Susan Worsham Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: I thought you’d have an interesting take on the way photographers essentially have to have two careers: the getting it out there phase, and the making the work phase. In the last interview i did, Jesse Burke called it the “wheel of self-promotion.” He said “the wheel of self-promotion is always spinning.” I related to that. I know a lot of people relate to that. Right now, I feel like I’m trying as hard as I can to de-emphasize it and remind myself of why I do what I do. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the last few years, you seem to have your head on straight as to why you make work. So I thought maybe we could talk a bit about how you see your motivations as an artist.

Susan Worsham: Well, what you were saying about the “wheel of self-promotion?” I guess, I don’t even think about self-promotion. The contacts that I make are more based on me being me, and the people being them. It’s about natural connections, as opposed to trying to force a connection. My “By the Grace of God” series is about me going out into the world and making connections. Right now, the connections are not about making it, or getting ahead. It’s hard for me to explain.

JB: That’s OK. You said it right away. You don’t consider the “wheel of self-promotion.” You don’t care about it. I feel like of all my friends and colleagues, you’re the only one that when you say it, I believe it. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk about this. I feel like so many photographers, certainly fine art photographers, have gotten distracted by the 24/7, all encompassing noise of the Internet, and the blogosphere, and FB and Twitter. People put so much energy into the other that they lose track of the root causes of why we started making art to begin with. I thought that you might be able to share a little bit of your perspective on that.

SW: It all happened for me in a natural, one thing led to another way. At Review Santa Fe, the reason that I even went was that someone nominated me for the Santa Fe Prize, and I had to look up what that was. When someone nominates you for the Santa Fe Prize, you get to go to the portfolio review. And I’d never really heard of a portfolio review before. Someone that interviewed me recently asked me, “Are you really that naive?”

JB: Ouch.

SW: Yeah, but I wasn’t upset by it. I answered, “Yeah, in this case, with this particular subject, I am naive.” I don’t come from a publishing background, and I didn’t go to school for photography, so I’m not going to know everything that everyone knows. Frankly, none of that really matters to me. It’s the art that matters to me. But the reason that she asked if I was really that naive, to prepare for my first portfolio review, I had to google portfolio reviews to see what people brought. I saw that people were bringing what’s called “clamshell boxes,” so that was the first thing I did. I ordered myself a clamshell box. So I kind of feel like I’m just being me. And my art work is how I connect with the world, and how I get my feelings out. And that’s really mine.

JB: That’s what I wanted to talk about. I gave a lecture yesterday at UNM, in Albuquerque. At the end of class, the professor, Jim Stone, asked what advice I would give the students. I said “Don’t do this because you want to make money or get famous. It’s too hard and too degrading.” The business aspects of what we do, even when things are going well, it always feels like a crapshoot. So if that’s why you want to be a photographer, my advice was clear. “Do something else. If you want to be famous, try to get on television. Make work because you have to, because it’s a part of who you are, and if these things don’t come out as art, they come out as insanity or kicking a dog.” That’s where it comes from for me. I wouldn’t have dealt with 15 years of rejection by choice.

SW: I recently had a younger photographer email me, and say she was in my city and could we meet. So I said sure. I always feel a connection to other photographers, because we share a passion. She said, “You’re all over the place right now. How did you get that?” I said, “Gosh, I’ve been taking photographs for at least 20 years.” It’s not something that just comes all of a sudden. You make work that’s important to you, and at some point, someone is going to see it. I just don’t think about money, when I’m thinking about photography. When I leave my house, and I’m in my car, and the lighting is just amazing, and it’s hitting someone’s back yard, I freak out. I just follow that beautiful light. That’s what inspires me. It’s really simple.

JB: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, because I know it can be tough to talk about.. As photographers, we’re primarily visual communicators. But when you’re out there shooting, do you feel like you’re actively looking for something, or you’re waiting to find something?

SW: One of the things that’s funny is that when I go up to people, and I ask if I can take their photograph, sometimes I explain that I’m doing this series called “By the Grace of God,” and it’s kind of just like this. I’m meeting you right here, this light is beautiful. It’s not like it’s a religious thing. I find myself often having to explain that I’m not a crazy nutbag religious person.

JB: (laughing) Did you say nutbag? Because I want to keep that. You better not make me cut nutbag, because that’s too good.

SW: No, no, no. Nutbag is fine.

JB: Excellent.

