Sophie Schwartz & Cass Ball

In conversation

✿     ✿    ✿
✿            ✿            ✿  ✿

Sophie: When we first began collaborating in 2017, where were you in terms of your individual artistic practice?

Cass: My artistic practice in 2017 – I feel like I planted a lot of seeds in different artistic realms but they were disjointed. I worked in music and musical theatre as a pianist and music director, which were very structured disciplines. Like, if you conducted an entrance cue at the wrong beat, you ruined the show. My music practices felt very external to me, like I almost left myself to be a pianist and a music director. I dove into a score and interpreted and executed it.

At the same time, I had a budding makeup practice of a few years. My relationship to makeup and costuming precedes my realization that I was trans. The aesthetic exploration came first, and that distinction feels really important to me. It was through allowing myself to explore on my own body and allowing trusted friends to  support my exploration that I realized that another way of relating to my body was possible. These were practices that emerged from deep inner curiosity and exploration.

I didn't understand how my makeup practice and music practices related.

Then, I took Maralie Armstrong’s “Art Gender Technology” class in my final semester at Brown, which you TA’d, and I feel like that’s an important meeting point for us. My understanding of our connection was that we kind of circled each other socially but weren’t necessarily friends but were friendly to each other up until that point. In Maralie’s class, she invited me to be wild with my body and my expression, but to really let myself be the medium through which all of my art comes from. At that point I solidly identified as trans and I pretty much made all of my art through the viewpoint of my body and what it felt like to be in my body at that moment. At that moment being in my body felt kind of excruciating and also unbelievably joyous at the same time. I was finding a wild sense of agency and pleasure in exploration and I was also starting to feel a heavy dysphoria that I had never felt before, and so while I was experiencing this pleasure I also wanted to escape my body. I was starting to get close to the point of realizing that I wanted to get on hormones. That class was the first time that I consistently used my body as the central point in my art outside of makeup, and I noticed that it felt very different from the structured music-making that I knew up to that point – this was about feeling and expressing something that couldn’t be contained.

Cass: Okay wow that was a journey. Do you want to share where you were in your artistic practice at the time?

Sophie: When we first started collaborating, I was definitely feeling a bit like I was moving through jello. We had both recently finished college and I was trying to establish who I was as an artist and honestly who I was in life. I had just finished up a two-year long intensive thesis project which combined archival research, theory, and photography. It left me pretty emotionally drained because the project involved working with an archive that was generated by my dad who had passed away just a few years prior to that. Around the same time I was working on that project, I also first started working with a view camera. I took “Large Format” at RISD with Steve Smith, which taught me how to use this tool to create the type of pictures that I had always wanted to make.

When we had our first session, I was still getting totally comfortable with the camera and gaining confidence with each picture. I photographed a bunch of queer friends and acquaintances nude in my attic, and that project kind of was this amazing exercise to get comfortable working with people in a slow and careful way, learning how to intentionally establish deep trust with the people that I photographed. I knew I loved photographing people and it felt really natural and exciting but I wasn’t really sure which direction I wanted to go with it and what I was really interested in as a photographer and as an artist.

Cass: What were your thoughts, feelings, and assumptions going into our first session together, and how did that compare to your feelings during and after the first session?

Sophie: I remember you approached me and said that you had been developing a makeup practice and that you’d love some documentation of some of the looks that you had been working on and I was very interested. Going into the session, I thought, “I am going to make these color pictures with my digital camera and try to help Cass out but also I’m working on refining using this huge camera and maybe I’ll sneak in some of those pictures and see how that goes.”

When you showed up to the session, with all these outfit options, I was so excited. You were so comfortable in front of the camera and really just there to experiment and play, and I was just thrilled. I have this specific memory of looking through the ground glass on the back of my camera and seeing the sleeves on the shirt you were wearing - these billowy sleeves - and seeing how you knew exactly how to pose in them. It felt so natural and almost as if I was watching a performance. Once I processed the film and saw the images we made that day, it was clear there was something special here and something that I couldn't really put into words. But it felt like some kind of third space had been captured, and I wanted more.

