Hanging in the Balance by Suzanne Theodora White was chosen as a 2021 Merit Selection for the 2021 Rfotofolio Call by juror Ann Jastrab.
Please tell us about yourself.
For the last 40 years I have lived on a farm in Maine with my dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and sheep. I grew up in Massachusetts, Maine, and California. I started studying painting when I was seven and went on to graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where I focused on painting, and Tufts University. I was fortunate to win a 5th year traveling scholarship from the museum, the only requirement of which was that the money be spent outside of the US. I traveled solo for 18 months always taking local ground transportation, from Europe to the Far East.
It was the waning days of the ‘Hippie Trail’ and it had a monumental impact on my psyche and subsequently informed my art by teaching me about risk taking. I returned to Massachusetts where for the next 12 years I continued to paint and garnered a modest reputation having several one and two person shows. In the late 80’s I was commissioned by Absolut Vodka to be an artist in several of their advertising campaigns. While all this was going on I was taking photographs and supporting myself over the years by running a computer business, training people and their dogs to herd livestock, and raising registered Katahdin hair sheep.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I am, for the most part a self-taught photographer, technically speaking, with a strong foundation in art. When I was at the Museum School, it was a very exciting time. While I didn’t take any classes in photography there, I hung out with the photography crowd for a bit and dated photographers. This was the early years of the ‘Boston School’. For a while I lived in a communal house with, Nan Goldin, Elaine O’Neal, and Jim Dow. Lots of talented photographers and artists dropped in. I saw innovative work and met inspirational people. It was an education albeit indirectly. I continued to photograph.
In 2016 my mother died, and I wanted to make some radical changes in my life. I decided to take my photography seriously, so I began taking classes at Maine Media Workshops and College, eventually enrolling in their MFA program in 2019. It is a marvelous community of artists. Their one-on-one mentorship program is exceptional. I am current working with Brenton Hamilton and DM Witman. They are brilliant.
Who has had an Influence on your creative process?
My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Stewart, who would often hand me back my work and say kindly, you can do better. Now I always ask myself: can I do better?
In 1976 Emmet Gowin gave a talk at the Museum School. I had the opportunity to speak with him in depth while he, Edith, and the boys were visiting. After our conversation I started seeing the world and my work – at that time painting – in some very new and exciting ways. His generosity of spirit and kindness was and continues to be extraordinary. It took me 40 years to move from painting to photography full time, but I got there in the end. And it was the memory of our talk that was a big motivator.
Then of course, the support and encouragement by friends both in and out of the art world has made an extraordinary difference. I have been very fortunate.
Please tell us about an image that has stayed with you over time (not my own).
Sally Mann’s ‘Cherry Tomatoes’. A quintessential summer afternoon in the cool darkness of a screened in porch. A child rests, wrapped around a reclining parent. A brilliant white towel, almost in the center of the frame but not quite, hangs, probably on a nail, on the outside of the dark porch. Two white plastic spoons speak of ice cream. The tomatoes on the outside ledge of the porch, claim time, ripeness, seasons, and sensuality. The entire photograph speaks of summer, humidity, pleasure, the sounds of birds and insects, and the gentle rustling of trees, and the slam of a screen door. It is deeply mysterious having a subtext that is disturbing, fragile innocence, with the deep shadows and purity of the white towel.
What image of mine taught me an important lesson?
It is always the more recent work that comes immediately to mind. It would probably be the image I call ‘Herd’. It is a very intimate photograph, an expression of intense personal grief. In it I think I learned I can touch on a larger truth. It was also when I began to realize that my current series, which I have always thought of as still lives are very much landscapes as well.
About the work I submitted:
They are selections from the series I am calling ‘The Weight of Memory’. They are theatrical dramas about grief and solastalgia, a visual exploration of the consequences and metaphors of climate change. Like many artists I think of myself as a memory keeper. In this series I think about the burden of memory we carry into the future, of what used to be, and how each generation adjusts to a new normal in a diminishing natural world, until one day no one will remember when the skies were filled with birds. If we can remember, we can find hope, knowledge, courage, and the determination to heal.
What part of image making do I find the most rewarding?
I spend a lot of time walking my dogs on the land around the farm. It is my essential source of inspiration, gathering of ideas. Sometimes I take a camera and sometimes I don’t. Each day there is something new, the light, sounds, smells. To paraphrase Heraclitus ‘one never steps in the same river twice’. Most objects in my still life/landscape photographs are collected on the land around me.
My next favorite is printing. My current favorite paper is Canson Rag Photographique. It is a very sensual paper that favors the deep blacks I prefer. I need to print to really see an image and how the lens transforms it.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
I try to trust the process. Having been in the arts for so long I am used to the wild swings of creativity, and I try not to panic during the inevitable slumps – of which, believe me, are many! Most of the time I keep to a disciplined routine during the week. This helps a lot. Then I try to keep in my head not to be afraid of failure. That’s easy to say and hard to do. But I have worked long enough to know that even the crash and burns are important. They often return in new and improved forms, sometimes years later.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
That’s a tough question and the first thing that came to mind – are not tools – but my dogs. They are Belgian Shepherds. Being around them is calming and helps me focus. They also ease the solitary nature of being an artist.
Tools, would, of course, be my cameras. Sometimes I think of them as works of art, like finely tuned performance cars. The snick of the shutter opening and closing always delights me. So much possibility in that one little sound.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I have dabbled in video, and I want to pursue some ideas in that area. Alternative processes are also calling to me.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Since I can’t remember a time when I have not wanted to paint, draw, or take pictures (I had a little Kodak Brownie) – I suspect that I really don’t know how it affects me for it is my way of life. I saw things others did not even as a child. Maybe I was just strange. I know that since I was a young, I have always been intensely connected to the natural world, both its beauty and violence. Perhaps, because I grew up with ‘duck and cover’ and bomb shelters in the back yard, my sense of the fragility of life and the planet relates to my being an artist. I’m honestly amazed I have lived as long as I have.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?
Being an introvert there hasn’t been much of a change in my life. In fact, I relished the excess of time I had to work uninterrupted and consequently have become more focused. However, the pandemic has created a general atmosphere of anxiety that, at times, makes working a challenge. I have tried to channel that anxiety into my work. I am very fortunate to live on a farm with large spaces to walk and ramble. But I do see my work becoming psychologically darker.
To learn more about the work of Suzanne Theodora White please visit her site by clicking on her name.