SW: Sometimes the title of the series helps. I actually walked into what I thought was an abandoned dilapidated church, right into a small service. I ended up standing up and talking about my project, and even got a few hallelujahs. I’m definitely a talker, but when you put me in front of a group of people I tend to freeze. And it’s funny that the first time I stood up and talked about the work was to a non photography crowd in a church service. I believe in a higher power. I am not someone who goes to church all of the time, or even reads the bible all the time. It’s more of just this feeling inside, when I’m taking photographs. It’s following what’s in my heart. Now that I’m older…… Let me give you an example. I used to be in my car, or even out walking, and see something and say, “ Wow. That’s awesome. I’d love to take a photograph of that.” And I wouldn’t stop. Now it seems like I’m listening to myself more, and I’m stopping and taking the time to follow what just made me really excited. Why extinguish that and keep on driving? Why not go ahead and turn down that road, and then usually when I do, and I take out my camera, and I meet someone, it seems like I was supposed to turn down that road and look at this beautiful thing that happened.

JB: When you say, “Why not stop?” I think it’s a great way to cycle back. I think a lot of people don’t stop because they don’t have the time to stop, or because they’re staring at their Iphone, and they don’t see it to begin with. I’m the last guy to be critical of anyone who tries to navigate the system, because certainly I have. But at the same time, within the last few months, I’ve just been pushing myself again and again to be more patient and to take more time. Through our past conversations, I feel like you’ve inspired me to reconnect to that. So…

SW: I’m going to interrupt and talk about patience for a minute. Gosh, patience? I have a lot of patience.

JB: I know. I feel like most people have a problem with it. I don’t think I’ve gotten my mind around how to be patient until very recently. I’m still learning.

SW: I’m actually still learning too. Sometimes, I have to wait a year. I often photograph one of my oldest neighbors, Margaret Daniel. All my family’s gone, and she’s my oldest neighbor from my childhood street, Bostwick Lane. She still lives at the top of it. I photograph her a lot. I’ll give you a bit of background story on her. I was in her basement, and there were all these boxes. They were labeled by the years. So I went upstairs and said, “Margaret, what are all the boxes in the basement?” And she said, “Well, honey, those are my walnuts.” It turns out that she collects walnuts as they fall from her tree, and labels them by the year they fell. It’s since been a very big part of my work with her. One day she was eating walnuts from her parents’ tree that she had brought with her. I call it a dowry of sorts. One fell, and made a tree. Now, it’s 50 or so years later, and that tree is just huge, taller than any house on Bostwick Lane. But the interesting thing about Margaret, and the funny thing is now I forget what the question was… but patience. That’s what we were getting to.

So I really wanted to photograph Margaret. I call her my Black Walnut Bride. I wanted to get photographs of her walnuts, and I had to wait, I would say two years. I said, “Margaret, tell me when the walnuts are going to come. Tell me when the walnuts are going to come.” And she was like, “Honey, the tree was barren this year. That happens every so often.” And so I didn’t get to photograph them, and I was quite upset about it. Now this year, they are plentiful, and I have had to go and help her collect them every day to where my back hurts after picking them up for hours. And we’ve made a walnut bed in her garden. Another metaphor. The woman is rich with metaphors. And she told me, “Honey, we’re going to make a walnut bed. Collect them and put them over there in the garden.” And so that’s the patience that I’ve had to learn, to wait two years for the walnuts to come. But they’re such a big part of her, and now of me.

You know, waiting is fine. You can go off and take other photographs. I don’t consider a series quite finished yet. A lot of people probably think that my “Some Fox Trail in Virginia” project is finished, but I’m going to go on and photograph Margaret, probably, until she is gone. That would be when that series would end.

JB: I didn’t realize the project was still in progress, but when I went to your website, I saw images from “Some Fox Trails” that I hadn’t seen before. When we talk about patience, I feel like everyone else is going in the other direction. There’s this pressure from the outside world that people feel to come out with the next project. To tie a bow around something. To have the book done. I feel like when we get caught up in that, it takes us away from the things that motivate us to make our best work: the quest for knowledge and the desire to improve. We need to kind move around and sit down into something, and I find that of all the people I know, you seem to understand that on an intuitive level. You’re patient with people. You listen. Certainly, I could be accused of loving to talk. But often I try to remind myself that we learn more, and we find the good stuff when we listen.

SW: Exactly. Getting back to Margaret’s walnut bed, to me, the metaphors that come every time I photograph her, the work is getting stronger, and I’m getting stronger as an artist. Just spending time with her. She’s very old, and I know she’s going to pass. I don’t know how long I have with her. The walnut bed, when I look at it, enables me to deal with death. I use a lot of metaphor in my work, and I’ve begun to see the world in metaphors. So when I go to her yard, and see that mound of earth covered in walnuts, she’s not only my Walnut Bride, but that becomes her Walnut Deathbed. In photographing her, she’s helping me come to terms with death, or deal with death, in kind of a poetic way.