Cass: I actually forgot until now that the impetus for that collaboration was really me wanting to document my makeup. I just wanted to document my makeup looks somehow, and I figured you would be able to capture them in ways that I couldn’t. I’m really glad that you weren’t like,Okay well I know you said that you wanted to do digital photos but we’re going to do all of these film photos instead. What I’m getting from your telling of how we came together is that we both had these individual practices that we were strengthening our muscles for – for you your film photography and for me my makeup skills. I think because we were really strengthening our individual practices we were able to find a third space between us that stretched both of us out of our comfort zones a little bit, but not so far that we couldn’t trust each other.

Cass: What do each of these images evoke for you?

Sophie: What I remember about that day is not having many expectations of what would happen or where we would photograph but we ended up starting in this alleyway that I walked through almost every day, where on one side there was a car mechanic and on the other side was a crossfit gym. We discovered this huge tire that was so sculptural and static and I remember getting to a point in the session (it actually felt like it was pretty early) where you were like, “Should I just get in it?”

Cass: I mean, I’m an Aries. I just want to play.

Sophie: I think you intuitively put your arm up like that and it was almost statuesque. And I remember when we made this picture, I felt like things were going really well. Looking at it now, and spending more time with this picture, I just love all the different textures in it and all the lines. It feels so powerful and instead of the tire swallowing you, it looks like you're emerging from it.

That day, you brought a few costume options to look through together and I think it is important to note that has been consistent in all of our sessions. It’s one of my favorite parts of working together as someone that really loves clothes and outrageous clothes.

Cass: I think in choosing the costuming for this session, I had been really interested in reading the novel Frankenstein through a trans lens and specifically Frankenstein’s monster and thinking about what it means to be a monster and what it means to be taken apart and put back together. I also felt very connected to Donna Haraway and Cyborg Manifesto. I was like, “Yes I am a cyborg and a goddess!” At that point I was five months on estrogen and I think my physical embodiment in this photo feels very connected to that kind of powerful stance. At the same time it felt very important that my costuming felt old, it felt to me almost medieval. I don't know if that resonates...I don't know if that is even historically accurate but it felt that way to me with just all of the draping and falling textures...the billoweyness. And I was thinking about how monsters have always existed and monsters are humane and monsters deserve love and are able to give love as we are piecing ourselves apart and piecing ourselves together. At that point on hormones I felt like I had kind of laid myself out and my body was being scrambled and put back together and here I was twenty two experiencing a second puberty. There's a certain horror I wanted to express in this session. Providence has a lot of haunted energy and it felt important that we shot there. This monstrosity has always existed but then it is also powerful and capital G, Good.

Sophie: For this next session we decided to go more into the natural environment, in contrast to the industrial setting of the first session. The environment around us certainly informed the picture making process and the costuming although certainly maintained a similar element of play. And also oh my god – it’s hard to tell in this picture, but the bright pink glittery lips that you showed up in on that day…

This session definitely felt more intentional than the first and like we were working towards something. At this point too we were getting to know each other more and becoming better friends. We didn’t really know each other very well when we first started working together, and I think through these images, you can kind of see that we’re getting more comfortable with one another, building the pictures together and better understanding what a picture might look like or what a picture might be.

