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Ellisa Samara

Ellisa Samara is a photographer from New York City. Samara’s work takes the intimacy of the everyday and holds it still – allowing one to take a seat and stay a while. Her portraits highlight the moments worth resting on; the glimmers of the mundane.

How would you describe your work?
I think of my work as puzzle pieces that fit into a bigger moment. Many of my images are about those split in between moments. Photography by nature is a voyeuristic art form and I feel like I’ve always sat back and watched these moments happen. Why not capture them?

What draws you to film photography?
Originally it was being able to traditionally print film to paper, but more recently it’s the sense of waiting. I often photograph multiple places on the same roll of film and it’s interesting for me to be able to see where I was at different moments of time. I worry sometimes about losing my memory, but film is a way of making those memories more permanent.

Your work seems to hold a lot of weight – heavy with nostalgia, and a deeply rooted sense of place. The way you relate to the places you photograph, is that important to your work?
Absolutely. I am a totally nostalgic person. When I was a child I never understood why if I had a good day why the next day couldn’t be the same. Making photographs is a way of holding on. It also challenges my perception of what makes a good photograph or whether I just like the image because it’s of a close friend or place I spent a lot of time in.

You’re currently based in N.Y.C. – do you think your relationship with New York has influenced you at all?
Definitely. Making pictures in New York is hard! It’s all been done before. I’m not a street photographer and I often make portraits. The city, as cheesy as it sounds, is my backdrop. I’ve been in New York my entire life so it’s all I know.

Considering that you’re from New York, a place known for its pace, it’s interesting that your images feel held together by a sense of stillness. Like everyday moments - typically fleeting - that the average person wouldn’t pause to linger on. When do you know to pull the camera out? What draws you to these moments?
Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling, or the way the light hits just right at a certain moment. Other times it’s just that I want to remember this specific moment because I felt content.

How do you arrange your series work?
I make tiny 4x5 prints and arrange them on the floor of my bedroom. I work mostly from my room. It’s hard to afford an apartment and studio living in Queens, but because my work is so nostalgic and my bedroom walls are covered with photos and artifacts from friends, I feel like there must be an energy there that adds to my process.

Your portraits feel incredibly intimate, despite the fact that you often photograph people in public places. How do you think ideas of intimacy impact your work?
Thank you! Intimacy, I think, is one of the purest feelings. I am very close with my friends and family, and the kinds of portraits I make are usually of them. I think that naturally comes out in these images. It’s like watching two friends walk down the street and they’re laughing. You can just sense that connection. A lot of times you can find that in my portraits.

Are there any other photographers – or artists – that influence you?
Jed Devine and Mitch Epstein are my two biggest influences. I was lucky enough to learn under Jed Devine in undergrad. Robert Adams writing about photography, specifically in the book Why People Photograph, has been a staple in my life and I often have it on me. Nan Goldin’s portraits make me want to be a better photographer. 

What are some things that influence you outside of photography?
My friends, music as well. Two of my friends run a company called Life Wife Press and I am constantly blown away by their devotion to making art for themselves and others as well. I used to take pictures for an event production company and being around music, especially photographing on stage and seeing people’s reactions, became a huge part of my life. I listen to music when I walk around and make work. Big shout out to Yo La Tengo.

Favorite kind of small gesture? Just a hug. Sometimes I ask my roommates for hugs before leaving our apartment. Sometimes you just need one.

Favorite Instagram account at the moment?
@jenjonesjones. She is a close friend of mine and an absolutely amazing painter. Can I shout out another? @thepurrrcast is for the podcast the Purrrcast which two friends run and it’s about people talking about their cats because we can’t talk to cats. I’ve learned so much from them!

One book and one film recommendation?
I can’t pick just one but every book by Chloe Caldwell. I am a big fan of short stories and her writing reminds me of what it was like to be young in New York. My favorite movie is Band of Outsiders because of the amazing dance scene - if you’ve seen it you’ll know.

What’s in your forecast for 2018?
I want to make at least three more photo books. I currently have one for sale, I Don’t Mind Waiting. Spending as much time at the Strand searching for photo books. Hugging my friends and my family and my cat. Going to shows. Trying to take in everything without feeling overwhelmed. Life is crazy!

Interview by Madalyn Trewin

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