My brother was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. On his first visit home, he took his life. He just wasn’t a person who could live without the use of his legs. Margaret Daniel was the last person to see him alive. She had made him his favorite, which was her homemade bread. When I was photographing her for the very first time, she told me the story of his last day. She brought him his favorite bread, and she took it up the stairs, and she buttered it for him. He kept on saying, “Margaret, can you bring me some more bread?” She said, “Susan, he finished the whole loaf.” Then my mom and Margaret went for a walk. When they came back, he had shot himself, and then died shortly thereafter. So the metaphor of that being his last supper. I don’t know if a lot of people know that’s one of the reasons why I concentrate on Margaret, because she’s the last person to see my brother alive, she’s the last of my family, since my family’s passed. It’s all getting connected for me now.

JB: I know this might sound crazy, but I went through your whole website, and the one photograph that I kept up on my screen to talk about, that I’m looking at right now, is the photograph called “Risen,” the freshly baked loaves of bread on the countertop. Of the 150 pictures on your site, that’s the picture that stuck with me. I had no idea of the backstory, and I had no idea that it was your brother’s last meal.

SW: I’m a little shocked. Not knowing the story behind it. Sometimes I think someone might think that was a boring photograph. But for me it has so much meaning.

JB: But the title…let’s sit here one more second. The title: Risen. We see the loaves of bread. And there’s this glowing light. The title has all those spiritual connotations. So between all that, it felt to me like there was really a lot more there. You have a very sharp lens on your 4×5, but there’s always a sense to me that you have a very insightful eye. To me, there was a story here, and I didn’t know what it was. I’m looking at the photograph right now.

SW: There’s always a lot more there. I’m finding out a lot about myself, through the series, and in turn, when I work on “By the Grace of God,” it allows me to get that close with other people.

JB: Whether you’re shooting in Syracuse, New York, or at home in the South, your stomping grounds, whether people are white or they’re black, time and again, no matter what class people come from, or their background, you manage to find a grace and a dignity and a respect. When I see that, that you’re depicting people with respect, then I make this mental assumption that’s how it works on the street. That you meet people, young or old, and they sense that respect, and it creates a rapport. It’s not like, “Hey, there’s a freak, let’s take their picture, and it will be freaky, and then we’ll sell that picture for $10,000.”

SW: I have a little story. I used to go play pool a lot. I met this older black gentleman. His name was Larry, and he was kind of a pool hustler. Larry would put a quarter down on the side of the table while I was playing, and tell me to aim for the coin. I would get four balls in with one shot. He was a very interesting character, and one day Parliament was playing on the jukebox.

JB: P-Funk? George Clinton?

SW: Yeah, P-Funk. So he asked if I liked that, and I said “Yeah.” He told me that he used to dance for Parliament, and they called him the Rubber Band Man. I believe there is a song about him by another band. Now I always believed Larry. He was someone that actually taught me a lot about patience, and reading people. He worked at Tysons Chicken Farm and everyday after work he would ride his bike up to play pool. And I hung out with him quite a lot. So here is this guy, working at a chicken farm in Virginia who travelled the world with George Clinton. I don’t think he even had a phone, but he told me he still had a closet full of fancy costumes. That’s life. That’s how it works. But none of my friends believed he was the Rubber Band Man. I remember once I was outside, and I was talking to Larry. A drunk guy stumbled up with a bottle in a paper bag. He was like “That’s the Rubber Band Man. Do you know who that is? That’s the Rubber Band Man. How do you get to be talking to the Rubber Band Man?”

And that’s kind of how my life works. I wasn’t taking photos at the time. There are just so many stories, and so many special people out there. Everyone has a story. What I’m coming to terms with now is the patience that you talk about. I can’t take all the pictures that I want to take.

JB: There are a million different people out there making pictures a million different ways, but we can only talk about what we know. Irrespective of the fact that you place all the value on the process and not the business aspect, fortunately the world has come to respect your work. You’ve wona book award from Blurb, you’ve had a slew of exhibitions, including the recent Lishui Photo Festival, you had an artist residency at Light Work in Syracuse, and in 2011 you were chosen as a member of the PDN 30. There seems to be a lot of mystique around that list. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about what impact, if any, it’s had on your career?

