Issue No 17

Strange Beauty: A Conversation with Sam Cannon

BY Rémy Bennett

It’s easy to see a real purity, a classic kind of beauty in the graphic precision of Sam Cannon’s work, in spite of the fact that the imagery contained therein is full of human mutations. A recent graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology, Sam is devoted to a form of photography that seems to bend on the hinge of metamorphic bodies and limbs, transforming the human shape into something more, often across a visual template of possibly disturbing, certainly bizarre GIFs. One of 7 Tumblr Artists selected to cover 2014’s NYFW, and a part of Tumblr’s Creatrs Network, Cannon has become a rising star of considerable talent and a seemingly bottomless resource for new images, all before turning 25.

Rémy Bennett: In one of your photographs, the girl sitting on a bed who has more than several moving legs achieves a striking level of reality because of the digital composite, in the same way a painting or sculpture could not, yet as a viewer we are allured — not repulsed. The art of “the grotesque” is something that has personally always interested me, the body horror genre in particular, so I was instantly struck the first time I came across your work at how related it was to that particular genre while simultaneously being a departure. The Chapman brothers’ art, for instance, deals with similar themes of transmutation, but in a more lurid and gruesome fashion. Lots of latex and blood red. Hans Bellmer constructed bizarre humanistic forms out of mismatched doll parts to a disturbing effect. David Cronenberg instantly comes to mind, but once again, the sort of pulsating fleshy aesthetic he creates in so many of his films is so far from the slickness of your work — yet somehow it all seems to belong the same family.

Sam Cannon: Actually, which is kind of funny considering people’s perception of my work, I come from a background of not watching a lot of horror films and I’ve never really been interested in this idea of “the grotesque.” For me, it was more about the human form and sexuality. When I think about all those things, I think about them in existing in this beautiful, clean space, rather than this messy space. I think these are concepts or things that people think of as dirty in a way, and I want to take theses ideas and apply them to images while giving the viewer permission to look without feeling dirty or ashamed. When I was creating these characters, like the girl with many eyes or people with mutated faces I was interested in trying to find that line between beautiful and grotesque and have it live in a really small space right in the middle. I think the cleanliness of the imagery pushes it towards beauty and the thing that helps pull it back is the movement of the image.

RB: You’re alleviating a sense of shame for the subject and the viewer.

SC: Yes.

RB: You had mentioned to me a class you took in college called “The Art Of Dying”…

SC: Yes! I had this amazing professor in college named Jessica Lieberman who taught this class where she created this space where we could talk about things that people might find uncomfortable. We looked at imagery that ranged from gore, violence, and death to sex and art. We would literally look at an image of a decomposing dead body and start a conversation about it, and see where it went. It was really interesting because all the conversations went really quickly from a place of discomfort to a beautiful dialogue that was cathartic. We all have these fears and desires but rather than trying to compartmentalize them or hide them, we can try to openly talk about them as if it was anything else.

RB: I love that. That sense of acceptance. Often artists are grappling with the anxieties brought on by the fear of impending changes, whether they are in our bodies or our society as a whole. The manifestations of those anxieties are often expressed in disturbing ways. It’s seems like in your art, you’re not exercising your fears or anxieties about the unknown, instead celebrating them.

SC: Yeah, those thoughts never enter my mind when I’m making my work. I never want to create something that feels scary or “wrong.” The notion that something that is different is inherently wrong is not something I want to depict.

RB: I’ve noticed other digital artists working in a similar vein. Asger Carlsen comes to mind. Do you think this is the product of the younger generation? The attractiveness and style you bring to these particular subjects. The desire to titillate and not repulse. The glossiness of it all. Do you think you guys are in a sense more evolved when it comes to dealing with this stuff?

SC: I think once again it goes back to this idea of us living in a culture now where we are constantly manipulating the human form, so in a sense it does have so much to do with image-creating. That idea of changing aesthetics is much closer to us now in terms of a society and what is possible and what we see every day. It is not as farfetched anymore. That same clean image making can be seen across the board with all these different genres of photography and the types of images I was creating before I was doing this specific kind of work had that same aesthetic, so I think I’m just bringing my own personal style into whatever it is I’m working on.

RB: That makes total sense. You’re growing up with images in the media, and everywhere really, that are constantly being manipulated. It’s just part of the visual landscape, and you’re wholeheartedly aware of that fact it’s all fabricated and hyper-real, instead of finding it immoral or threatening in any way. The older generation, and I’m including myself in that group, definitely feel a certain aversion to the constant manipulation of images, especially of women, and a concern for how that is informing our greater consciousness or perception of the female body. I know you’ve been working in the fashion industry as a photographer and have done some amazing things creatively within that framework, which in a lot of ways is at the forefront of those controversies.

SC: Yeah, and fashion has only really influenced my work up to the point that I was dealing with body manipulation with imagery. I worked a lot as a retoucher, and people are always talking about the ethics of digitally manipulating and changing women’s bodies, and the fact that the images were are constantly being shown of women are not realistic, that they are heavily retouched and is not in a sense at all real. In a way, I personally think that’s great. Not in the sense of creating this ideal human form women can’t live up to, or trying to create the “beautiful sexy woman,” but instead taking those techniques and saying, “Hey, let’s make it weird!” If we’re going to be straightforward about the fact that we’re heavily manipulating these images, let’s be fully transparent, not hide it, but actually push things and take them a step further. Let’s push it to the extreme and explore. Subtlety is not my thing!

