Backyard Studio 7 © Susan Bryant

We are pleased to share the workspace of photographer Susan Bryant.

Please tell us about your work space.

I share a studio space with my husband, artist Billy Renkl, in the basement of our 1938 home in Tennessee. Although this “studio” is made up of several rooms in the basement, including a darkroom made from the original coal cellar, I basically think of our whole house as our studio. Art-making has colonized the entire place, with specific places for specific functions: the darkroom; the varnishing area; the plate drying area; the office with computer, scanner, printer, and storage for plates, prints, and negatives; flat files for unframed prints, storage racks for framed artwork; the kitchen sink and bathtub for washing plates; the backyard for exposing plates, exposing cyanotypes, and washing gelatin silver prints; and the living room as my current shooting studio. 

Sharing a studio with Billy is an amazingly positive situation in my life. We encourage each other, we influence each other, we collaborate with each other, we learn from each other. We try to divide the space equitably, but occasionally there are territorial disputes. When one of us is preparing for an exhibit, though, the other shares space to spread out. 

Billy in Studio © Susan Bryant
Varnishing Area 1 © Billy Renkl

What objects of inspiration do you have in your space?

I collect things; my husband collects things; we collect things together. I surround myself with things that are beautiful and meaningful to me. I found some at flea markets and yard sales, some were gifts, and others are objects from my childhood. Depending on the piece, I might respond to its form or its function or my memory of it, or the ways that it might serve as a metaphor in my work. 

I have a large collection of hands: sculptures of hands, functional 3-D hands, artworks depicting hands, photographs of hands, books about hands, hand-shaped jewelry. I also collect scales, sand timers, old suitcases, old jewelry boxes & cigar boxes, antique tintypes and ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, stereographs, family photos, snow globes. Billy collects globes, textiles, vintage turned-wood Mexican salt and pepper shakers, and 19th century tintypes of dogs, among other things. Together we collect mid-century American pottery. You can imagine the critical mass of stuff in this house.

I am inspired by all of these things. I think they communicate something about who I am and what I think about, though perhaps not in an organized, intentional way. I tend to make tableaus all over our house, I move objects around, adding or deleting them from an arrangement (but I rarely dust them). We have mostly been at home now for the past three months – it was natural for the house to become my studio and my focus to turn to these collections.

Bookcase 1 © Susan Bryant

There is not a lot of wall space in our shared studio, but all empty walls are filled with book cases, art work, family photos, and post cards I’ve collected by artists who inspire me: Vermeer, Imogine Cunningham, Georgia O’Keefe, A. Stieglitz, A. Kertesz, J.M. Cameron, G. Le Gray, my husband’s collages, former student photographs, and old exhibit announcements.

Do you have any favorite tools in your work space?

My original, 40-year-old, Time-O-Lite enlarger timer, my little Bose speaker that moves from room to room with me providing darkroom/studio playlists from my iPhone, and most important, my copy of Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman’s instruction manual: Basic Collodion Technique: Ambrotype & Tintype.

Does your work space influence your work ?

I can easily walk from my backyard (where I often shoot) to my darkroom; this allows the collodion process to be accomplished with ease. Since Covid-19 and shelter-in-place orders, I’ve also turned our living room into a shooting studio for photographing still-lifes – there are more windows, and more space, in the living room than in the basement studio. There I can leave objects and camera set up without worrying about the weather. The artwork on our walls, the books in the bookcases, the objects we collect sitting around the house all influence my work, providing ideas and inspiration. 

If there is one thing you could change about your work space what would it be?

More space. More light. High ceilings with skylights. More storage racks. Ideally, I would want a separate building, of course, but right in the backyard, so it was completely convenient. (this is not going to happen).

I can’t really change my work space, though; what I can do, instead, is apply for artist residencies. Those opportunities give me a chance to work in a different kind of studio than I have here. I rely on those opportunities, not only for solitude and dedicated time, but for the space to spread out, to pin up work in progress. A new studio gives me a chance to rethink my work flow and that always provides insight I bring home with me to my work space here.

How do you keep track of your ideas? 

I keep journals. I have 38 years’ worth of journals stashed in various places around our house (a good use for the old suitcase collection). I always have one main journal that is dedicated to ideas for my work, but I also have notebooks for shooting and darkroom details that are often within reach when an idea comes to me. I also have ideas written on scraps of paper and in miscellaneous notebooks. Actually, I’m not great at keeping track of my ideas in a conventionally organized way, but I’ve figured out how to work with that.

Any advice for someone thinking about adding a work space? 

Just as I believe that it’s not the camera you use, it’s the light; so I also believe it’s not the studio, it’s the work. Find a way to use what you’ve got. Many of my best still lifes and portraits were shot in front of a piece of fabric clamped onto our backyard fence using ambient light from the shade of the house. These questions have given me a chance to think about all the ways that my work space is not ideal, is not the picture-perfect studio that I might have once dreamed about. But it turns out to be the perfect place to make the work I’ve needed to make.

But don’t forget about storage!

Thank you Susan.
To learn more about the work of Susan Bryant please visit her page atSusan Bryant.

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