Sara Macel, "Natural History Museum", from the series "Kiss + Tell", 2002, C-Print

Sara Macel, “Natural History Museum”, from the series “Kiss + Tell”, 2002, C-Print

Sara Macel

Tell me a story about a kiss. Tell me where you were and what the weather was like. Tell me what was said (what was not said). Tell me what you could not even tell your best friend. Tell me the story as it sits in your memory: the story of the guy you kissed on a rooftop who disappeared to Mexico and the backseat where you and your girlfriend had sex in high school. Tell me the story and take me to where it happened. Drive me there, and I will take a photograph.

Often the most memorable part of an intimate encounter is not the person you are with, but the space in which the act takes place. I began this project by collecting stories from strangers and friends that stemmed from the same simple prompt: Tell me a story about a kiss.

At the heart of each story told to me was the relationship between the storyteller and their environment. Often, the storyteller would go into precise detail about, for example, the leaves on the willow trees creating a canopy, while the person they kissed never got a name, a face, or anything other than an anonymous presence within the story. As the listener, I felt a distinct separation between the memory of that single moment and the memory of the relationship as a whole. Regardless of the fate of the couple involved, these memories have become cherished mementos.

My approach to this project was both scientific and intimate. All stories were told and tape-recorded in privacy and under the condition that the storyteller remains anonymous. Each photograph was shot with the same camera and lens, and each resulting image is devoid of any literal or physical human presence. My goal was to create a “portrait” of the space. As I finished each print and pinned it to my wall, I recalled my bug collection for science class many years ago. These spaces became a new collection; my inventory of found memories. Whenever possible, I traveled to the exact location of the story to create the photograph. But, this was not possible in some cases, so I created a visual narrative in a similar setting based on the details given. In doing so, I realized that for every photograph, I was reinventing the memories as my own.

During the course of this project, I was in the early stages of a long-term and on-going relationship. Kiss + Tell was conceived at the same time I was making the decision to devote myself to monogamy at a younger age than I had planned. This project allowed me to fixate on first kisses and stolen embraces at a time when I was frightened by the thought of leaving those experiences behind. By reinventing these borrowed memories for my camera, I vicariously made them mine.

In the years that have passed since completing this project, I have discovered another truth. Often the setting and circumstances behind a kiss stand out in one’s memory most vividly because each kiss has been shared with the same person. The space is the variable, because the person is the constant.

Sara Macel (Brooklyn, NY) moved from Texas to New York at the age of eighteen. She earned a BFA in Photography and Imaging from New York University in 2003, where she was granted the Tobias Award for her project Kiss + Tell. After graduating, Macel spent two years as the assistant and studio manager to Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson and currently works as a freelance photographer and production assistant for the Art Department in NYC. Her photographs have been included in several NYC shows, including the Unframed/First Look exhibition for emerging photographers at Sean Kelly Gallery in 2004, as well as shows at New York University, the Dactyl Foundation, and Artist’s Space. She was a featured photographer in the powerHouse Portfolio Book.