SUSAN BRIGHT. AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL TURN
Susan Bright photographed by Fergus Padel
Tell us about your approach to photography...
Susan Bright (SB) My approach to photography is constantly evolving. It operates for me in a very different ways. On a day-to-day basis I use it as a way to understanding the world and human behavior. It’s my conduit to my making sense of things. For example when the Paris attacks happened I was horrified by the vernacular photographic reactions of some people on image sharing sites. They completely lacked any kind of empathy and simply ‘followed the rules’ of social networking but with faux and clumsy titles. I had it pointed out that everyone was stumbling to express their emotions within a framework that has quickly established codes of behavior so I shouldn’t have been so judgmental. I just thought it was a time when actually photo sharing was not the right thing to do and everyone should have taken a breath. Sometimes it’s just better not to take a photograph. In addition the news pictures didn’t seem to be specific somehow - just streams of ‘bad stuff happening’. Aftermath photos by professional photographers seemed generic and clichéd. It took a long time for me to feel that I could express my reaction to it all. Endlessly looking at photographs, and trying to understand why the pictures looked like they did, why people took what they did and how they were communicated, helped me through. During this time I also engaged in a quite an intense discussion about the photographic output with the academic Kate Palmer Albers. I am forever grateful for her to helping me though it all. I am terribly lucky to have such incredible colleagues to turn to who seem endlessly willing to talk about photography in such an engaged and intelligent way.
In terms of my professional life I feel that has shifted somewhat recently with the time I have taken to do a PhD in Curating. What this has allowed me to do really assess my relationship to the medium and the curating of it. Through reading such a vast amount and engaging in such intense research it has allowed me to consider my own practice anew. I have found what really fascinates is how the autobiographical turn in the arts and humanities is incorporated into the gallery space. I am responding to this with forthcoming exhibitions that revolve around subjects that I am working through personally and also comment on the state of photography and autobiography. Also the way art photography has traditionally been installed and displayed must change as photography changes and our relationship with it shifts. It’s all pretty thrilling really.
As to how it all started I have always been interested in photography. I didn’t realize it could be a legitimate career with it until I was in my late twenties. I always collected postcards and posters and after studying Art History at BA and MA level (both of which totally neglected photography) it was not until I was grappling after my masters and trying to figure out what I was doing with my life that I was made aware of the fact that institutions collected and showed photography. This was in the 1990s when curating was not really a well known profession as it is today and certainly not used in common parlance!
How did you first get into curating exhibitions?
SB: My first job as a curator was at The National Portrait Gallery in London. I assisted the Curator in larger shows he was working on and had a bit more of a free reign on smaller displays. Before that I was an intern at the V&A in the photography department and it was here that I really discovered that I wanted to be a curator. I became independent not long after as I wanted to have more freedom with my own ideas and work at a more dynamic rhythm than institutions can allow.
Poster for 'Face of Fashion' at The National Portrait Gallery, London
Being an independent curator means that I can’t hide behind an institutions reputation. I am lucky to work for very good institutions so of course their identity is also in the mix in the exhibitions, but it’s my name on the wall or the book so it can feel very exposing. It’s a bit like a roller coaster of emotions with every show. I work incredibly hard and I am lucky that the exhibitions I have done come about by museums and galleries approaching me. The writing I feel is an essential part of curating– as are events, studio visits, rich conversations with peers and reading. It all feeds into one another.
Being a curator, you must meet lots of interesting photographers and become involved in lots of exciting projects! What has been the highlight of your career as a curator so far?
SB: Every show I do feels like the highlight! My books I have a much more complicated relationship with, but the exhibitions I genuinely love. I cherish every moment of working on them. I think the fact that they don’t last makes them even more special for me – like theatre in a way. I think I am intuitively a better curator than a writer as I envisage space and audiences very clearly. Writing is part of the curatorial territory so it has to be done. I have done books without exhibitions and that is right for that time – not every idea is to be realized as an exhibition, sometimes it’s a book or something else.
When you curate an exhibition, how do you select the images to include?
SB: It varies with every show that I do. I have tended to work on group exhibitions so each one has a very different dynamic. It’s a bit like when you teach – each class that you have works differently. I tend to work very closely with the artists involved and I aim to make each experience as collaborative as possible. I have co-curated too which I really enjoy as it makes those lonely decision making processes easier and quicker.
'Face of Fashion' was an exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 2007
On the whole though research starts by looking and reading very widely around the subject until a clearer and more concise idea becomes evident. Or it may start from an artwork which fascinates me. I feel my approach is a mixture of instinctual gut feeling and diligent research. The important thing about selecting for a group show is that it mustn’t feel didactic or illustrative. These kinds of shows feel the least successful to me. I hope to keep things looser even though they may be themed around a subject.
Have all these years of being involved in photography, on so many levels, changed your way of seeing the world?
SB: No – photography helps me see the world as I think I explained in the first question. Also, although I obviously love my profession and photography I also think its vital to get a healthy distance from it and retain a part of your life that is utterly separate. I find I can do this very easily and love moments in life that have absolutely nothing to do with photography. This is the usual stuff - friends, family, cooking, reading fiction, dancing, running. These things all bring me joy on a much deeper level.
