Leah Sobsey is an Assistant Professor of Photography here at UNCG specializing in 19th century photographic processes and 21st century digital technology. Sobsey’s background in both anthropology and photography combine in her pursuit to document, archive, preserve and recontextualize public museum collections of anthropological significance. She has exhibited nationally in galleries, museums and public spaces across the USA, is currently promoting her book “Collections,” and is currently showing her work with the Grand Canyon’s museum collections in the Weatherspoon Facility Biennial.
Sobsey has been obsessed with documenting anthropological specimens since the corpse of a tufted titmouse that crashed into her window years ago rekindled her childhood memories of the Field Museum in Chicago and their floor to ceiling drawers filled with thousands and thousands of birds from across the world. Sobsey has pursued this subject matter for over a decade now and has spent time with the collections of multiple national parks including the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Acadia National Park in Maine and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She describes her process by stating:
“I started this project without a specific intention, I think a lot of my work is approached from an intuitive place but also embracing the accidents that happen. I work with 19th century photographic processes combined with digital technology, so looking to the past but also looking to the future both in terms of the specimens I’m working with but also in the medium I’m working with. I’m kind of embracing the history of photography but also, how do I look at digital technology? How do I embrace that? How do I use that in the work?”
Rolling with the flow of happenstance in her work is crucially important to Sobsey, who even as a student found that by combining her accidentally underexposed early 4” by 5” shoots with the platinum palladium process that required overexposed negatives, she could layer her negatives together to produce a compound image. This would later become a more purposeful body of work for her. Sobsey extolls the blessing of the physical, non-digital base of photograph which allows for mistakes to be made, “Some of the beauty in working in alternative processes of film is that accidents can still happen, something that’s much harder to do with digital technology. That’s part of the process of making art for me, that exploration.”
Sobsey was not originally planning during her undergraduate degree to study photography, and it wasn’t until she took a photography class late in her career as an anthropology major that she discovered she wanted to pursue it. She went on to study photography in a place called The Maine Media Workshops where she began with a work study program before moving onto residencies and certificate programs, and eventually assistant teaching.
“As a teaching assistant every week in the summer they brought in different really well known photographers, so like Mary Ellen Mark for example, was one of the photographers who would teach a workshop, and I was her assistant for a week. That was really how I got my jobs in New York, we became friendly, and when I told her I was moving to New York she helped me get all of my jobs really. I think my photographer career would have been really different had I not had her rooting for me, basically,” said Sobsey.
From there Sobsey went to work multiple photography related jobs in New York. She began working for a commercial photographer both as an assistant, then a studio manager. Afterwards she moved onto working as a darkroom printer in a custom black and white photo lab frequently used by Mary Ellen Mark before moving onto a job with the Corbis and Bettmann Archive, one of the largest historical photograph archives in the world, as a darkroom printer.
This era in Professor Sobsey’s life is closely tied to one of the most memorable moments in her art career, when while in The Maine Media Workshops she sold her first piece to a artist in town for the week to run a workshop in which Sobsey was assisting. She felt an incredible sense of validation from a fellow artist willing to pay money to have a piece of her work. The funny part? A nearly six month gap between the check and the delivery of the piece left her too embarrassed to cash the check.
“It got to that point where it’s like, you know, returning a phone call to someone, once it’s been so long you’re sort of embarrassed to do it. I finally, months and months later, sent her the piece but was too embarrassed to cash the check. Still, it was the first piece I ever sold!”
Sobsey’s book “Collections” is currently available from Daylight Books and in person examples of her work are currently being displayed in the Weatherspoon Facility Biennial until Dec 3.