THE FEMALE GAZE: “Sandra Klein: Seeing in Layers of Metaphor”, by Diana Nicholette Jeon

Sandra Klein was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She received a BFA from Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia, PA, and an MA in Printmaking from San Diego State University.

Her images have been shown throughout the United States and abroad, and she has had one-person shows at the Griffin Museum of Photography, both the Lishiu and Yixian Festivals in China, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas. She received the Lorser Feitelson Grant jointly with artist Betye Saar.

Her work has been featured by Lenscratch, The Boston Globe, A Photo Editor, What Will You Remember, as well as Musee, Beta, and Diffusion Magazines, and is held in public and private collections.

Leonardo Silvernitrate from the series Embittered Heart

I have a fuzzy and unreliable thought that I might have seen something from Noisy Brain in a magazine or online from an exhibition at a venue like the Griffin Museum of Photography. Noisy Brain was a series that caught my eye and stuck in my mind. I did not know the conceptual basis of the work; it was photography with the look of digital printmaking, and that caught my eye.

I learned intaglio and relief printmaking around the same time I learned Photoshop, maybe a few months before. In grad school, I was one of the few grad students who knew printmaking and digital tools, so I taught an intro to printmaking class along with photo-digital processes in printmaking. Historically, since I first went back to school as an adult, I’ve always been vaguely unhappy with my “straight” single media work, regardless of any given choice of media. My work only felt complete and finished when I combined it with something else. While I adore intaglio and working with metal plates and polymer plate photo intaglio, I usually found myself adding Chine Colle or monoprint coloring, or both. Enter Photoshop layers and wow, the possibilities of combining media within the digital platforms using layers became endless. This printmaking nod that Klein had in the series made it memorable. Though our work could not be more different, we think with a similar mind at the foundation.

Although I have been acquainted with Klein casually over FB, it has been mainly casual, intermittent comments that made up our interactions. I was not aware of her processes or conceptual ideas until I did this interview. As I edited it, I was surprised by how much our backgrounds using printmaking and thoughts about the importance of layering as part of our work processes are alike. When she spoke about finding Photoshop as the missing link for using her photos the way she might use a series of metal plates or litho stones, I nodded in agreement. I had lived this experience myself.

I also note that Klein says, “Some people don’t consider her work in that style to be a photo.” Once again, I thought, “Yeah, I have heard that a time or 500 myself.” Anyone who has seen my work knows I often push it to the far boundary of photography, aiming for what might be considered mainstream one future day. But still, it is photography work to me. Much of Klein’s work is similarly situated: photo that borrows liberally from other realms within the art world.

It’s always an exciting experience to find someone whose art-making ideas or processes resonate so closely with your own. This interview gave me an entree to Klein’s work that I hadn’t had before, despite being a great fan of it from afar. I learned so much about how her processes work with her ideas. I am in awe of how Klein can combine her love for printmaking into her photography work and, even more, how she can reconstruct her imagery into something entirely new, as with her Meeting the Shadows series.

Klein’s work is introspective, profound, deeply felt, and fearless. It breaks ground in moving photography into brave new areas. I hope you enjoy learning about Klein’s work as much as I have.

Life Is A Frail Moth from the series Noisy Brain

I’ve asked Klein to provide a short introduction to her work so readers unfamiliar with it have a context for the imagery and interview.

Embittered Heart layers images of the human heart with photographs of succulents and cacti; it speaks to our varied responses to heartbreak and betrayal.

Grieving In Japan was made following the tragic loss of my eldest son. I visited the forests of Japan in winter, far away from the noise of my LA home, to mourn and grieve, and this series portrays the journey of emotional turmoil and healing I experienced.

Meeting the Shadow clings to ephemerality as I deconstruct images of decayed flora, leaving only the shadow, a metaphor for a future I can’t predict. As I cut and sew the photographs, I stitch together the fleeting memory of what once was.

Noisy Brain is an ongoing series of self-portraits examining how we become our unique selves. I consider things beyond our control, such as DNA, chemical makeup, and childhood environment, alongside the essential factor of how our choices impact who we become.

Shinrin Yoku uses in-camera imagery combined with layered self-portraits to present my ideas about nature’s healing power.

Stitched Stories are self-portraits with poetry embroidered on the printed image that speaks of loneliness, aging, and loss.

Women Warriors is a new work in process that stems from my interest in women’s societal experiences. The images are metaphors for women’s role in protecting themselves from micro-aggressions in an empowering way that projects strength.

Blue Ice from the series Noisy Brain

DNJ: Tell us about your childhood. What was your family life like? What did your parents do? Do you have siblings? Was anyone else in your family an artist or photographer?

