Sean Sprague is an internationally recognized Canadian photographer. Sprague’s practice is keenly interested in the cusp that photography occupies between the real and the fabricated. His work has been exhibited throughout North America in exhibitions in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto. Sprague is an award-winning photographer with honors from the Magenta Foundation and American Photography, among others. His projects have been recognized by the Canada Council for the Arts and Wenner Gren foundation. Sprague’s work has been featured in esteemed publications such as The New Yorker, PDN, and Time. Sprague studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto and received his MFA from the University of California Los Angeles.
Sprague began working with the photographic tableau form to push against the ephemerality of images we encounter online. Treating the photograph as autonomous work pushes against conventional notions that the medium requires the multiple to shape meaning – that somehow an individual painting or a sculpture is enough, yet photography requires more. His practice found a paradoxical response by creating singular works that utilize a multitude of images. Beginning in 2013, he started photographing scenes in thousands of close-up pieces. These materials are selected, edited, and meticulously combined to digitally construct each work. There is no original image. This process embodies the view that a photograph is never unadulterated.
The first time Sprague employed this process was while collaborating with Tufts University anthropologist Alex Blanchette. He became interested in Blanchette’s work on factory farming as his research subject alluded to similar concerns Sprague had regarding photography, both blurring the line between the artificial and natural. Sprague drew parallels between subject and form – the agrarian dream to control nature akin to the artist’s desire to create a different vision of the world. Photographing on location in the Great Plains, Sprague directed farm laborers, plant workers, and other locals to reenact and perform their daily activities for each mise-en-scène. This work was published in PDN, Time and by Duke University Press in Blanchette’s book Porkoplis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm.
Sprague’s next body of work employed actors and more elaborate staging, using allegory to depict scenes that address digital ephemerality, information overload, the changing role of image-makers, anxieties produced by social media, message boards of abuse and discrimination and a relentless digital image-world. These works looked to painting’s past and the image’s future to expand how the medium may represent these new sites of non-physical reality. These works were supported by the Ontario Arts Council.
The “everyday” now entails confronting anxieties and jealousies produced from social media, message boards of abuse and discrimination, the further aestheticization of politics, and a relentless digital image-world. To record such things can seem impossible and inadequate.
These works were produced by directing actors to perform “documentary” scenes. Intentionally including ambiguities and multiple narratives, these works point to the multiple truths that can occupy the same space at once. Mixing constructed and found elements of each within a single picture, these works seek to question how we define the real and how the photographic medium can be a unique site for that redefinition. Through staging of documentary scenes these works seek to challenge the authority of the documentary traction in photography and its narrows definition of truth that excludes so much. It is this narrowness that these works much against to make space for the many perspectives, possibilities and truths within a photographic picture. These works have been exhibited at the Houston Centre of Photography, New Release Gallery in New York, and Human Resources in Los Angeles.