RB: I can see why fashion photography is a great fit for you in a way: the assembly line in fashion, the conformity, the androgyny. It is like a science-fiction world. These strange and beautiful genetically engineered-looking beauties marching along.

SC: The whole thing with a runway show is it’s a huge performance piece. It was so interesting to see these girls backstage for the first time. They’re young and they’re playing and having this lighthearted fun, but the next moment they’re on the runway and it’s like this instant switch. It’s very automated. Like a system pumping people out.

RB: Once again you’re expressing these ideas through a very slick, attractive lens, like with your GIFs of the runway shows at fashion week. I mean, I think all great fashion photography has to have a sense of irony and the absurd. And I’m seeing more of that lately, which I like.

SC: Yes And getting back to Asger Carlsen: I think he’s incredible and I love his work so much. I think that that’s what I’m so interested in terms of what he does. His work is beautiful but does feel grotesque to me in a sense, as well. I think because his photographs are stills, they feel to me more like documentations of these creatures or forms. When I’m looking at his work, I feel like I’m objectively observing these things. I started to become interested in creating work where you as the viewer were also being observed. The movement in a photo lends itself to that feeling.

RB: Right. The movement in your images is very specific to you as an artist and totally integral to what you do. The viewer is being forced to interact with your work in a more complicated way.

SC: I think that was one of the biggest factors that drove me towards moving imagery coming from a photography background.

RB: Yeah, playing with the idea of the artist’s gaze and the gaze of the viewer. If the subject has its own gaze as well, the viewer has to confront many more things.

SC: Totally. And I love the idea that once you walk away from the image it’s still moving and existing. It has a life of it’s own, whether you, as the viewer, are there or not. That’s another reason I got into making GIFs: the space between still-photography and long-form narrative and video, and trying to explore that space in between where time doesn’t exist in the same way. I love the idea of the seamless loop and endless moments that happen forever. I want to explore that space where time doesn’t exist in the same way. Repetition and fluid movement.

RB: And your gaze is not what is activating its life.

SC: Yeah. I want to create art that lives whether you are there to view it or not.

RB: And I think that’s why there is also a sexual undercurrent there.

SC: I think any time you start dealing with manipulating the human form it inherently turns sexual. And a lot of it for me is the desire to explore my own ideas of sexuality and trying to manifest those ideas in a visual way. A lot of the work I do is very sexual, and it’s been difficult to talk about at times because these are ideas I am just trying to explore in a visual way, but I don’t necessarily have the understanding of how to speak about them. I do think that ideas of the grotesque and sexuality always go hand in hand. Like websites like where you can see both porn and dead bodies! Those things are always mixed up, and I think more than anything, it goes back to things people want to look at but feel guilt for looking at. And it’s not guilt for looking at it; it’s guilt for wanting to look at it. I think right now what I’m trying to improve is giving myself permission to work on and develop those ideas and not feel “weird” or uncomfortable about doing that, just seeing what comes out of it. I’m hoping as the work continues, I can push those themes more. But saying that, I also want to be really careful about it, which is one of the reasons I have held back or tried to not show a lot of nudity in my photos up to this point. I think it’s something that I should explore more, but it’s something that I want to be so careful about.

RB: Why do you feel the need to be careful?

SC: I think the main thing is I really don’t intend for any imagery I create to be shocking. I want it to be maybe strange and thought provoking, but I never want to shock for the sake of it or to get attention for it, I want there to be more meaning behind it and for the viewer to see that.

RB: You’re wary of misperceptions?

SC: I think so. And in terms of your questions about “the younger generation,” that is something that can be terrifying about being an artist who is getting known for sharing their work on the Internet. Any attention or interest I’ve gotten is only because I made a Tumblr and started posting my work on there, so the whole idea of sharing has been a huge element in terns of my growth as an artist and I think I am hyper aware of the fact that when I put something out there, it’s out in the world very quickly and it could go anywhere and it actually feels dangerous in a way.

RB: Right. There’s a higher responsibility there.

SC: Yeah, and I think that’s also been a big part of…I mean there have been so many times when I’ve posted an image online, one that actually wasn’t in my mind a sexual one at all, and then I’ll see that it ends up on a porn site.

RB: You’re forfeiting any control over that image, which is a huge change from the way artists once operated. There were very strict parameters in terns of the traffic and usage of a piece of art. There was a security that doesn’t exist anymore.

SC: Yeah and it’s a strange adjustment for me cause when I first started making these things they were just like strange little personal experiments but it was my natural instinct to want to post things online and get it out there…out of me. And so sharing it is a way of relieving something but then I also realize that what I am posting is being perceived as my body of work. You know, just GIFs I posted online. I don’t have anything in a gallery and what I’m posting to is my space, so I did start getting more nervous about what I was posting online. My Tumblr is my portfolio, so I became more careful about what I was posting. I’m so grateful of all the opportunities I have been given because of this, but it was very surprising.

RB: Well, I think there’s definitely a purity in that as well, as scary as it can be to navigate at times. You created things from your heart and wanted to share them and ultimately people connected to what you were putting out there.

SC: I’m really trying to explore things rather than explain them. And I want to do that together. Start a collective conversation. If we are exploring things like death and sex and perhaps gore but aren’t willing to have an open conversation about them, then we’re giving the negative aspect of those things more power. I want to have those conversations freely, and maybe eliminate some of those stigmas.


A Tribute to Sam Cannon, featuring Sam Cannon.  By Daniele Sarti. 


Portraits of Sam Cannon by Daniele Sarti | @danielesarti