The work for God’s Country began the summer before I turned 15. After years of separation, my father and I reunited at my grandparents’ home in Upstate New York. It was May and the water was too cold for swimming but I did anyway. I was making up for lost time. As a child of divorce, it would be years before I knew what drove my mother to pack up everything we owned and move us halfway across the country. In the years since I had last been there, besides my relationship to the family, nothing had changed. The area of the shore that as a child I had cleared to make a beach seemed to still have fewer rocks than everywhere else. The life vests still had that distinct lake smell and my grandfather still kept his cigarettes hidden in the same drawer in the garage. I didn’t know these people and I didn’t know their stories but I knew this place as if it were my own skin. I know this place by the seasons as they are defined by a school calendar. Summer is for swimming and winter is for skating. Since the lake remained unchanged, recent images can declare the present as if it were also the past and future, a skill photography easily performs. This place continues to be a container of memories and the work seeks to claim and understand those experiences as they connect to my present relationship with this place and its landscape. With each return to the lake I’ve arrived, camera in hand, and meticulously photographed everything I could, predicting that once again this place would be out of reach. I built an archive that included my grandfather’s sparse but thoughtful Christmas decorations, ratty bedspreads that myself and every other member of my family have slept under, and endless photographs of the lake itself.
The photographs and films I’ve created for God’s Country serve as a farewell love letter to “Lake Rocky Docky”. Exploring our relationship and expectations of personal photographic images has parlayed into a decade long investigation of my relentless photographing and rephotographing of Upstate New York. This recent iteration remains rooted in autobiographical narrative but with a sudden move towards abstraction. Images, objects, and sounds are broken down into their simplest forms. The images are truthful yet curated to show an idealized fiction. This place has finally changed and all that’s left are some smelly life vests and a lot of water.
Originally from Middletown, New York, Sarah Phyllis Smith currently lives in Chicago where she teaches photography at Chicago State University. Recent solo and two-person exhibitions include Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea at The Shed Space in Brooklyn, NY and Fish Hotel at Vanderbilt University’s Space 204. Her work has also recently shown at Whitespace Gallery, Roman Susan Gallery, Wedge Projects, and The Midwest Center for Photography. Her work has been featured by several online publications including Don’t Take Pictures Magazine, Light Leaked, AINT-BAD Magazine, Vulgaris Magazine, and Photo-Emphasis and was featured on the cover of Iranian literary magazine, Dastan. Sarah currently serves as the Assistant Artistic Director of the New York State Summer School of the Arts: Media Arts program. You can see more of her work here.