Cass: Yeah, we hadn’t worked with each other extensively and we weren’t yet close friends. In the first session I think I came extra prepared for two reasons. One, purely because I love to play: I love having options. But, also, I think sometimes when I don’t have complete trust, both with myself and with another person, my perfectionism anxiety kicks in, and I want to be prepared for everything. In the first session it felt really good to be directed by you and I feel like that continued in a really natural way and grew in the second session on the beach. I feel like there were so many physical discomforts that kept happening – being in 5 inch heels on a picnic table hurt a lot, and then photographing in the mud in those heels, I was like sinking into the ground and needed to ask for your help to literally prop me up, and I feel like we built a physical trust because we literally had to figure out how to work through the conditions. And I was fully consenting to the conditions but at the same time needed some support, and I feel like you really showed up for me. And then that only grew my desire to ask you to take more creative control. I think I was also very nervous about where I felt dysphoric in my body and how that would be photographed and wanted to have a lot of control over that especially since I was used to a lot of self-documentation. Being able to slowly build that trust with you was important.

At that point I was getting closer to a year on hormones. I was really feeling more confident in my sexuality, and what started as wanting to document a monstrosity in the first session turned into really wanting to document sex. Then what came out of that was like my hands to my heart and my hands to my neck, and I remember not knowing why I was physically drawn to those areas of my body but I trusted the instinct and for some reason it felt emotional. I think the feeling there was like, “Yes I have this powerful, confident, new wave of energy and sexuality within me as I acclimate to my changing body, but I’m also scared, and maybe sometimes I’m not as confident as I think I am.”

Sophie: This session marks a significant transition on several fronts. This year, we had both moved from Providence to New York and I know when I moved, I felt much more limited in terms of making pictures in this space and in this city and in general, creatively stunted. This session was also the first one that we did indoors and inside a space that had personal significance to either one of us. I think it definitely added a different dimension to the project. I think contextualizing someone with their belongings and important objects or even the furniture they decide to put in their room introduces a whole different world. Although this session felt the most challenging to me, it also introduced a whole other level of closeness and intimacy between us and contributed to our dynamic and this project. Looking at this image now, I see this version of you and even though you're wearing a sparkly top, it feels really raw and vulnerable and very, you know, I hate to use the word “real” but it was more like “okay, there is closeness rendered in this image” in contrast to performance that was depicted in the first session.

Cass: I was really excited to have you over and I was also nervous to photograph in that space. I remember we played around a lot. We took my plants and put them on the bed and made a little scene there. We brought in stools from another room. I laid on the floor and then we got to me in front of the mirror which I think also was late in the session. Unlike the tire photo, or some of the beach photos, i didn't get the sense that “this was the one,” but in retrospect this is my favorite photo from this session. The way I’m making sense of it is that it is me naturally in my space. That is the mirror I would sit in front of to do my makeup and that is the mirror where I would get a sense of Who am I? Who am I looking at? Who am I creating today?

Sophie: As I’ve gotten into the habit of photographing people, I have begun ending all of my sessions by screwing in a 20’ long cable release and having the person on the other side of the camera release the shutter when they deemed fit. I have each person make a self portrait of sorts, giving them the power to make the picture while all I do is make sure everything is in focus. For this session, we were trying a variety of different things, but with each set up, I thought it was important for you to also release the shutter, having it happen repeatedly. I wanted to add this other element to the collaboration and continue to subvert the photographer / subject dichotomy. In this image it’s hard to see the cable release. You can only see the wire and it moving right under the cloth; I love that moment in this picture – this teeny bit of motion. We made a bunch on this wall – and at first, had that piece of cloth as a backdrop and then it became a shawl.

I think this picture speaks to the collaboration at large and it blurs this line of authorship – you know, what does it mean to author an image and what does it mean to be a subject of an image? Throughout photographic history, there are so many of these famous dynamics between photographers and their subjects / muses. Often, it’s this very gendered dynamic. What has been exciting about our process is that it really does feel like a collaboration and an attempt to dissolve that power dynamic that’s so entrenched in this historical photographer-subject dynamics.

