Interview: Susan Borowitz
Luca Curci talks with Susan Borowitz, winner of the ARTIST OF THE MONTH – MARCH 2020.
Susan Borowitz is storyteller. After a successful 15-year career writing for American television, she embarked on a study of the practice of photography in 2011 and discovered a new medium by which to tell stories. The classes she took at New York City’s International Center for Photography led her to explore portraiture, street photography and creative self-portraiture, as well as introducing her to travel photography. Her experiences with intensive workshops photographing in the American West, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe helped sharpen her skills and eye for her primary focus, fine art photography, specifically staged narratives, where she expresses reflections of psychological journeys. Her images are in private collections in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Luca Curci – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
Susan Borowitz – My background is in the literary arts rather than the visual, although my parents were both artists, so I was taught composition as well as how to “see” at an early age. On car trips, my mother would tell me to look at the sky and ask, “how would you paint that?” It honed my sense of color – a color that you wouldn’t expect might be in that sky, like green. In high school I both wrote and worked in pastels, but when I got to college, I focused my creative energy on writing. After college I became a writer for TV comedy in Los Angeles and eventually started producing. I created the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and executive produced the show as well, and this is where I first encountered the art of lighting a subject. I picked up a DSRL for the first time in 2011. Having been divorced and a single mom for a few years, I realized I needed an activity to protect against what Americans call “the empty nest syndrome” – a feeling of emptiness that comes once your children leave the home. I didn’t realize it would become a passion. I took as many classes as I could at the International Center of Photography in New York City where I learned and practiced portraiture, lighting, photoshop, street photography and on their workshops, travel photography. The most influential class I took was very early on, entitled: Finding Your Voice as a Photographer. The teacher Joyce George was brilliant: she analyzed our work and learned about each of us so thoroughly and then challenged us to pursue certain directions. Joyce unlocked my artistic vision and helped me find my voice as a conceptual narrative fine art photographer primarily using self-portraiture. I still enjoy travel photo workshops, particularly with Ira Block, a National Geographic Photographer because I meet many talented photographers and learn from them as well as from the teacher. I believe that any practice of photography will make my staged narrative work better. I also find opportunities to add to my conceptual body of work when I travel. I’ve captured images in Kazakhstan, Spain, Thailand and Romania. I would say that the ICP class I mentioned above is one of the most important experiences to influence my work, but another is a severe depression I suffered a while back and the many years I subsequently spent in therapy. It made me very interested in how our psyches work and how our subconscious can dictate our decisions, and I dip into those observations as I try to tell stories of psychological journeys through my art.
LC – Which subject are you working on?
SB – Currently I continue working on the series that has dominated my time as an artist since 2017, “Locked-In” which is a reference to “Locked In Syndrome”, the medical condition in which a patient can hear, see and think but cannot move. It explores the phenomenon of feeling stuck and the accompanying sense of failure to control the forces that seem to dictate our lives. Using metaphor and imagery that suggest the inability to move on, the series evokes the absence of agency and a perceived futility of each waking day. The choice to use self-portraiture reflects not only a personal journey, but also a common experience of women who feel consciously aware of what they should pursue or speak up about, but feel impotent in the face of a dominant power: unequal relationships, demons residing in the subconscious, societal expectations and especially the disappearance of relevancy with encroaching age. The photographs are staged and therefore require a lot of preparation and location scouting, so it takes a lot of time to produce each one. So far, I have sixteen completed and many more ideas. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic makes it hard or impossible for me to work on “Locked-In”, so I’m currently mulling over this time in limbo that has been forced upon us and what if anything I will learn from it. Once I have an idea of what that might be, I’m going to try to express it with my camera. I guess working on “Locked-In” when I am literally locked in is too obvious for me. Haha.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
SB – The most challenging aspect of my work is two-pronged: first, as I mentioned above, each image is a full production, as if I’m producing a scene in a movie. Of course, my experience as a Hollywood producer gives me skills and knowledge that help me achieve my desired final look, but it is still time-consuming and difficult since I must find locations, collect props, assemble wardrobe, do make-up and hair, and then go shoot when the weather and lighting matches my vision for the picture. The second part that’s challenging is when I just don’t get it right and have to return to the location to shoot again – sometimes multiple times – because the photo is not exactly what is in my mind. There is one image in particular, which I love, but I haven’t been able to get it right for two years. It depends on the weather and the beach in May or June. I’m guessing with the restrictions on New Yorkers during the pandemic, I won’t capture it this year either.
