Mark Sink was among the first generation of photographers in the 1970s to use the plastic Diana camera to produce Fine Art photography. Mark has been making a living from fine art photography since 1978. He worked was one of Andy Warhol's assistants from 1981 up to Warhol’s death in 1987. His Polaroid “light paintings” capture what it was like to be at the centre of the modern art world, hanging out with artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and a cavalcade of celebrities at gallery openings, and the raucous 1980s nightlife of places such as Studio 54, the Palladium, Danceteria, and Area.
Currently he specializes in Collodion Wet Plate Photography with his wife Kristen Hatgi. Together they provide studio photography services that include, portraits, product, architectural, fashion and wedding photography. Mark is a co-founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and founder of the Month of Photography Denver. His personal fine art photography is shown and collected worldwide.
Please tell us about your “Famous Face Series,” shot with a Polaroid SX-70.I used the Polaroid SX-70 throughout the 1980s and 1990s, capturing several hundred famous faces, florals, and all my friends. The 1980s were a wild explosive period for the fine arts. I became friends with many rising art stars because I photographed their art work for them. Their dealers were my employers. I extensively documented the scene at openings and in the studios of the artists, their dealers, and clients. During this time I came upon the Polaroid SX-70, the last great invention by Dr. Land before he died. Soon after he died out popped the all plastic awful "Spectra" camera; Dr. Land would be rolling in his grave.
Tell us how you learned Light Painting?
While living in NYC through the 1980s I stumbled onto a method of making unusual Polaroids portraits. This led me into some wonderful worlds. Lucas Sammaras showed me many ways that you can make extraordinary images with this camera and film.
How does your process work?
I covered the light sensor so the shutter would stay open, taking 6 to 8 second exposures, during which I would paint in with light using a manual hand held flash with power turned down to 1/16. With the camera exposing I would paint light onto the sitter to make a photograph. Popping the flash around the sitter you could achieve wonderful studio like lighting quality, key light, hair light, background light. Then have the sitter approve and sign the piece.
Andy Warhol loved the process and my Polaroids, with a tinge of humorous jealousy. He loved the interesting quality I got with multiple flash light painting, this amazed him. I tried to teach him the process, showing him with people around the Factory, for instance Fred Hughes at his desk; he was standing there, but he did not take to it.
Tell us what it was like shooting all these celebrities?
With this method I could now spontaneously approach a celebrity artist and ask if I could take a Polaroid. 99% of the time they would agree because it was not paparazzi. If I approached that same person with a Nikon and a big flash they would tell me to go away. The Polaroid had an innocent appeal. With the OK, I tell the person to hold very still for eight seconds while I bath them in small bursts of light (light painting). This was very interesting in itself, for this is a performance with me moving around the subject, painting them. Always when it’s done the sitter always wants to see the magic of the Polaroid develop. In many cases they are very amused and want more, and or want me to take some of their friends. They in many cases want more than one, thus I give them at least one. It was a great calling card and networking tool into the lives of the famous.
How do you feel now looking back at those shots you took?
I see this work not as individual shots but together as a single documentary project. I feel these are a wonderful very small record of the roaring 80s, New York downtown art scene. They are one-of-a-kind objects that make these little things very special. I’m a romantic and I feel that the 1980s will be looked at in the future with interest, like the 1960s Pop scene or the 1950s Abstract Expressionists or even Paris in the twenties. I still use my many different Polaroid cameras lovingly today.
Mark you have shot with Polaroid SX-70, Big Shot, Diana Mini F, and now use the wet-plate collodion process with your partner Kristen Hatgi; can you tell us what attracted you to these techniques?
The Diana from the 1960s and 1970s is a lovely romantic tool. I hate the modern Diana knock offs and Diana Mini, a poorly-made bad R&D product. The original Diana is far superior. I struggle to make a good image with the Diana knock off. I have given up. The Diana very wet plate like (sharp in the center and falls off on the edges) and was a good cross-over. I have always been deeply in love with every product of Polaroid and shot countless images. I am heartbroken that ended. Wet Plate was the Polaroid of the 1860s - you get an image almost instantly - that magic of instant gratification.