Cass: I remember this day as one of my favorite days of 2020. I just had so much fun and everything seemed to align. I loved the studio space. The weather was perfect because it was relatively cold outside but it was brilliantly sunny. I specifically used cream eyeshadow that I didn't set with powder and the chillness with the beaming sun kept it dewey and moist in a way that it normally wouldn't. Something new that happened on this day was that instead of coming prepared in my makeup, I asked you, if you already have the space all day, if I could come and hang out and I would do my makeup and we could chill together. And it didn't feel like we needed to force that. It felt important that I did my makeup on my own terms, by myself, for the first two shoots because getting ready and putting on makeup is a meditative process for me but it was also really fun this time to let you in on that. While we were in the studio together I could just shout out, “Oh my god, Sophie, this is what I’m thinking for my makeup. What do you think?” I love how so much of our collaboration comes from a sense of excitement and pure joy.

It was fun to release the cable on my own terms. It was also just fun to hold something. I think there can be this sense when modeling, or being the subject, or whatever you want to call it, of like “What do I do with my body?”’ and there can be a lot of pressure to figure it out in the moment. It was fun to have something specific to do with my hand. And then I feel like we took that further because at that point I was in my bra and underwear and my platform shoes and just really loved the cloth on the wall and asked if we could unpin it and if I could drape it like a shawl. In the previous sessions I enjoyed relating to the environment, but this time I loved getting to play with the environment and fundamentally change it. And then I'm glad you brought up the ideas about dissolving the lines between photographer and subject. I think I got the sense early on in our collaboration that we had an unusual and refreshing dynamic where you weren't just telling me what to do and what to look like. I could creative direct my own style but then also trust you to compose it and frame the photo. We could find some space in between our areas of experience where we could ask each other questions and be curious. I honestly think that if i were to work with a photographer who just told me what to do and what to look like, (unless I was getting paid for it) I’d walk away.

Cass: Something that is very visible in the images we’ve made together is my transness and my queerness. I want to ask you to speak on how your queerness comes through in your photography.

Sophie: My queerness definitely feels like something that is central to how I make images and think about images.

I grew up in a sphere where many people used big cameras, like the one I use. In comparison to when I was a kid, many fewer people are now using that tool. But I was surrounded mostly by older, white men with big cameras within this photo world that still feels very technical and dominated by cis-men. The male gaze feels like an ever present aura, and what I work towards in my photographic process—especially in the past few years where I have been focusing on photographing the people that I have been romantically involved with, people that are really close friends, and people that are both—is trying to actively subvert (and queer)  this dominant that male gaze. I feel like there is power in being a queer woman who really knows my shit about the technical side of photography. I worked for years to feel confident using this camera and working with people.

Also within the medium of photography there is this whole question and issue around the photographer depicting a community and life that they can honestly speak to versus depicting life and people they can't necessarily speak to from experience. People often use the term “take a picture” or “shoot a picture,” which I find really violent, as if you’re taking something away from someone or you’re extracting a piece of their soul. To the contrary, there’s an approach where one is “making a picture.” For me personally, to honestly make someone’s portrait, I really prefer to have key things in common with them and have the language and comfort to be able to work with that person and collaborate with them. My queer identity is something that feels so central to who I am and how I navigate life and conceive of the world and because queerness intersects with so many other identities, it often forges connection between me and those I photograph.

Cass: I love how you express how a fundamental part of your image-making practice is trust and relationship building. Not that you have to speak the exact emotional language as the person or people you’re collaborating with, but there has to be enough in common to have comfort and trust. It feels foundational to your work that you don't use people to make images for your gain but instead you collaborate with them to make images that both of you are happy with. Maybe happy is an assumption or a stretch. I don't want to speak for the other people you’ve worked with, but I also can't imagine you working through a session and not collaborating with the other person to make an image they like. I think having a marginalized identity provides a rear view mirror of sorts – you can hold space for other people in vulnerable ways because you know what it means to struggle. I see that in the way you approach image making.

I also have come to appreciate how you use a big camera. The big camera necessitates this slowness in the process. We will get to a pose that we like, figure out the lighting, and then I'll wait around a bit as you set up the camera and it creates a lot of space for intentionality.

