Sarah Bloom is a 45-year-old photographer who makes her living by shooting weddings and portrait photography. But Bloom, who lives in Narberth with her 19-year-old daughter, also finds her way into abandoned buildings to take nude self-portraits among the decay, and she’s just gotten international attention for it. Here, she tells us why she does it. A gallery, used with permission, appears after the interview.
So why nude and why in abandoned buildings in Philadelphia?
I had already been taking photos of myself naked to try and get more comfortable with my body. I liked the nude form because of the vulnerability and fragility of our physical beings. And the buildings became a canvas, a backdrop for me. I think they’re beautiful. Sad and beautiful. Aging can be sad but also beautiful, and I try to embrace it as such. There’s a lot of loss there, but also a beauty to it.
I’m middle aged — hopefully — and I was extrapolating this to think about women in society. Women have more struggles as they age than men do. And comparing this to buildings, they get abandoned, they’re just left. Crumbling. No one pays attention to them until something dramatic happens. And women have to get dramatic when they get older to get paid attention to.
What’s with the plastic wrap covering you in many of the photos?
It was an experiment. I’m not using it anymore. But I was trying to make it so that I was more of the environment.
A lot of people shoot models — really pretty models — in abandoned buildings and fashion stuff. They like that contrast. I want there to be less of a contrast.
I also tried baby powder to look like I was covered in asbestos. But it didn’t show up well. Then I started using dry-cleaning bags. The sheet I have now is a plastic tablecloth. They have a big roll of it at the 5-and-dime in Narberth. You can just rinse it off. But I think it’s too big and bulky.
What do your daughter and parents think of your work?
My daughter is totally supportive. She’s come with me a couple of times, and she’s modeled for me before. She thinks it’s not just cool but she understands it. My mom is an artist. She was an art history professor. I grew up with art books around me, so a nude in art is not a weird thing, and I never made it a weird thing for my daughter.
Do you mostly get permission to enter the abandoned places, or are you trespassing?
It’s mostly not by permission. Typically you can’t get permission. There’s no way of tracking down an owner; people don’t know who the owner is, it’s been sitting there for so long. And a lot of them are also known spots that people are going into.
I don’t break into anything. That’s where I draw my line. If there’s a broken window or a board that’s pried loose, that’s a different story. Someone made that way in happen.
Most of your photos are not captioned with a location.
Yes, there’s a whole scene of people who like to go into these abandoned buildings. Artists, graffiti writers. Word gets out when something is open or not. But you’re not supposed to talk about it. You don’t want to tell people publicly where these places are.
It took me a while to get connected to that community in the Philly area. I’ve also done a lot of these in Detroit, and it was much easier there. I was blown away by how loving the community of artists and photographers are there. It was a lot harder to find that in Philadelphia.
Have you ever been caught or had uncomfortable situations?
I’ve never been caught. Nothing bad has happened. I never go alone. I know people who go alone and I tell them they’re crazy. They say ‘Well, you have your cell phone.’ I say ‘If you’re unconscious, your cell phone doesn’t help.’
One time, in Philly — this was my closest call — we were on the second floor of a building, and we heard some loud talking outside. A woman in the neighborhood was there with the cops saying that she keeps boarding up the windows but people keep removing the door. We were ducked in a hallway. A homeless guy in the building, he winds up being our lookout and helping us get out without getting caught.
Last year, I wrote about a Philly actress who did a bunch of tasteful boudoir shoots for her 40th birthday and had some banned by Facebook. People accused her of just doing it for the publicity. Do you worry about similar issues here?
Whatever. I’ve gotten some comments from friends of friends alluding to that. People will say that. But I’ve been taking my clothes off for eight years and no one has paid attention until now.
Have you had any problems sharing them on Facebook?
Nope. I am a total complier. I comply completely. If there’s anything showing that’s not supposed to be seen, I don’t show it. And I moderate all of my stuff on Flickr like I’m supposed to.
I did have one friend report a photo, but there’s nothing showing. I have too many friends on my friend list, I guess. It looked really scandalous. But it wasn’t. It was an optical illusion. It looked like a crotch shot.
I get it. I’m using a free service with rules. If I want to post nudes: Tumblr.
From a technical standpoint, how do you do these?
I have a timer remote that my soon-to-be-ex-husband made for me. It takes sets of three images, waits ten seconds, and takes another shot.
When I get in, I walk around for a little bit and figure out where I see myself in the scene. I pick a few spots and plan it out so once I take my clothes off, I can bam bam bam do three shots.
Were you influenced by the work of Francesca Woodman?
Not directly. I didn’t know her work. There are a bunch of people I didn’t know until I did this. There’s also Miru Kim. I worried that people would think I was copying her.
Didn’t you study them in school?
I didn’t go to school for photography. I am what is called an “outsider artist.” The last photography course I took was in high school. Then I went to college at Syracuse. I blew it, dropped out. Then I was a drug addict for a while. Then I went back to school at Rosemont after I had my daughter and got a degree in English lit, because I knew it would be really useful.
I’m doing a show with my mom at the Da Vinci Art Alliance at 7th and Catharine in April. We decided it was time to do a show together. We don’t even know what the name of it is yet.