Cover of the book 'Auto Focus The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography' by Susan Bright
When do you think it’s important to tell the story of a photograph: the context in which it was made, the photographer’s relationship to the subject and his or her perspective? Is it always important?
SB: Again this varies on context to context. My job as a curator and writer goes hand in hand with interpretation and information. I would not be doing my job well if I did not open up photographs to the audience.
Tell us about your latest book...
SB: The last book I had published was called Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood. This came out at the very end of 2013. It coincided with an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum. The show travelled to Chicago and Belfast. In its entirety Home Truths negotiated what it means to be a mother in the twenty-first century, grappling with stereotypes, personal expectations and cultural constraints, revealing the maternal self to have both agency and power.
'Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood' is published by Art/ Books, The Photographers' Gallery, The Foundling Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.
The book acted as a catalogue but also as a stand alone. I was editor which meant I featured all the artists in the show (Janine Antoni, Elina Brotherus, Elinor Carucci, Ana Casas Broda, Fred Huning, Leigh Ledare, Hanna Putz, Katie Murray, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Tierney Gearon, Miyako Ishuichi and Ann Fessler) and also commissioned essays as well as write my own. I really enjoyed commissioning writers and thinking about how to expand the book into other historical or fictional areas so that it felt substantial without the exhibition. Accessibility is very important to my work and the fact that this book may attract people outside of the artworld was crucial.
'Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood' 2013/2014, The Photographers' Gallery, London. Photographs by Kate Elliot
I am currently working on two new books. One is a history of how food has been photographed. The subject of food touches both the private and public life. It can be political, religious, aspirational, commercial, creative, symbolic, national and regional. This book traces the various threads of food photography (commercial, fine art, etc). Though always a part the still life genre, it drew heavily from these traditions in the 19th Century, but food as a subject in its own right really came of age after the advent of color photography and advances in printing when the commercial images on food packaging and advertising needed to look appetizing and sell products. It later expanded into lifestyle magazines, like McCalls, which pioneered the look of modern and contemporary food photography and styling with aesthetics that continue until today. I will trace this history through to the popular interest in food photography which exploded with the foodie movement in the 1990s and the rise of several independent magazines and blogs. It will run through to photography of food on photosharing sites.
The other is a book about visual literacy. It aims to open up photographs, to start discussion, offer examples and questions about why photographers make the images they do. It gives different tools for understanding them. The book will forefront questions that we have heard many times and grappled with ourselves (and perhaps still do). With the visual photographic turn becoming more omnipresent and the photographic landscape every more diverse, we (I am co-authoring) believe there is an increasing need for a greater critical understanding of what photographs have to offer and how to decode and understand them. As curators working in the field we have experienced wonderful contradictions in opinions between people when faced with questioning photography – questions like - Why is one photograph more important than another? Or is it OK to take somebody else’s photograph off the web and use it in your own work? We don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions but this book aims to be a guide into thinking through all the implications of those questions and add context in order to find a place where the reader is comfortable, confident and articulate when he or she next picks up a camera, posts a photograph online or is faced with a photograph which is not immediately easy to understand.
Is there any contemporary artist, photographer or writer, even if young and emerging, who influenced you in some way?
SB: Professionally writers influence me. I read a lot and increasingly I am reading more fiction aimed at middle graders. I find books for this age group risky and challenging in a way that lots of adult books are not. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman perhaps being the best example of this. It gets to the very core of issues of humanity, spirituality and faith in ways that are poetic and crucial. It was a complete revelation to me. I gulped them down greedily. Recently I have been writing short stories and want to write more fiction. This is completely new and I don’t know if it will go anywhere or be at all successful, but it is something I love and it comes in quick energetic bursts, which is nice!
I never get bored of ‘Ballard of Sexual Dependency’ by Nan Goldin. I often refer to ‘Strangers’ which was the catalogue of the first ICP Triennial – its both dated and relevant more than ever now as photography has changed quite significantly since it was written in 2003. And for just pure loveliness and book pleasure ‘Double Game’ by Sophie Calle and Paul Auster.
‘Ballard of Sexual Dependency’ by Nan Goldin published by Aperture
The last show that really impressed me was Ugo Rodinoni: I ♥ John Giorno at Palais de Tokyo. As mentioned I am incredibly interested in the autobiographical time that we live in and this was the first exhibition I have seen that really addressed that in a smart and considered way. It addressed the autobiography of the artist (John Giorno) but also Ugo Rodinoni and his relationship to his work. It was honest and refreshing and exciting.
What are your plans for future projects?
SB: Apart from the two books mentioned above I am working on an exhibition that I will co-curate. Its not fully formed yet so I don’t want to jinx it. There is also an artist I am talking to about a mid-career retrospective.
How do you see photography evolving in the next decade, particularly in the light of new digital developments and the Internet?
SB: When the wonderful artist Laura Letinsky was asked this question she suggested they play ‘fuck, kill, marry’ instead. I think it’s probably the smartest answer I have ever heard to this question!