10 Questions: Artistry with an edge

Heather Sparrow has been honing a style that can sometimes take your breath away


Some people say you shouldn’t take some pictures. And yet, unless the images in question are clearly against the law (at least in the United States), photography is inextricably part of society.

Everything from Times Square on New Year’s Eve to a baby’s first breath cannot seem to exist unless it has somehow been captured as an image to be shared on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

However, as some have noted recently in Taos, photography and recording can be a very large issue. At Taos Pueblo bans against them have been repeatedly ignored by visitors who believe they are exceptions to the rule. This has led some tribal members to wonder if visitors themselves should be banned altogether from their Native religious dances.

Within the artistic arena, photography’s heavy hitters like Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz often come immediately to mind, evoking painstakingly composed images of striking landscapes or portraits. And yet, photography can reveal images that aren’t so easy to look at. Taos photographer Heather Sparrow has been toiling away rather quietly, honing a style that can sometimes take your breath away. Inspired somewhat by edgy, ultra-dark images by Albuquerque artist Joel-Peter Whitkin, Sparrow is shaping her own path as an “artist drawing with light.”

Some may read all sorts of things into Sparrows photographs, but what is it they are really seeing?

We wondered too and decided we needed to corner her with “10 Questions” of our own. Here’s what’s on her mind …

1. What made you first interested in taking pictures?

Heather Sparrow: Edward S. Curtis. The idea that the process of being photographed could capture someone’s soul. That a camera is a mirror of sorts, a reflection. Mirrors have been believed to open portals into the “Otherworld,” allowing ancestors and gods to pass through between the two planes.

2. Do you consider yourself an artist, a photographer or a combination that includes something else?

Sparrow: As an artist drawing with light, I have great concern in making the world a better place. I use photography, to expose and resolve problems. A space of shared learning allows for personal growth, and by extension, social change. A revolutionist. Like Ansel Adams, or Zana Briski.

3. Many of your images from the last few years are characterized by a certain gothic look? Where does this come from?

Sparrow: It started with Joel-Peter Whitkin (American photographer who lives in Albuquerque often referred to as controversial for his use of imagery involving death, corpses and people considered “outsiders”). Then, as my children grew older, darker experiences unfolded. It was the most elegant way to describe something deeply disquieting.

4. You shoot photos of some local rock bands. Describe what a typical photo session with them is like?

Sparrow: It’s super-important to have some idea of what the bands “needs” and artistic goals are before the shoot, getting to know each personality is key in the resulting images. My job is to help express what makes them unique by capturing their personality and enhancing their strengths. Each situation calls for a different overall mood and style. It is everything but, normal, average or usual.

5. Are you process-oriented or do you collaborate with your subjects or others?

Sparrow: Photography is two equal and necessary parts, photographer and subject. The transformative power of photography and collaboration is a ritual preformed to challenge each other, test assumptions, reassess goals, and strategize on moving forward mindfully and effectively.

6. Some of your subjects appear to be your kids. Are they following in their mother’s footsteps as artists too?

Sparrow: They wouldn’t admit it, but they are all talented photographers. They want to document and be documented. Self-realization helps them process.

7. How does motherhood figure into some of your imagery?

Sparrow: The tension, between the extremes of childhood and death is a skillful balance. Yet, my children are well-composed, without their artistic willingness, I would be invisible. My most admired photographer, Sally Mann, describes it best: “I struggle with enormous discrepancies between the reality of motherhood and the image of it, between my love for my home and the need to travel, between the varied and seductive paths of the heart. The lessons of impermanence, the occasional despair, and the muse, so tenuously moored, all visit their needs upon me and I dig deeply for the spiritual utilities that restore me: my love for the place, for the one man left, for my children and friends and the great green pulse of spring.”

8. The black vertical mark that appears over the lips of some models, where does that originate?

Sparrow: Paint has been used in many indigenous cultures as an element of protection and spiritual healing. Powerful magic is passed on during the application of paint, helping the warrior to believe himself invincible. The meaning of the heartline symbol is to signify life force. The heartline symbol is often found on the Zuni tribe fetish drawings of animals. It represents the breath as the life force of the animal. The heartline is depicted as an inlaid line in the shape of an arrow. This arrow is called the lifeline or heart line. The heartline begins at the mouth where breath gives life and points to the soul, or spirit, where faith and inner strength preside.

9. Would you consider some of your work risqué or just honest?

Sparrow: Being truthful, sincere, candid, frank and open, has historically been defined, slightly indecent or liable to shock. By combining the real and the ideal, fear is nothing more than an obstacle that stands in the way of progress. If my work doesn’t make people wonder, I’m not doing my job.

10. What excites you most about photography?

Sparrow: Photography is an extraordinary language. Photography extends human vision. Those who were silenced now have a voice. Put in the hands of children, the future is more connected than ever.

Heather Lynn Sparrow (née Smith) is a Taos photographer experienced at producing imagery associated with art direction, fine art portraits, fashion, bands, boudoir, weddings, birth, editorial, commercial, advertising and The Moveable Feast Photo Booth. “From my early days … learning zone system and processing negatives, my pursuit of new experiences pushes me to continually evolve my vision, while reminding me of the importance of carrying my camera with gratitude, humor, compassion and curiosity.

A maverick in my medium, I create art, with intention, while engineering success using authentic innovation and spiritual reverence. I invite participants into an unorthodox dimension of reality, while encouraging participants to confront personal issues in an orchestrated photographic theater. As we nourish the imagination, through photographic ritual, it inspires magic and mystery, while providing documentation of one’s wildest dreams.”

Her work can be seen online at sparrowphoto.com and fb/insta/pin/twit/link/tumble/flick/see/be. Call (575) 737-BIRD.