SK: I was raised in a tiny town in New Jersey called South Plainfield. The town was mostly comprised of Italian Catholics, and we were the only family of a different religion. The main street had one block of stores, including a five-and-dime called Louie’s, a liquor store, a small movie theater, and my dad’s store, Peter Pan Pharmacy. We lived in a small apartment above it. I loved that store and spent many hours as a child reading comics. There was a soda fountain with red stools. I loved watching my dad compound medications. My mom taught school. We eventually moved as our family grew to 6. I have an older brother and two younger sisters. My parents worked full time, and we were left on our own, especially in the evenings, as my mother helped out in the store then. Although my dad was a pharmacist, he was pretty creative. He loved calligraphy; he made all the signs in the store and created posters for everyone for their birthdays. When he retired, he became a ceramicist.

Red Hibiscus from the series Meeting the Shadow

DNJ: What were you like as a child?

SK: I was lonely as a child. Although I had siblings, there were significant gaps between our ages, so I spent most of my time reading and making art. As a small child, I began taking ceramics classes with an excellent teacher. I loved fantasy and created a world of elves, fairies, and animals. I always felt like an outsider, never quite part of the group. As I grew up, I took many kinds of art classes.

Fantasia from the series Meeting the Shadow

DNJ: Where did you attend art school? Do you recall what led you to that school over others? Why did you gravitate to printmaking over other media during your college years?

SK: As an undergrad, I attended Tyler School of Fine Art, part of Temple University, and got my Masters at San Diego State. I don’t recall if we had college counselors at my New Jersey high school, but I only knew of a few colleges with art programs. I chose Tyler because it was closer to home than the other school I applied to. I originally picked printmaking because the teachers seemed more accessible. I also loved the physicality of etching metal plates, working with litho stones, and the feel of different papers. I loved layering (which has stayed with me and is an essential part of my photographic process.)

Seeds from the series Woman Warriors

DNJ: You may have taken your first photo as a child since many children had cameras or used the ones their parents had. Do you remember when you took your first photograph?

SK: I didn’t take any photographs until I was a senior at Tyler School of Fine Art student. I was in school when the most important movement in art was Minimalism, and faculty expected that students would work in that vein—hard-edged, devoid of personal expression, and limited in color. The thought was that art should be masculine; if someone looked at a painting and could tell a female created it, they criticized it. My work was never approved of. However, the photo class, especially the teacher, significantly impacted me. He was a visiting instructor who believed that art-making was about learning to see and should be joyful. That emphasis allowed me space to, once again, love making art. We shot with a simple Olympus Pen W, 72 images to a roll. We printed in a darkroom using only one kind of paper. His primary focus was on the imagery we made rather than strict technical skills.

Serpents Sting from the series Stitched Stories

DNJ: When did you figure out art was your career path, and how did that happen?

SK: I wanted to be an artist from an early age. I attended college with a planned career in designing children’s books. However, the graphic design field was looked down upon at that school during those years, and I quickly changed to printmaking.

I came into my own with my art-making ideas and direction in my 30s. That’s when I crystallized what I wanted to say through my work.

Expect Nothing from the series Stitched Stories

DNJ: If you weren’t an artist, what career would you choose?

SK: Wow. Interesting question; maybe a librarian. I love books, and organizing and spending time in a library is something I’ve enjoyed since my youth. I’d also like to be a gardener. I love planting, working with the earth, and landscaping.

Torn Soles from the series Stitched Stories
Detail from Torn Soles

DNJ: What led you to photography from printmaking?

SK: I continued photographing after undergraduate school, although I went to graduate school to do printmaking. I lived in Europe for a few years before my grad program and spent much time there taking pictures. I also lived with my first husband in his hometown of Mexico City and photographed avidly during that period.

After graduate school, I taught printmaking at a Junior College but had no access to a printing press when I left there. I began cutting my photographs and repurposing them as material for collage. Then, I took a class to learn Photoshop, where I could layer my imagery, as in printmaking. That was it for me; I was hooked!

Leaves and Sticks from the series Woman Warriors

DNJ: You mentioned on your website that you worked with Betye Saar. How did that happen? What can you share about that experience? It must have been amazing.

SK: It was an incredible experience. I applied for and won the Lorser Feitelson grant for a Los Angeles artist to spend a year working with Betye Saar. I helped her in her studio, and she mentored me. I was doing work that fit into the Pattern and Decoration movement, which originated with women artists like Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago in a direct reaction against Minimalism. My art was feminine and colorful. I was going through a divorce and heartbroken back then. At one point, Betye asked me why I was making such joyful art while in psychic pain. Her work is very personal. That was eye-opening as I realized I was not making art about myself. My work changed dramatically after that year; it became more personal and introspective.

Snake Tree from the series Shinrin-Roku
Mossy Red from the series Shinrin-Roku

DNJ: Currently, how much of your art practice is photography?

SK: I use the camera as a tool to make art. I always start with photographs, but I also embroider and collage on top of them.

It’s Mine Not Yours

DNJ: How/why/when did you start altering the work?

SK: While doing traditional collage work, I introduced sewing to enhance the meaning. I’ve always loved mark-making, and sewing is a way to make marks on paper. It made sense to me to transfer the idea onto my photographs.

