Sarah Stellino tells us that she gravitates towards “making photographs that feel formal and intimate.” This might seem like something of a contradiction, because the kind of photos that Sarah makes - formal portraits on large format cameras - usually lack the intimacy that comes with more casual setups. But viewing her work there’s no denying that this dichotomy between intimacy and formality is something Sarah successfully captures. Her portraits are deliberate but always full of emotion and empathy.
This is especially visible in her documentary work entitled Queering Rural Spaces, in which she tells the stories of LGBTQIA+ individuals living in rural communities.
We talked to Sarah about this beautiful series, as well as her beginnings with film photography and the unique challenges and rewards of working in large format.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got started with film photography?
I’m Sarah Stellino, a large format film photographer based out of Madison, Wisconsin in the US. Initially, I got started in film photography when taking a darkroom class in high school and really fell in love with the process of developing film and making prints. For one reason or another, I didn’t do much with photography until my mid-twenties when my grandma gave me her father’s old Canon AE-1 Program.
Around that same time, I fell in love with my now wife and was constantly obsessing over the next camera or film format that would allow me to take better portraits of her. Now that I found large format photography, I obsess less over cameras and more about continuously making new photographs – which is a nice feeling!
What first attracted you to large format photography, and why do you choose this format for most of your work?
Initially, I found large format photographs while browsing online and seeing portraits with this beautiful depth that almost made them look surreal. I was intrigued, and also intimidated, by the complexities and nuances of making working with large format. I decided to take the plunge and try it for myself. It was a learning process to get used to working with a tripod, as well as figuring out the workflow of loading and processing my film.
A few months into this learning process, I made one portrait of my mom as she was doing the annual maintenance on her small airplane. I was hanging around and making photos as she and her dad were busy working when I realized I only had one sheet of film left. As there was a lull in the work being done, I pulled up a stool next to the plane and asked my mom if I could take a more formal portrait of her. As I went about making the photo, she just calmly looked towards the camera. I remember pulling that sheet out of the developing tank and just thinking. . . wow. That really showed me the power that a large format portrait can have.
I really enjoy the slow process. I tend to gravitate towards making photographs that feel formal and intimate, and working in a slow methodical way matches that style really well. I feel like it leaves more room for me to interact with the people I am photographing as well. I’m not standing and pointing a camera at their face; instead the camera stands as its own entity and I’m free to step to the side and really take in the surroundings and how that person is interacting with those surroundings, as well as the camera and myself.
Can you tell us about your portrait project, Queering Rural Spaces? How did the idea come about?
Queering Rural Spaces began as I was personally starting to think about where my wife and I would settle down to start our family. A part of me missed living on a farm, but I wasn’t sure that I would feel safe being in an openly gay relationship in a rural area. So I began to look for and talk to people who were already living those experiences. Around the same time, I was learning about the previous generations of LGBTQIA+ people in the early fight for gay liberation. Seeing photographs of these people had such a big impact on me and it really made me want to participate and help document our current generation. I wanted to leave photographs behind for the next generation of queer youth to find and wonder what these people’s lives were like.
In thinking about the ethics of photographing people and communities, I wanted to make sure each person had a hand in telling their own story. In the series, each portrait includes a part of my discussion with that person as they talk about their identity, experiences, and so on.
During the process of meeting and speaking with people about identity and queerness for this project did anything surprise you? Are there any conversations that stand out as especially important or memorable?
Being a very shy person, what has surprised me with Queering Rural Spaces is the ease with which I have made connections with the people I’ve photographed. Obviously a lot of that can be attributed to the genuineness and authenticity each person has brought to our meetups, but I think a part of it is the intention with which we are coming together as well. We all know we are getting together to have real conversations about life and their experiences as a queer person in a rural area, so in a way you skip all of the small talk and go straight to the deep conversations. Each conversation has been memorable and important in its own way, but what sticks out the most to me is the common theme of searching for queer community, or working towards creating that queer community themselves.
When it comes to portraits, how important is the relationship between yourself as a photographer and the person you’re photographing?
It's absolutely the most important thing. The more connected I am with that person, the more of a chance I have to make a strong portrait that connects the subject with the viewer. It’s really interesting because the connection you have with the subject doesn’t always translate to the image. . . but when all of the stars align, that moment feels almost magic. I’m constantly searching for that moment.
Which cameras and film do you like to use most and why?
For the most part, the only choice I’m making is whether I will use my Chamonix 4x5 camera, or my 8x10 monorail. Most of what goes into the decision will be how far I would need to carry the camera, and how I’d like to print it in the darkroom. Currently, I can only make contact prints with my 8x10 negatives, but I have been really enjoying enlarging my 4x5 negatives onto 11x14 darkroom paper. It’s interesting to see how differently you interact with prints of different sizes. As far as film stocks, I’ve always had the best results with Ilford film. So I’m usually choosing between Delta 100, FP4+ and HP5+.
Do you have any exciting work coming up that you’d like to tell us about?
With Queering Rural Spaces, I’m beginning the process to display some prints in physical spaces which will be a new experience for me. I’m also working on expanding the series - I would love to be able to travel to different parts of the US to meet people from different regions. I’d really like to explore how this series can benefit rural queer folks more directly or organizations that support rural queer communities as well.
In addition to working on Queering Rural Spaces, I’ve been doing a lot of personal work and documenting my wife and I as we go through our fertility journey with a known sperm donor. I’m really excited to see where this work takes me, and it feels very special to take the time and document what it’s like to build a queer family.