Italian Gesture #2 © Susan Bryant

Susan Bryant was selected as one of the photographers of merit in the 2018 Denis Roussel Award. We are pleased to share her work and words with you today.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Indiana. I was interested in painting as a kid, and my parents encouraged me – they made me feel that Art (with a capital ‘A’ : the visual arts, literature, music, dance, and theatre) were important, and that being an artist was valuable. I’m grateful to them for making my path as an artist one without doubt or hesitation.

After college, a first marriage and two children, I ended up in Tennessee in the early ‘80s, where I began my career teaching photography at a wonderful liberal arts university with an art department that trusted me to develop the photography curriculum. For the past 36 years I have taught introduction to film and the darkroom, pinhole, plastic cameras, view cameras, alternative and historical processes, the history of photography and ways to integrate digital technology into analog processes.

Because of extra state funding for the arts, my department has been able to bring many brilliant photographers to campus to exhibit, provide public lectures, and work with students. My university also generously supports faculty creative research through internal grants and funds for equipment, travel for workshops, tutorials, and residencies. My life as an artist has been enriched by my life as an educator.

Where did you get your photographic training?

After earning my BA in painting from Indiana University, I decided to enroll in a post-graduate, non-degree-seeking photography class at Indiana State University. Within the first week of class, it was clear that I had found the tools to both explore the outer world and express my inner world. My experience as a teaching assistant also confirmed my enthusiasm for teaching photography at the university level. At ISU my mentor inspired me to combine my love of painting with my love of photography by developing new ways to apply color to black and white silver prints. I continued to hand-color the majority of my gelatin silver prints for 30 years. 

Although I’ve been an educator for over half of my life, I take advantage of every available opportunity to be a student. I have attended numerous workshops and tutorials in Rockport, Maine; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Rochester, NY; studying with brilliant photographers. I have never stopped being a student.

Who has had an influence on your creative process?

There are many artists, past and present, whose work has influenced my work and my creative process: the paintings of Vermeer and Degas, Julia Margaret Cameron’s collodion portraits, Gustave Le Gray’s seascapes using multiple collodion plates, everything by Josef Sudek and Andre Kertez, the works of the Pictorialists, Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘Equivalents’ and his photos of Georgia O’Keefe’s hands, Sally Mann’s collodion landscapes and the patient guidance of my collodion mentor, France Scully-Osterman.

My husband is also an artist in addition to being my colleague at school. We have shared a studio in the basement of our home for 22 years. His dedication to and passion for his work (collage and illustration) constantly inspires me. His support and encouragement have a huge impact on my creative process. He is my biggest fan and my harshest critique and I cannot imagine my creative life without his influence.

Lily’s Braid © Susan Bryant
Plait © Susan Bryant

Why do you create?

Being an artist is one of the most important things in my life. It provides me opportunities to be amazed, to capture beauty and to share it. In her bookOn Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Sacrry says this: “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” I can’t imagine a life without photography. 

What draws you to collodion work?

The challenge, the anticipation, the transformation, and the creation of a singular object that I can hold in my hand within minutes of exposure. 

Working in collodion is a challenge for me, and my studio practice is often full of failure. And failure is frustrating. As a teacher I stress the importance of problem solving, and working with collodion requires that I practice what I teach. I actually avoided chemistry in school; although I am comfortable with processing film and printing silver gelatin prints, the chemistry in collodion constantly challenges me. But honestly, when it works, when all the pieces of the process work to create an engaging image on a plate, the enchantment and feeling of accomplishment and amazement is like no other I’ve experienced.

Also, as a person, I am easily distracted. The collodion process requires that I focus and be present and patient at every stage of the process.

I am also profoundly curious about exploring ways of integrating the 19th century collodion process with 21st century digital technology. When I’m photographing without a darkroom (which I started in Italy with Italian Gestures), the final image goes through many stages, from raw file to digital positive to collodion plate. Unexpected things happen during this transformation. The opportunities this provides, working both in-camera and in the darkroom after digital capture, are thrilling and inspiring. 

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait (8) 1919 Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946) Photograph, palladium print, solarized

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.

