Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Susan Bright: A Leading Voice in Contemporary Photography

Written by Maxwell Williams
 Active Image       One of the leading voices in new photography, curator and author Susan Bright just made themove from London—where she’d organized shows at Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery and written, what is considered to essentially be the bible of contemporary photos, Art Photography Now —to try her hand in the New York photography scene. What she didn’t realize was that through the change in continents, she’d come away with a very different view of what is being done with the camera. With a sharp critical view and a true curiosity (she recognizes, for example, fashion photography’s influence on the globe of image making) Bright’s eyes have widened and her upcoming show and book on self-portraiture will surely be a can’t miss.
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One of the leading voices in new photography, curator and author Susan Bright just made the  move from London—where she’d organized shows at Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery and written, what is considered to essentially be the bible of contemporary photos, Art Photography Now—to try her hand in the New York photography scene. What she didn’t realize was that through the change in continents, she’d come away with a very different view of what is being done with the camera. With a sharp critical view and a true curiosity (she recognizes, for example, fashion photography’s influence on the globe of image making), Bright’s eyes have widened and her upcoming show and book on self-portraiture will surely be a can’t miss.

Maxwell: Why did you move from London to New York?

Susan:
I’ve been trying to move to New York for about ten years. It’s become a bit of a joke. My husband got a job and that was the catalyst for the move. It was always supposed to be me who got the job here, but it worked out the other way around. Within a month of hearing the news, we were here. I adore Britain, and co-curating How We Are: Photographing Britain at Tate Britain in 2007 made me realize how British I really am. I never felt fully British, because I was born in Australia, but I am and that was really refreshing to discover. Moving to another country also reinforces your identity in one way or another. But New York offers opportunities. When you move you look at things with fresh eyes. I’m always saying, "Why hasn’t anyone done this yet? Why hasn’t anyone written about this?’" It’s very exciting.

Maxwell: What is your relationship to fashion?

Susan: It’s definitely from a photography standpoint. When I work on fashion shows, or write about fashion photography, it’s about the photographs and how they operate in the world. I have a clothes fetish, but—looking at what I’m dressed in—I can safely say it’s not an obsession. I look at the new campaigns, and I look at what’s interesting about the photo, the styling, the construction of the image and how it may, or may not, be relevant to contemporary image making. The American Apparel campaigns, for instance, how do they look when they’re up on the billboard? Personally I find them objectionable, but photographically, they’re quite interesting.

Maxwell: What’s particularly interesting about the American Apparel ads?

Susan: They’re very DIY homespun, and they exist in a world built on slickness. They’re just like they’re off a photosharing site. If you saw them on a site you wouldn’t even notice them, but on a billboard, I think they’re a little bit inappropriate. I like the way context changes the way you think about images and your instinctual reactions to them. I like to be challenged by fashion images. It doesn’t happen enough.

Maxwell: Last I talked to you, you were working on a book about self-portraiture. Is that done? What else are you working on?

Susan: The book is in and currently being edited. I also teach at SVA [School of Visual Arts] and Parsons [The New School for Design]. Both classes aim to give students the vocabulary and confidence to talk about photography more comfortably and give historical and contextual ballast to contemporary photographs. I’m also doing lots of catalogue essays and have two more book proposals nearly ready to go to publishers. They are a bit different from what I normally do. I think the move has made me think about photography a little differently.

Maxwell: What got you interested in self-portraits?

Susan: I’m very interested in portraiture and representation generally. If I had to say what’s my thing, I would say portraiture. I noticed more and more of it from 2000 on, in both fine art photography and documentary. There is a nice parallel with the increase in portraiture at the turn of the twentieth century as well. In Edwardian Britain—and here as well—there was an increased obsession with photography. People were getting ambrotypes and tintypes, rather than daguerreotypes, which were much more expensive. It became much more accessible (like digital is now) And what do you take or have taken? Photos of your family or loved ones. For me photography and people seem the most logical combination.
 
I have noticed so much more self-portraiture over the last few years in particular. Who are we as twenty-first century beings? Why are we different? It seems a compulsion to try and address these questions through photography. That and all students do a lot of self-portraiture. Most of them are terrible, and they shouldn’t come out ever, but I noticed that people were interested again. For a long time, women couldn’t really masquerade, because people would say it’s very like Cindy Sherman and not consider it critically. She blocked up fine art self-portraiture for young women for a long time.
 
But to my students now, it just seems so historical. We’re getting a lot of artists from China and other non-Western countries who don’t follow the same photo history and use it as a strategy, and that’s really refreshing. It’s fantastic to just turn yourself into somebody else. Like Vaudeville, it can be transgressive. For example in the early twentieth century women in theatre couldn’t comment on political or social situations and be taken seriously, but if they turned themselves into a man, they could say things. A contemporary example of this is an artist like Tracey Rose from South Africa [who] can talk about race much more easily and make it so much more accessible if she’s masquerading as a character.

Maxwell: So is masquerading a big part of the book?

Susan: It’s a chapter in itself, and there’s a chapter on performance where many of the artists could also fit into that chapter. That’s the trouble with approaching subject thematically; there are always crossovers.

Maxwell: Do you think there’s an inherent humor in masquerade photography?

Susan: Yes. In masquerade, there’s room there for theatre; there’s room there for flamboyance. I say bring it on. The contemporary art world can be really dour.

Maxwell: So what comes after this book?

Susan: In regard to self-portraiture I am also working on a show.

Maxwell: I always like to ask about the book versus the wall with curators. How do you view it?

Susan: A show needs to entertain you. It’s right in front of you and an audience needs to react physically to it. A book, you hold—it needs to have an intimacy about it. A book on a wall doesn’t work. At all. After the self-portraiture show, there are American photographers that I am researching, and I would like to develop both of those into exhibitions and books. I need to get proposals and funding together. I can’t tell you about them yet, because if they don’t happen, I’d look silly.

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