Margaret Durow and Amber Sparks are two young ladies who, over the last year or so, have made a significant impact on the photo and writing world, respectively. Margaret’s dreamy, vibrant and perennially youthful photos have enchanted the art and design blog-o-sphere. Amber’s stories, at times whimsical, at times fanged like a bush animal, have appeared in just about every online and print journal that’s committed to publishing interesting work. Their forces were combined in Annalemma Issue Seven: Endurance for Amber’s story “You Will Be the Living Equation,” a piece about grief, loss and how to pick up the pieces after the death of someone you love. This interview was conducted via Gmail chat.
Annalemma: Everyone here?
Margaret Durow: mmhm
Amber Sparks: Yep, here! Hi, Margaret.
A: The future is now.
MD: Hi, Amber.
A: So let’s jump right into it. I’ll start. I wanted the two of you to meet and chat a bit because I feel like your paths mirror each other somewhat. You’re both young women who’ve recently gained some attention for your artwork. Amber, could you talk a little about that first? What’s it been like being embraced by this writing scene?
AS: Sure! I don’t know about “embraced,” but I do have to say it was a lot easier to to break into the indie writing world than I would have expected. I spent years, like a dolt, sending my stuff to the New Yorker and Paris Review, before I discovered all these amazing journals and magazines that are run by people like you, Chris, who do this because you love it, not (I assume) for prestige or power or academic credentials. So when editors and writers who feel that passionately about what they do start to dig your stuff–yeah, it feels fantastic. Because you know it’s real dig, not a fake I-dig-you-because-I’m-supposed-to or whatever.
A: For the record, I’m in it for the prestige.
AS: :) I’ve also, btw, discovered that writers and editors in this small press world are mostly so generous and sharing–that was a huge surprise and a really nice one–I owe a lot to people like Roxane Gay and Matt Bell, who have given time and advice and opportunity for free, just because they’re awesome people (and great writers.)
A: What about you Margaret? How’s it feel to be getting attention for your work by a large community of artists?
MD: It feels great! And, like Amber, I am so happy about the people who do take notice, like the people on flickr who are taking pictures the same way i am, in their daily lives because they love doing it.
A: Have there been any negative effects? Attention coming at a person thick and fast can often breed a bandwagon effect that Amber briefly mentioned. Have you noticed any of that, Amber?
AS: You know, not really. I mean, I’m generally just not a person who draws negative shit, generally–I think I’m too non-threatening and nice. I’m from the Midwest, after all–I’m bred to be nice.
A: What about you Margaret? Are you aware of any negativity coming from the attention?
MD: No, not that I know of… the hardest part for me is deciding about new work and why I show certain photos. Before it was easy for me to pick out which ones I liked just because I liked them and felt what i was trying to show, now i find myself questioning why I like them and how much my opinion is affected by what I expect people on flickr to think of them.
A: Ah, the over-thinking-it game.
AS: I do that too, only with my blog posts, mostly. When no one was looking at them, I didn’t really care, but now I feel like I have to overthink everything I write just in case.
MD: Haha yeah, I get over it if I just don’t put up anything for a bit.
AS: How did you (and Chris) decide on an image for the story? I think it’s perfect—but curious to hear why you think so.
MD: Well, I read the story and there were certain lines throughout it that I loved to imagine certain photos of mine being about, so I sent the lines and about 4 or 5 photos (I think) to Chris and he decided on that one.
A: I think you’re talking about the title page spread, right Amber? Have you seen that yet Margaret?
AS: Yes, that one. I like that, Margaret. As a writer, I’m curious—do you have often have a narrative in mind for your photographs? Do you see a story and seek to capture it, or is it all visual—the play of shapes and light and dark and the composition and all of that?
MD: Usually when I experience something the visuals stand out a lot to me, and I always think about how the light, textures, & colors match the feeling of the experience and want to capture that feeling with my camera.
A: That photo, the one of the young man smoking with his hand to his head, I thought there was this devastation about it that mirrored the tone of the story, I like that spread a lot. I actually can’t take credit for choosing it, that was all my designer, Jen O’Malley. She does most of the photo editing.
AS: I felt that way, too. I thought the young man’s posture suggested endurance as well as the pain of the story itself–he’s suffering through, not done. Plus I love the way smoke looks in b&w pics.
A: What’s the story behind that photo, Margaret?
MD: Me and my best friend, George, were sitting in one of the little summer cottages along the lake by my home (parents house) in lake mills (me & my neighbors own them & a small wooded area). So we were sitting in there as the sun was setting and shining just through the door and I kept taking pictures of George because I loved the light and the smoke and we were drying off from swimming earlier, and everything was golden and warm. But I took too many pictures and George said, “Stooppp taking pictures,” and put his head in his hands like that and I took that one last picture.
A: That sounds like a dream. Amber? Any more questions?
AS: I love that! I do have one more, so looking at your stuff on your site (which is beautiful, by the way), and thinking of how you mentioned your friend George–so many of your subjects are slightly androgynous adolescents—it gives your photos this sort of on-the-cusp feel, like these beings are fairies or shape-shifters who could jump into any skin by the next frame. Do you just happen to have amazing-looking friends, or do you ever seek out models or other peeps for your pics?