The first time I saw an exhibit of Stieglitz’s photographs that included images of Georgia O’Keefe hands as well as his “Equivalents”, I was overwhelmed. I did not immediately begin to emulate this work, but in some way it seeped into my consciousness, and many years later I found the expressive and metaphoric gestures of hands and the emotional potential of images of skies, two of my favorite things to photograph. 

Sunset, Florence © Susan Bryant

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?

In the summer of 2014, I was watching the sunset over the Arno River from the Piazzale Michelangelo (Florence, Italy) and I was irritated. Because I had dropped and broken my familiar camera in Rome the day before, I was using one I had purchased just that morning; it was new to me and I regretted that I didn’t have my familiar camera. In spite of all that, I ended up with an image (transferred from jpg to collodion tintype) that transformed my experience into something different than what I had witnessed, altogether more romantic and timeless, untouched by the frustration I was feeling in the moment. The lesson, I tell my students every day: It’s not the camera that makes an image transcendent. It’s the light.

What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?

Having uninterrupted time to write, to think, to work. Sometimes that takes the form of a day shooting digitally and spending the evening editing images for future tintypes. Sometimes I spend the day making plates in my backyard and my evenings varnishing the plates while listening to music with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. Some days it is simply having the time to write, read, and research for ideas that are brewing. I love the opportunity for solitude afforded by residencies, so I suppose a perfect day, creatively speaking, would be at a residency, where I have no obligations  – an entire day to focus on creating. 

If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be? 

Josef Sudek, the poet of Prague. I would love to have followed him around in the early morning with his 8×10 and panoramic cameras, capturing the beauty of the landscape and cityscape of Prague and the light filtering in through the windows of St. Vitus Cathedral. I would have been equally intrigued watching as he set up his intimate still-lifes of mundane objects on the window sill in his studio and use the mist-covered windows to capture the light in the garden just outside.

What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?

My 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras, a good digital camera, my 4×5 enlarger, my laptop and desktop computers, a flatbed scanner and a digital printer. 

What hangs on your walls?

Sally Mann, Keith Carter, Olivia Parker, Joseph Beuys, Greg Sand, Sue Coe, family photographs, artwork by friends, quilts made by my sister, textiles from travels.

What’s on the horizon?

I’ll be retiring from teaching this May. I will miss my students and my colleagues but I am looking forward to being a full-time artist. In addition to more time in the darkroom and studio, I plan to apply for more residencies, grants and exhibition opportunities; I’ll be  networking with other artists who use historical photographic processes. I plan to read more, practice and teach more yoga, travel to visit family and friends. 

My most recent collodion work came from a road trip I took last May to the Barrier Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve had time to make only a few tintypes from the jpgs I shot and look forward to making more. Also, I have the opportunity to spend my last Spring Break week in El Rito, New Mexico near Abiquiu,. I love this part of the country and have photographed it with film many times in the past. This time I will make jpgs to transform into collodion plates in my darkroom when I return.

The most exciting thing to me is my recent purchase of an igloo ice-fishing tent to use as an on-the-road darkroom. I’ve only had the opportunity to use it once, but look forward to exploring the landscape in and around where I live in middle Tennessee, to add to the work from the southeast and the southwest. 

In some definitions, retirement refers to ‘the withdrawal from one’s active working life.’

I see this change in my life as anything but a withdrawal. I look forward to it with the paradoxical anticipation of a student looking forward to the first day of class and the first day of summer vacation at the same time.

Globe Collection © Susan Bryant

Why did  you apply for the Denis Roussel Award?

I don’t remember exactly when or where I found the link to Rfotofolio but I remember it was too late to enter, “What is Beauty”. However, it introduced me to Denis Roussel’s work and his interview, ‘Beauty Where You Find It’. I connected to his words and to his work immediately. I love his photograms/cyanotypes/lumen prints. They are beautiful and thought-provoking. 

And then, I read about his life and death and the award you created to honor him and his work, and wanted to know more about your organization. And now I know and appreciate your mission and your support of photographers through your sites, exhibitions, interviews, and articles. I am so honored to be part of Rfotofolio and hope to find ways to become more active and involved in the future. 

Thank you Susan.

To learn more about the work of Susan Bryant please visit her site at Susan Bryant. 


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