issues because the creative side of it flowed so easily — the idea was planned out and Kaiman is my muse. When I got the film back I almost died of joy, and shortly afterwards I saw A Love Token Press calling for zine submissions and I went for it, really never thinking I would even get a reply. When Ricardo [from A Love Token Press] replied and said he was interested I almost died again, and it just went on like this until I received the actual zines in the mail. I just sort of looked at them and touched them for a while in total disbelief. When I see my work in print I always have this experience, but this was by far the most intense.
Are you planning on publishing any more zines and other books?
If someone wants to publish them for me! My dream is to put out a book, but it’s hard when you’re not actually in the art world. I have no connections and no money, and making a book typically requires at least one of those things. Also, there are so many great books being put out right now and I don’t feel that I have created anything that can stand with those books at this point. I’m not being down on myself; I am immensely proud of my work, but it is not to the caliber that I feel is deserving of a book. I really think that I will make that work one day, though, and even if I’m old or no one gives a shit I will still put it out as a book.
I’m planning a few trips this summer with my best friend who is also a photographer and my goal is to shoot a self-portrait series of the two of us that’s been seeping through the cracks of my mind for months now. I can’t completely see it yet, but it’s forming, and the only thing I can guarantee is the landscape—desert and mountains and streams. If it turns out, I’m going to ask Ricardo from A Love Token if he’s interested in making a zine out of it again!
Is there anything you wish you knew when you first started experimenting in the darkroom that you would like to share?
Pertaining to techniques, not really. It was and is all very loose and experimental, and I probably couldn’t even recreate my own photos because I don’t know what the hell I did. What I think is more important than techniques and specifics is your spirit — create because you must and make things that feel like a piece of you. Being mechanical and methodical can lead to technically great images, but there is little room from creativity and art when one is in that mindset. Keeping this kind of spirit in the darkroom is extremely difficult because the process itself is so intricate and sensitive — you can’t just delete a layer like in Photoshop, and because of this I think a lot of people freeze or panic. Remember it’s just paper (hopefully of the cheap variety) and you can ruin as much of it as you’d like, or rather, need to. Your negative is safe in its holder, and as long as it is intact, the possibility to actualize your vision still exists.