SW: I remember me and another person that got the PDN this year talked on the phone, and talked about how we weren’t sure if we were doing everything that we should be doing with that award. I think the year that you’re PDN 30 is the year that you’re supposed to use that. That’s your chance to get appointments with galleries, and do that sort of thing. You know, network more because you have that behind you. We didn’t know if we were actually doing that. Because… I don’t know…I use natural light and an old view camera. So it’s hard for me to start doing commercial work. I guess we were both feeling bad, like, “I haven’t done anything with it, what about you?” This is the time we should be doing it. For a commercial photographer, the Photo District News award is amazing, because you immediately are going to have so many people looking at your work, and maybe giving you jobs because of that. Which is wonderful. I wasn’t at the point to take any of those jobs, because again, I use a view camera and natural light. So it would take quite a while for me to develop and then scan, and give a photo shoot back to someone. I think I got Fraction Magazine because of PDN 30, though I don’t know if that came before.

JB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the South. Out of high school, I went to college at Duke in North Carolina. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I could have spent three and a half years in Durham, North Carolina and learned, essentially, nothing about the South. I probably didn’t leave campus very often. I had hush puppies at least ten times. The sweet tea was good. But I can’t believe I squandered the opportunity. You were just included in an exhibition at the Danville Museum in Virginia as a Southern Photographer. People tend to relate to a lyricism and romanticism and sense of visual literature, when it comes to the South.There is a sense of place that is so deeply rooted in your work. It’s a place that I think a lot of people are fascinated by. Certainly since the Civil War. You probably just see yourself as Susan, but what’s your take on that?

SW: That’s the weird thing. Now, I’m beginning to see it a little. Really, when you say sense of place, a sense of home. Everything I’m doing in my work lends itself for people to say, “Oh, it’s very Southern.” But really it’s just me. Often, when I photograph a backyard that’s dripping with overgrown weeds, with an old rusted swing set, to me I immediately see that and I see it as a graveyard of my childhood. A family that lived in that house and is now gone, the children have all gone off to school. I just recently went to my childhood home, last week in fact, and noticed that the kudzu was completely overgrown. Every time I go back it was just growing more and more because the house is deserted right now. So all of the things that I am using to represent life and death and memory and past. It all happens to just lend itself. I don’t think too much about being a Southern photographer. When I do went to my artist-in-residence at Light Work, I had a few days to take my camera out where I wasn’t working on my computer. Maybe four. And the photographs that I did get, people told me, “Wow. Somehow you made Syracuse look like the South.” To me, it just means that going around with my camera to places that I wanted to photograph are the places that reminded me of home. You know?

JB: And what was it like to be included in your first major museum exhibition at home in Virginia?

SW: I’m having a very Cinderella moment. Earlier, when you talked about the Danville Museum show, when I was at Light Work, Elijah Gowin happened to be coming through just for like two hours. I had told someone that I wanted to get a wedding ring portrait of some of the first Virginia photographers whose work that I saw, and maybe Elijah Gowin also. It was a big coincidence, but I got to know him a bit.

Not too long after, I got an email from a curator at the Danville Museum in Virginia. He said “Elijah came home at Christmas time, and showed me your work.” Apparently, he really liked it. He asked me if I wanted to be in a show with Emmet Gowin and Elijah, and Jeff Whetstone, all of these photographers whose work that I knew. And it was funny because they were all academics. They all taught at Universities. So when I went to the opening, I was the waitress. So that’s the stuff that is neat in my life. I can be hanging in a museum show, with all of these important photographers, and I’m a waitress.

Susan Worsham is a Richmond, Virginia based artist. She recently exhibited her photographs in the Lishui Photo Festival in China. To see more of her work, visit www.susanworshamphotography.com.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. Thank you Jonathan for this wonderful and inspiring interview with Susan Worsham. Enjoyed every part of it. Especially the insight and your stories….sense of place. As a photographer I truly appreciate your honesty. The photographs are filled with richness. Thank you!

  2. On the two careers aspect – to be successful in photography it helps to have an extroverted personality, as it helps in creating these natural connections instead of a forced networking. Except photography is a perfect art for introverts, which creates a huge dilemma, particularly if that introverted aspect of you is when you’re best at your art.

  3. What a wonderful story, it really is like Cinderella. The south is an amazing place. It isn’t just about the history but how many still live unfettered lives compared to city folk. Time to sit back with some sweet tea and cornbread.

  4. What a nice interview, Jonathan. Great job. It was like sitting at the kitchen table with you two, (but I’ll take black coffee and pecan pie, over the sweet tea).