In my vintage 60’s dress obtained in Williamsburg a couple of days ago, with the utmost care, a love for clothing, and the determination to face any fancy society, I am standing at the entrance of a SoHo loft where Sarah Small is throwing a benefit for her upcoming Tableau Vivant. I met Sarah a couple of weeks ago at Slideluck Bushwick at 3rd Ward, where she came to present her living painting project.

She was like a fairy floating between the audience, giving away her famous matches (showcasing a scene from one of her Tableau Vivant performances, involving an implausible interaction between two young, nude females and two elderly, fully dressed women). I wasn’t quite sure what this Tableau thing was about, but I was determined to find out.

I do know that Sarah is fascinated by photographic portrayals of sharp contrast – This is highlighted in her work, both among her individual subjects, and between her subjects and their surroundings.

In the mean time, inside the SoHo loft, a pink cocktail is melting my insides, leaving me oblivious to the rain and mayhem outside. I am watching a portion of a documentary about the process creating the Tableaux Vivants and I am starting to understand how much care Sarah dedicates to the casting process of her models. In the performances, part of the cast performs nude, while others are fully clothed. An inseparable part of each of the Tableau Vivant performances is also a Bulgarian a Cappella group, enhancing the emotionally dense atmosphere on the stage.

Later on, in Sarah’s living room, I am drinking a peppermint chocolate tea she has prepared, admiring her collection of My Little Ponies and her attention to adorable details. I am thinking that her apartment doesn’t seem like the apartment of a famous artist, but, at the same time, I am wondering just how the apartment of a famous artist should look… Probably something like this.

Sarah is explaining the difference between nude and naked photographs. While nude photographers expose the human body as shape and object, Sarah is looking to position her models into a place where, through their naked bodies, they expose their deepest emotional states; their souls.

Sarah is describing how the idea of her Tableaux has evolved. In the very beginning, she just wanted a live photo-shoot, only soon to realize that she was actually creating a living painting. Sarah casts characters in a variety of ages, ethnicities, and personalities, with all sorts of backgrounds: from people working in the prudent environment of finance, who feel the desire to express themselves artistically, to professional artists. Most of the people coming to Sarah are determined from the beginning, whether they choose to perform naked or in clothes. Sarah says it’s 50:50. She directs them to interact with each other, and to express the strongest emotion they can feel – Some people choose tears, others laughter, some are sensual, others angry…The performances usually last about 30 minutes, though Sarah is aiming for about an hour in her upcoming 120 model Tableau.

All 7 of the past Tableaux have included a Bulgarian singing group. I am curious how an American photographer ends up singing tragic Bulgarian folklore songs – Sarah smiles, and tells me how by accident, she discovered a record of Bulgarian singing in The Providence Public Library while at art school, and thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. She has always been very musical and after she moved to New York, she decided to join a Bulgarian a Cappella choir, herself.

Sarah describes that her goals for Tableau Vivant, are not the photographs, or the documentary film. In the very fashion of the 19th century tableaux vivants, and in the spirit of old masters, it’s the performance and the experience itself, which is the ultimate goal…

Sarah Small Photography

Tableau Vivant