“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.”
– Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just
Elaine Scarry describes exactly how and why I use my camera: I am as astonished by the beauty in my backyard as by the grace of sculptures made millennia ago in Greece and Rome, by a sunset in Florence as a curve in a back road in the woods of northern Georgia. I hope to borrow the light that reveals these moments, to record the beauty with my camera in order to share it.
For the past nine years, I have been exploring the wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851. I am especially interested in the kind of alchemy that occurs as this 19th-century photographic process is integrated with (or collides with) 21st-century digital technology. My process yields original plates on metal (tintypes ) and on glass (ambrotypes), includes gelatin silver prints made from the glass negatives in addition to limited edition digital prints made from scans of the metal and glass plates. I’m challenged and inspired by this leaping from one century’s technology and aesthetic to another.
Working with antique processes encourages me to think of these works in conversation with their historical precedents. In Close to Home, I am making images in my backyard that reference the history of photographic responses to a particular place. In Presence & Absence I create still-lifes using objects that my husband and I collect. I make portraits that nod to the rich tradition of recording a likeness that is both tender and mysterious .This work is unapologetically informed by the history of beautiful images. For example, the images in the series titled Italian Gestures were taken in museums and churches in Italy in 2014. I’m interested in how hands have mirrored human emotion and intention throughout the history of art and how such gestures lend themselves to metaphor and are imbued with a powerful presence; the sheer beauty of those sculptural gestures seemed to almost insist that I take those images. In Italian Vistas and Southern Landscapes, the works were inspired by the painters of the Hudson River School, to the Pictorialists and Photo-Secessionists of the turn of the 20th century and to my unabashed connection to romanticism.
While looking at the world through my camera I am present in a specific place and moment, observing, really looking. One of the many reasons I am drawn to the collodion process is that it requires me to slow down and to pay attention. I’m able to experience the stillness required by the extended exposure time, the silence in the darkroom while the magical alchemy takes place and the anticipation of the singular, mysterious image that results.
Presence and Absence: 2010 – 2016
My first two bodies of work using the collodion process, Presence and Absence, 2010-2016 and Close to Home, 2013–2016 are ongoing series of still lifes, portraits and the flora in my back yard’s perennial garden. In this work, I am interested in capturing the presence and the essential nature of objects that I collect. I collect things inspired by formal beauty and personal metaphor. My portraits explore absence, ambiguity and stillness
Italian Gestures: 2014 – 2016
Italian Gestures are tintypes made from jpgs taken during that trip. I chose to focus on fragments of hands of ancient Greek & Roman sculptures found in museums, as well as sculptures found in the churches we visited in Rome, Montipulciano, Florence and Venice. From those digital files, I created collodion tintypes in my darkroom continuing my exploration of the integration of 19th & 21st century processes. My interest in capturing hand gestures has been subject matter I have been photographing for the past 5 years. I’m interested in how hands have mirrored human emotion and intention throughout the history of art. I’m interested in how such gestures lend themselves to metaphor and are imbued with a powerful presence.
While in Italy I began another series of work titled Vistas. Unlike the mid-19th century photographers who used the wet-plate process to make intricately detailed photographs of the American west to be used as documents of the unexplored territories, Vistas is inspired, in part, by the painters of the Hudson River School and my unabashed connection to romanticism. The transformation of the digital files to tintypes (and back again to digital prints) provides a sense of timelessness and nostalgia that often takes me by surprise.
Southward: 2015 – present
In my most recent work, Southward, I’m exploring what is unique to the landscape of the American Southeast by exploring dense canopies, open vistas, dramatic skies, still waters, live oaks, wooded trails, gulf storms, and back roads. I’m interested in how nature can act as a metaphor for human emotion. I am amazed by how quickly nature can change from comforting to threatening and that each of these conditions are imbued with beauty, power, mystery, serenity, grace and allegory. I’m interested in capturing the timeless essence of a place through close observation of light and dark, space and atmosphere, stillness and silence. For this work, I’m using the 19th century wet plate collodion process. I make objects: tintypes and ambrotypes. I make plates on site and I also integrate this 19th century process with 21st century digital technology. I’m challenged and inspired by this leaping from one century’s technology and aesthetic to another. I welcome the combination of control and happenstance that occur during my process, from exposure to plate to print. One of the many reasons I am drawn to collodion is that it requires me to slow down and it allows me to experience anticipation for the mysterious images and singular, tangible, precious objects that result.
Susan Bryant received her BA in painting from Indiana University and her MFA in photography from Indiana State University. She recently retired as Professor of Art at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she taught photography for 37 years. She currently holds Professor Emerita status.
Her personal work includes gelatin silver prints, hand-colored gelatin silver prints, digital photographs, and most recently, the 19th century wet plate collodion process which yields glass negatives and positives, tintypes and ambrotypes. In her recent work, she integrates the 19thcentury wet plate process with 21st century digital technology.
Her work has been included in over 100 (selected) juried and invitational group exhibits and 28 (selected) solo exhibits across the United States. She is the recipient of a Tennessee Arts Commission Fellowship in photography. She is the recipient of a Kodak scholarship for photographic educators through the Santa Fe Photographic workshop. She is the recipient of the Ovation Award for Individual Artist from the Center for Excellence in Creative Arts, APSU, Clarksville, TN. She is the recipient of two fellowship at the Hambidge Center Artist Residency, one fellowship at the Penland School of Craft and two residencies at A.I.R. Studio Paducah.
Her work has been included in 5 of the past 6 (2012-2016) MANIFEST: INPHA: An Annual International Publication of Contemporary Photography, published by Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati. Two of her images were published in the 2017 Creative Quarterly 49, an International Journal of Art & Design. Her work is included in numerous public and corporate collections including the Tennessee State Museum, the Knoxville Museum of Art, Vanderbilt Medical Center, The Photographic Archives, University of Louisville and the Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY. She was represented by the Cumberland Gallery in Nashville for 30 years until its closing in 2019.