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Some photographers make work that is bathed in so many ideas that it is hard to even call it photography. And then there’s Sarah Soquel Morhaim, whose photography has so transcended traditional ideas about taking pictures that it’s hard to call her a photographer at all. Translating the photographic language to bookmaking, film, and music, Morhaim has been creating work that touches on ideas of ritual and personal behavior for nearly a decade in Los Angeles. “Photography feels like this base practice,” Morhaim tells me over the phone on a warm February day. “It’s the language I can use for other ideas. But there have been, in the last few years, subtle performative elements to pieces.”
Her ingenious performative photographic projects include a walk from her then-home in Eagle Rock to the ocean; an exhibition where she hung a stack of images on the wall at the Alias bookstore, and ripped one down each day at noon; and a series that originated with her taking a job at a mall portrait studio in Arcadia for eight months. “The original idea was not to work at a photo studio -- it was to get a 'regular' job -- because to make money, I was taking photo jobs [for magazines], and it was getting really confusing for me when I would try to use photos for art ideas versus taking a portrait of someone for a magazine,” Morhaim says. “But the portrait studio was the only place that would hire me. Everyone else was like, ‘What have you been doing for the past 10 years besides taking pictures?’”
Using the construct of the commercial photo studio, Morhaim began taking so-called "cheesy” portraits of families, babies, and dogs with props, costumes, and backdrops. This eventually became “Be My Guest,” a photo book and a one-night only exhibition at O.N.O. in downtown Los Angeles. Though the job had its moments of tedium, Morhaim found value in the one-on-one interactions with a decidedly non-art world crowd, as well as how people valued these portraits. “I didn’t think it would affect me at all with the pictures I make outside of it, but it totally did," she says, "because I was taking these pictures that seemed like anybody could be taking them. But it became more about the interaction, because people would get their photos and these images would have so much value to them. I had to learn how to be incredibly patient. I felt like if the experience was good while they were taking pictures, it didn’t really matter what they looked like." She says it became a kind of "people interaction exercise" with pictures comeing out of it, which were fascinating for different reasons. "There were these bizarre mass produced props, and people wanted to create memories, and needing to have this moment, to distill it," she says. "At first, I was super cynical: ‘This stuff is crap; why would anyone pay money for this.’ And then I realized that I don’t know everything. It seemed to mean a lot to people.”
Morhaim, who grew up in a non-practicing Jewish family, attributes a certain wry worldview to her cultural Judaism -- the funny part, she says -- in coming up with these playful photo series. But she also sees her background as the starting point for another side to her practice: the ritualistic nature of her work. For instance, “Timepiece” -- the work in which she ripped down a work every day at noon -- had an obvious sacramental habit ascribed to it, whereas “The Sun Rises in the East But I Walk West” -- her marathon-length, 14-hour walk from Eagle Rock to the sea -- became a ritualistic private performance. “I feel like I think about certain rituals and language in the Jewish religion that I like, such as lighting candles,” she says. “I didn’t even know this as a kid, but a friend told me, ‘You know, Shabbat doesn’t really start until there are three stars in the sky.’ I appreciate things like that are magical sounding or poetic.”
She is reminded of the Jewish private elementary school she attended until she decided in fifth grade to attend public school. “I definitely have a spiritual side, and that tradition in Judaism of critical discussion -- I hate saying that, because the Jews don’t own that -- but I think for me to have started as a kid in that environment, now as an adult, I feel like, in my work, I’m definitely interested in creating ritual, even if it’s abstract in its appearance,” she says.
Even in her music -- she is half of the pop band Soquel Curry with L.A. artist Aaron Curry -- she has given herself formal constraints like making a song every day for 100 days. (Soquel Curry released an EP titled "This Is A Plea" at this year’s L.A. Art Book Fair at the Museum of Contemporary Art.)
Not everything in Morhaim’s catalogue is cloaked in ritual, and sometimes she is very much a photographer. Her editorial work for publications like AnOther Magazine, Nylon, and Dazed is beautifully intimate portraiture. And a recent trip to Israel resulted in a series of street photography -- which is how Morhaim began her practice -- many of which were compiled in a small photo book called "False Start" sold at last year’s L.A. Art Book Fair.
“I took a lot of pictures,” she tells me. “It’s pretty amazing, and I say that not as a Jew, but as a place that’s very old and complicated. I went there as a teenager, and then I went there a year-and-a-half ago. When I came back a year-and-a-half ago, I was like, ‘I need to understand; I can’t keep being semi-ignorant of the conflict,’ so I was reading a lot. It’s such a complicated thing. 'False Start' is a small, humble book. It’s pictures of street cats in Jerusalem -- they’re everywhere -- mixed with the Tel Aviv beach scenes, which is just nuts how it feels like completely different worlds, even though their suburbs are next to each other.”
Top image: Sarah Soquel Morhaim, "Inherent."