You still own a Polaroid Big Shot camera given to you by Warhol. Do you still use it?Fred Hughes gave me one of Andy’s Big Shots when the Factory was moving from 860 Broadway. Yes, I still use it. I love it. Once you understand the focus distance, you then see the exact consistency of Andy’s waist-up portraits; it all comes clear. I see a thread and influence of my portraits often filling the frame the same way.
Analogue versus Digital, what’s your views about the two?
Photographic history is in my blood: my Great Great Uncle Samuel Finely Breese Morse took the first photograph in America. My photographic life has been going in reverse in technology. While everyone is selling his soul for more megapixels I enjoy making unique images with pinhole, Polaroid, film, and Wet Plate. I currently like photographic equipment the most that does not take a battery. I use my great grandfather’s camera from the 1880s, my Hasselblad from 1982, or my SX-70s - beautiful, amazing universal tools that you can hand down for generations. I still use my Great Grandfather’s 8x10 view camera that he used in NYC in the 1880s, and film is still made for it. That ended BAM, very fast, at the turn of the 20th century. Now a $6,000 camera is useless, and worthless, after five years... craziness.
Everyone is blindly snared and racing for more megapixels, panting for the new and improved. It’s all crazy to me, a bit brain-washed. In theory, my theory, the camera or process doesn’t really matter, it’s the concept that matters most. A great portrait can be done with any camera: pinhole camera, drug store one-time-use camera, up to a $60,000 Leaf back camera. But I am not anti-digital, I use it in my professional life. My basic thoughts are don’t try and copy an old process. I hate digitally-faked effects trying to be Kodachrome or platinum prints or Wet Plates or whatever, that bugs me. I love work that is being honest and true to the medium; as Andy Warhol said, be “Modern” and use the digital medium that no other can do, "be true to the medium." Digital goes great with big size or how we see light differently with crazy high ASAs (like solar systems and documenting camera obscura in rooms) or just plain straight, clean real color. It’s the fakey Instagram-effect type of things that repulse me .
You worked as Andy Warhol’s assistant up to his death. What effect has he had on your photography?
Some of my most amazing memories are of Andy reviewing my work and then years later asking about different series I was working on; it stunned me he would remember where he left off years before. Andy did not like my Diana F work; he said it “looks too old and blurry,“ he said I should "be more modern." So I brought him sharp clear shots; some were portraits of him that he drew on and signed with a magic marker. I cherish those. In general his influence was art is life, everything in the waking day is art-making. “Photograph anything and everything around you,” is the Warhol lesson that’s stuck with me the most. That had a great influence on me. After his death I left New York because he is whom I made my art for.
Do you have any instant photographers that inspire you?
Well Lucas Samaras... and Warhol of course. Dash Snow was awesome and early Ryan McGinley. Oddly not many alive, living and working today. Some wonderful young graffiti street shooters that shoplift the film and make very interesting work have caught my attention, but they do not have much of an internet presence; its more underground exhibitions. Khaiir Clark is one, and Zero comes up. Google him, his work’s awesome.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions/publications?I am always working on books on and off. One is about the "Tin Room" in NYC in the mid 1980s. It was a room in the back of the Patrick Fox Gallery where artists and writers hung out; I did a lot of portraits in there in the 1980s. My Great Grandpa was a portrait photographer in the 1880's; a book is on and off the burner, someday I will get it done hopefully. I have a book/catalog coming out about the Big Picture Denver project. As for shows, we are in a group show up now at Robin Rice Gallery in NYC, which runs through this summer. Also we are sending new work out to the Paul Cava Gallery in Philadelphia. Cava shows us at AIPAD - The Association of International Photography Art Dealers - which is very exciting for us. Kristen has a solo show coming up next year at our Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
You can read more about Mark Sink’s relationship with Andy Warhol Here.