Sophie: That is also a huge reason I really enjoy working with it. It’s slow, it’s intentional. And then, the key moment for me is that, in the moment when the film is actually exposed, I don’t need to be looking through the camera. I can be present in the space with the person or thing that I’m making a picture of. Having that moment of connection and presence where I am next to the camera, not behind it, is essential and produces a different energy and different types of pictures.

Sophie: Do you want to comment on how this project has shaped your artistic focus / practice?

Cass: I see myself as an artistic chameleon of sorts. I don't feel married to any medium. There are mediums I've enjoyed before and even in those mediums, I am now enjoying approaching them in new ways. For example, my music practice has moved more towards improvisation and adding an element of spontaneity/randomness/chaos...layering improvisation over itself or different recordings of improvisation over each other. I am much more interested in flow states in my art and less interested in producing some predetermined story. These flow states and these improvisations and even practicing my makeup are very of the moment – what I’m feeling right then, a creative embodiment of exactly what is going on in my body, letting something pass through me...these are the things I am interested in and they don't have to amount to some big, structured project. They are enough in and of themselves.

I see a clear connection between my transness and my creativity. I make my identity; I actively choose how I want to show up in this world. I create a life for myself – I don’t think that’s a different energy from “art creativity.” This mode of expression  feels like a point of maturity in my gender expression. It feels like I've gotten to a point, three years on hormones now, where I've kind of settled into my body. It makes sense that my creativity felt small and contained when I wasn’t living as my authentic self. When I feel stuck, I need to listen to my body. I have to get to that quiet place in my body and ask myself, “Okay, what do I want right now? What am I actually excited about?” and that takes some real quiet time and vulnerability within myself. My artistic practice just feels more embedded in who I am. I’m not pushing so hard to make my art into what I think it should be. It just is. I'll probably always either slip up or get in the way of myself but more and more now I find myself more quickly finding my way back to that organic, of the moment space. And who knows where that’s going but I feel excited by it and I think that is the most important thing.

Sophie: This ongoing project has made me more excited to be centering my practice around collaboration and has made me realize that collaboration is something that is really important to me creatively. I have always been someone that has been drawn to people—the relationships in my life have always been the most important things—and to have that be reflected in my artwork feels like it makes a lot of sense. This project has empowered me to center collaboration, which has made my various images feel more connected than they did before.

Cass: A quote that is coming to mind for me is from Adrienne Maree Brown in her book Emergent Strategy: “Move at the speed of trust.” I think it’s something that we’ve done really naturally in this collaboration. Relationships are so important to me...more than work, more than really most things... it’s the arena where I find so much meaning in my life and so much growth and learning. I feel really grateful that in our relationship, we've been able to move at the speed of trust which teaches me how to move at the speed of trust with myself. It feels easier to practice with someone else who is emotionally and artistically aligned, and much harder to practice when I'm alone. This documentation feels really important. I was going to tie that together with something but it stands by itself.


Cass Ball (b. 1995) is a multimedia artist and trans girl witch living in New York City. Behind all of her art is the foundational idea that queer and trans fantasies are vital. Inspired by video games and dance music, her original music envisions spaces of dreaming, play, and adventure, where it is also possible to sit with darkness and emerge through it. A graduate of Brown University’s Music program, she has worked as a professional theatre music director, music educator, choir accompanist, and a consultant for other queer artists in their art development processes. She recently launched her newsletter, Slippage, where she writes about the connections between art, magic, and queer/trans identity.

Sophie Schwartz (b. 1995) is a Cleveland born artist living in New York City. Her work explores grief, memory, and queer connection, working primarily in the medium of photography and book arts. She is a graduate of the Modern Culture + Media program at Brown University and was invited to be an artist in residence for the Cleveland Foundation Creative Fusion residency program in 2018 – 2019. Currently, she is the photography editor of PIQUE and works at The Penumbra Foundation.