A: I agree, you have very attractive friends.
MD: Haha, thank you! I love to hear that… I take photos of myself and George most often because I am the most comfortable doing so. Theres even some people I’ve been friends with for years that I feel a little awkward taking their photo. I don’t seek out models or people just to photograph… although, I wish I was more bold to do that because I see some people (and) I just love their look and want to photograph them.
I’ve also recently been taking more photos of my sister, Johannah who is very beautiful. On my website right now all the photos are of me, George, or Johannah. Wait, I’m looking now, there is one of my friend Will, another of Spencer and one of Cole from the Black Lips (live obviously, ha).
AS: Do it! There are so many street scene photographers now, but they all do fashion (which i love) but I would love to see a ‘street scene’ photographer who just does interesting-looking people who strike their fancy.
A: Yeah, most on-the-street photography is about the clothes, I’d like to see more that’s about faces. Peoples faces, expressions tell a story.
AS: Like, somebody with a Sergio Leone eye for faces. THAT I’d love.
A: You have an assignment, Margaret.
MD: Haha yeah, I think I’d feel like a creep though, or like i was just “using” their look
A: That’s interesting, I have a question for Amber along those lines. The narrator in your story speaks with a lot of authority. How much inspiration for stories do you take from your life or the lives of others? Do you feel like a creep if you do that, or like you’re stealing a part of who they are to some degree?
AS: I probably take a lot, though I also borrow a lot from history and most of those people are dead, so they don’t care. I never borrow anything from anyone I know really well, at least, not intentionally–unless I make it unrecognizable or ask them first. I don’t generally consider it stealing–it’s more like borrowing, and I’m giving it back in richer, more colorful form, I guess. I mentioned Sergio Leone–I feel like that sometimes, like I’m showing the world that these people are here, they exist, too, all kinds of people are here and they all have stories. That said, I think I borrowed most of this particular story from my high school self.
A: Margaret, do you have any questions for Amber?
margaret durow has left.
A: I guess not
You have invited margaret durow to this chat.
margaret durow has joined.
A: There she is
MD: Sorry about that. I got disconnected.
A: No sweat. I asked if you had any questions for Amber?
MD: Yes, I don’t know much about her. I was curious about how old she is, and Amber, do you express yourself with any other art forms besides writing?
AS: Sure! I’m 32 although I usually get mistaken for an intern, which is finally a good thing when you get to be 30 +. I used to be an actor–that’s actually what I studied in college, theatre–and I also sang and played keys in various terrible bands throughout high school, college, and my twenties. I wanted more than anything to be a painter when I was young, but sadly, that talent is not in my gene pool. But I love visual art, lots lots lots–I love all art, matter of fact. I’m hopelessly right-brained. I’m so lopsided they though I cheated on the English part of my SATs. No joke. How about you? Any other art you practice?
AS(con’t): Oh, also–I’m from Wisconsin, too. My parents still live in Madison, though I’m in DC now with my husband and cats.
MD: Haha that’s great… I try to draw sometimes or write but they never work well enough to feel like I’ve gotten out a feeling that I needed to, photos are the only thing that end up working for that… I’m just not that good at drawing or writing either, but I also love making collages on occasion. I love wisconsin.
AS: Where in Wisconsin are you?
AS: Oh, cool. I was home not too long ago–Madison’s gotten way hipper even in the last few years. So many good restaurants–they don’t even have Laotian in DC!
MD: Yeah, madison is a really nice city.
AS: Okay, my husband just called–he’s making my dinner so I gots to go. See you all later and nice to meet you, Margaret! When you’re famous I’ll call you up and ask you to donate a picture to a starving artist (me.)
Amber Sparks has left.
A: Thanks, Amber. Oops, she’s gone.
MD: Haha, nice to meet you too, Amber!
A: She left, you’re talking to the blank landscape of the internet. Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Margaret.
MD: Thank you! It was my pleasure.
A: Real quick, there’s this image on your site of an x-ray with what looks to be a severely twisted spine, what is that?
MD: Yeah, thats my x-ray before surgery. I had Scoliosis that got pretty bad. It wasn’t typical because it was caused by this hemangioma (tumor-like thing) tangled up in my spine. Which is also why I waited so long to get the surgery (which is the x-ray with all the metal). The surgery was really extensive and we didn’t know how it would affect the hemangioma, but my spine kept curving so surgery was the only option.
A: Oh my god, how long ago was that?
MD: Oct. 29th, 2007 was the first surgery, another one a week later, then 6 weeks in the hospital + 5 months at home. There were plenty of unexpected complications. But I’m basically back to the mobility and (usually) the comfort I had before surgery!
A: That’s incredible. And good to hear. We need you around and taking photos for a long time.
A: I’ll let you get on with your evening, thanks again margaret. I’ll be posting this some time this week.
MD: Thanks, Chris. Sounds good, it was nice talking : )
A: likewise, I’ll be in touch. Bye!