LC – What is your creative process like?
SB – My creative process is not at all linear. I first have to devise an idea, usually for a series, and that cannot come by directly thinking about it. My ideas always come full-blown into my head after I have subconsciously been ruminating on a thought, a problem, or an issue. It first appears as one, two or more images in my imagination which I then describe in writing. After studying them, the theme emerges and then I’m off to the second part of my process, which I described in answer #3. I find locations, props, figure out all the aspects of the photo and then decide on a shoot date/time. Sometimes I have an assistant if I can’t manage to do it all myself, but I try to make it a solitary venture, using my iPhone and the Canon app to work the camera remotely. I love working in solitude and getting lost in the process. I spend a good deal of time processing my photographs in Photoshop. Sometimes I take as many as 200+ shots just so I know I’m covered because as I mentioned above, having to return to a remote location with props and equipment is not fun. Back at my computer, I download my pictures and let them sit for several days or even weeks so I can get a fresh perspective. When I feel ready, I will “build” the image in photoshop and give it the final look that is typical of the series so that all the photos hang together as a complete work of art. If I feel that the first few photographs are worthy of a whole series, I continue the method of devising new images, and then shooting and processing them.
LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
SB – My work comes out of my own experiences and is psychological and/or emotional, so my themes will always be along those lines. Also, as a woman, and a woman over 60, I’m constantly thinking in terms of feminism and ageism so those issues will probably persist in my work until I die or go blind.
LC – How is being an artist nowadays?
SB – I think being an artist these days is a mixed bag. The internet surely gives us many more opportunities to reach an audience and the chance to have our work go viral instead of relying on a gallery which usually has a single person in charge, determining the fate of his/her stable of artists. That is an immeasurable plus, and the fact that I am having an interview with you right now is evidence that the internet has given artists multiple arenas for exposure. Technology allows us to submit to online competitions sending only a thumbnail instead of sending off finished pieces in the hopes to be chosen for a show at the few galleries who work with emerging artists. That is real progress and oddly democratic in a field that is considered elite. On the other hand, artists now have to be the face of their own work. They have to be manager, agent and gallerist of their own work. Considering that artists tend to be internal and introverted individuals, it can be challenging for many. The time and isolation required to produce art is what the artists who I know crave. I think there is more JD Salinger-types out there than Jeff Koons-types. Self-promotion is not inherent in an artist’s nature. For those who are comfortable whipping up a following on Instagram, this period is perfect, but I wager that most artists feel excruciatingly uncomfortable blowing their own horns. There is a debate going on regarding the swarm of iPhone photographers possibly diluting the work of committed photographic artists and I understand the concern. However, I think there are few IG stars that actually achieve the status of artist; in fact, the very nature of Instagram presupposes a quick turn-around of posts, which to me, precludes any serious artist. Yes, there will be trending accounts of sub-par iPhone photographers who flood their accounts looking for the viral posts, but I don’t think they will be taken seriously by the art world. In short, likes and followers is not a metric we can rely on for artistically meaningful content.
LC – Did your style change over the years? In which way?
SB – I hope my style changes! This question brings to mind a wonderful artist, David Bowie, who managed to change his style with every album, but still retain a through-line of artistic intent. If only all of us could be so gifted as to reach his masterly accomplishment. Presently what I see regarding my own work is this: the transition from comedy writer to photographic artist has taken a few steps. My first series, “Empty Nest”, which explored the feelings of a mother being left forsaken as her children leave her home and care, was born of a feeling of abandonment couched in my usual armor of humor. Many of the photos were meant to be comedic, but when I realized that the best images were developed from a crucible of humor and pathos, my style as born. I strive to create images that work on many levels: aesthetic, humorous, psychological, etc. What I am proud of in my series “Locked-In” is how it depicts a more layered sense of reality. Part of my process is making sure that the everyman or everywoman can see themselves in my work. That is a style that I hope never changes. Thank you for asking me about some important topics.