My first serious photography series was “Stitched Stories,” in which I added stanzas from poetry that I found told a story, MY story, onto the images of my body. I love the idea of making my photographs more physical and more material.

Disguise from the series Noisy Brain

DNJ: Do you ever combine photo and printmaking? If so, what does the combination do in your work that neither alone can?

SK: I’ve done a bit of photogravure, which stirred a memory of using tarlatan to wipe the ink off a printmaking plate. I am still looking for classes in LA to further my work in this area. It is on my bucket list.

Inner Memories from the series Noisy Brain

DNJ: What challenges do you face as a photographer?

SK: I have so many challenges! The concept of photography runs the gamut, from people who make perfect, technical, traditional work to the other extreme, where work is experimental. My work is considered at the looser, more encompassing border of the photography spectrum. Many people don’t think my work is photography at all.

Another challenge is making art that is meaningful for me. I can be my own harshest critic, which slows me down.

Then, there are the technical things that come up. In my new series, “Meeting the Shadow,” I’ve sewn upon the collaged pieces and used acid-free markers to cover the white edges. I like using thread to create movement, so I leave some loosely floating above the image, although framing becomes challenging. Due to these processes, completing each image takes me a long while. I make mistakes if I work too quickly, which I am sometimes prone to do.

Bluebird from the series Meeting the Shadow
Doodads from the series Meeting the Shadow

DNJ: Do you always have a concept when you start a project, or do you shoot and allow the images to tell you what the project that emerges will be?

SK: All of my series emerge from a concept, a foundation that serves as the starting point, but I often alter or augment the treatment further during the creation process. When I created my series “Grieving in Japan,” I began by using eight years of images shot in Japan. In-camera shots never tell enough of a story for me, so I added composites that included sewing and collage. The ideas for these took time and trial and error to work for me.


DNJ: Where do the ideas you work with come from? How do they influence each other if they do?

SK: My view of the world as a woman, the Female Gaze, is always a priority in my work, and it comes from my life experiences. Themes have included heartbreak or grief from losing loved ones to social issues like the Me Too movement or the Dobbs decision’s impact on women’s healthcare.

Each series brings me new technical knowledge and helps me move to the next one. In my “Embittered Heart” series, I used scanned medical images of human hearts, which led to me using images of the brain in the “Noisy Brain” series. In general, though, my series’ themes are each distinct while remaining true to my life experiences.

Graceful Opuntia from the series Embittered Heart

DNJ: How/why/when did you start altering/manipulating your photography?

SK: My lack of traditional photography education, combined with my fine art printmaking background, inspired me to use the camera as a tool to make art without limitations. The photograph is not as precious to me as it is to some people; for me, it’s a beginning, a piece of an image. Having spent years creating layered prints using different plates in the same work, I found it natural to layer them within Photoshop. I like to make photographs rather than only use a camera to shoot an image.

Heart Noel from the series Embittered Heart

DNJ: You work with different media in photography. How do you determine which is best for any given project?

SK: It depends on the project. My work, “Grieving in Japan,” has many unique influences. Some of the images come from Edo-era Japanese comic books because I found that portions of them portrayed images of grief that I could relate to. I also have some urn collages in this series. The urns are cut out and jut out from the background by having a substrate beneath them. The idea for this took some time to resolve and just came to me. I also began using gold and silver dust on these images. Having studied Kintsugi, the art of ceramic repair using gold and lacquer, I started adding lines of either gold or silver onto the urns to be metaphors for the repair of the self after my loss. Often, I research my series, and the knowledge I gain leads me to new ideas to use in my work. There is always a period of trial and error with lots of failures.

Island In The Snow from the series Grieving In Japan
Solitary One from the series Grieving In Japan

DNJ: What do you hope the viewer takes from your work? Does it vary by series?

SK: Each series explores my emotional responses to events or experiences I’ve experienced. As the situations are human and universal, I hope people recognize and relate to the images as one does in an “aha!” moment. People have remarked that “Noisy Brain” has brought them joy and a sense of self-recognition as they realized how I delved into my mind. People who have lost a loved one have found a solid connection to my series, “Grieving in Japan.”

Forest Edge from the series Grieving in Japan
Midnight Village from the series Grieving In Japan

DNJ: What is next on the horizon for you?

SK: I have been swamped getting ready for two shows, one opening on March 22 at the Walker Gallery in Denver and a one-person show at Atlanta Photo Group in May. Making the images for both shows from a series entitled “Meeting the Shadow” is time-consuming, so I am looking forward to a time when I can focus on the joy of creating new work.

Thank you, Sandra, for giving your time and thoughts to the FRAMES audience. I look forward to seeing what you do next!

Here I Am Stories from the series Stitched Stories



Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

Comments (1):

  1. paula hutchings

    March 29, 2024 at 18:25

    beautiful wide ranging interview/repsonse seesion. the images are so well fitted to the texte. thank you for hte chance to read and view Sandra Klein.


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