“One thing that struck me early is that you don’t put into a photograph what’s going to come out. Or, vice versa, what comes out is not what you put in.”
Susan de Witt (born 1947) is a photographer fond of analogue photography and experimenting with alternative photographic processes. She’s currently residing in Portland, Oregon.
“My learning curve started at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle, Washington, in 2000. Over the next decade I extended my knowledge by studying with Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Barnbaum, Tim Rudman, Holly Roberts, Christopher James and Shelby Lee Adams.”
In her photography Susan de Witt intents to capture “little fragments in time, often nostalgic, feminine, ethereal, sometimes theatrical, with a dreamlike quality”.
Her work is characterized by an overall “surreal thread”. In another interview she talks about her series “Mirage” and what it is like photographing ghosts.
“Artist Profile” – Susan de Witt
Susan, why did you become a photographer?
In the year 2000 I wandered into an art gallery on the coast of Oregon and saw the most amazing photographs I had ever seen. They were large colorful images of trees in the fall taken by someone named Christopher Burkett.
At the time, I knew nothing about photography, nor anything about Christopher Burkett. But I knew right then and there that I simply must learn to do that!
Having just moved to Seattle, I soon discovered the “Photographic Center Northwest” existed and I signed up for their beginning class in Black &White 1. And I was quickly hooked.
What does photography mean to you?
Since that beginning some 14 years ago, I have been completely immersed in photography and find myself on a never-ending journey of taking my photography further and further.
I’ve learned so much, and forgotten so much, that my learning curve is never old to me! I’ve also met so many interesting and talented photographers through this ‘hobby’ and there is never a lack for anything to talk about. These friends and I share a strong common bond.
Why are you particularly intrigued by traditional analog and alternative photographic processes?
“My final prints are results of not what’s on the negative, but what’s done in the darkroom to achieve the desired result.”
One of the initial reasons I loved photography was the wonderful feeling of my early days in the darkroom. It’s still magical to this day, watching the image come up on the paper.
As the photographic world changes at such a rapid pace, I prefer the old style of printing, the time it involves, the slowness, if you will, and the possibilities that the darkroom holds. So many of my final prints are results of not what’s on the negative, but what’s done in the darkroom to achieve the desired result.
I have attempted numerous styles of the old alternative photographic processes, such as platinum palladium, cyanotype, bromoil, lumen printing, cliche verre, and wet plate collodion. While I found some of those techniques easier than others, I can’t say that I have stayed long enough with any of the above to truly master them.
But in 2007 I took a course with Tim Rudman on learning how to lith print. And my love of lith has stayed with me since then and is the process I use almost entirely today.
A photographer has many “tools” at hand to bring across his message: lenses, lighting, framing, color treatment etc. Can you elaborate a little bit on the techniques you used for this particular project in order to link form and content?
The 5 images I have included for this article are all very different, even though they are all placed in my ‘Mirage’ portfolio. My intent is to carry a surreal thread throughout this body of work, capturing little fragments in time, often nostalgic, feminine, ethereal, sometimes theatrical, with a dreamlike quality.
Sometimes I use exaggeration, sometimes subtle humor, and the lith process assists me in my intent with its amazing capability to alter reality just enough to please me.
In other words, how would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
“Each paper/chemistry combination can produce a diverse change in the final outcome of a single print.”
My process begins with my shooting technique. Sometimes I will diffuse my model so as to enhance the blur and the grain, thereby creating a otherworldliness. Since I use many different papers, and sometimes different chemistry, I will get varying results in the final print. Each paper/chemistry combination can produce such a diverse change in the final outcome of a single print.
My print ‘Billy’ seen here, was printed on Ilford MGWT paper with Arista lith developer, a combination I rarely use because normally I don’t like the results. I find it a bit dark for my liking on most prints. But with ‘Billy’ I find it perfect for what I wanted.
Another example is ‘Marlena’ which has been diffused intentionally for this grainy result. My lighting is rather haphazard. I place my lights where they feel best. I often intentionally blow out my highlights so as to cause complete whiteout in part of the shot. To me, this adds more of a surreal tone to the outcome. I shoot very fast and loose with only a casual idea of what I want.
I try not to pressure my models too much, and give them a lot of leeway to move as they will, or not.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at your photos?
I never think of what others’ reactions might be when I’m shooting. I’ve learned over the years not to worry about that, and to only do what feels right for me.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Sarah Moon has been a huge inspiration to me. I have adored her style for years and envy her ability to access the most amazing clothing and models.
I have been lucky with many of my models, in that they arrive at my studio with suitcases full of vintage clothes, so it’s always a lot of fun trying things on, getting excited about what I see, mixing it up a bit. And they are gorgeous in their own right.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?
“I am steadily surprised that there are so many photographers that reject manipulating reality, as if that was wrong. Change reality! If you don’t find it, invent it!” Pete Turner
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I love the dependability of my Nikon F5 and equally love my Contax 645. Typically I use Ilford HP5 film.
What book about photography would you recommend?
I have so many wonderful books – so much inspiration out there. My favorite books are full of inspiring ideas. Two that come to mind are “The Experimental Photography Workbook” by Christina Z. Anderson, as well as “The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes” by Christopher James.
I love to hover over the pages and ooh and ahh over what to try next.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get started with photography?
After learning the basics, spend some time feeling your way – perhaps imitate your idols, follow the rules, then break all those rules, and after enough time trying everything, try to center on what you want. Don’t try to please others. Please yourself.