© Susan kae Grant
This week’s Questions with an Educator features, Susan kae Grant.
Susan kae Grant is an inventive and influential artist, educator, curator and early proponent of photographic book arts. Her innovative studio practice and distinct personal vision represent one of the medium’s more sustained and recognizable contributions to fabricated photography and book art. She has lectured and exhibited her work throughout the United States and internationally. Public collections representing her photographs and book-works include George Eastman Museum; J. Paul Getty Museum; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Tokyo Photographic Museum; Victoria & Albert National Art Library; Center for Creative Photography; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Grant holds an MFA and BS in photography and book arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is on the staff of the International Center of Photography (NYC) where she teaches bookmaking workshops annually. From 1981-2017 she served as Head of Photography & Book Arts at Texas Woman’s University and was named Cornaro Professor of Art Emerita in 2018. Selected teaching awards include: Cornaro Professor, TWU (2016); Honored Educator Award, National Society for Photographic Education (2014); Honored Educator Award, South Central Regional Society for Photographic Education (2007); Freestyle Crystal Apple Award, (2003 & 2005); Excellence in Photographic Teaching, Santa Fe Center for Photography (2004). Susan kae Grant is represented by Conduit Gallery, Dallas, Texas.
We asked: How did your photography come to be inspired by dreams, memory, and the unconscious?
Susan said: Inspiration for the series titled, Night Journey includes a combination of childhood memories alongside scientific research. As a child I held the conviction and experience that sleep and dreams could take people to exciting and strange places far away from the bedroom. I loved to wake up and tell my mother the seemingly real stories of where my dreams had taken me during the night.
Years later as an adult, I became interested in investigating the visual quality of the dream-state. These investigations eventually led me to scientific research focusing specifically on capturing the unconscious through REM sleep awakenings. At the early stages of my research, I kept journals and used a tape recorder under my pillow and over my bed to facilitate the recording of dreams and memories upon awakening. These recordings were used as inspiration to create early fabricated narratives.
In 1993, I received a faculty research grant from Texas Woman’s University to conduct research at the Southwestern Medical Center Sleep Laboratory to work with noted sleep scientist, Dr. John Herman. Our research focused on the fact that through REM sleep awakenings, the unconscious can be brought into immediate and vivid consciousness. To collect data, I slept as a subject in the laboratory on many occasions so technicians could conduct REM sleep awakenings and interrogation sessions with me. My curiosity in conducting research in the sleep laboratory was to gain access to the unconscious in order to see and experience what the dream-state actually looked like and create imagery to share that experience with others. The research collected in the lab was later used as inspiration to create the series of images that became Night Journey and portrays unconscious visual memory as opposed to illustrating any one specific dream. The Night Journey series continues to evolve and includes an installation of works on fabric, single works on paper, video projection and most recently images presented as triptychs. The images are divided by date into six working chapters, each with subtle differences. With the project near completion, its transformation into a book will eventually document the breadth of this long-term project.
We asked: How does your work capture these intangible entities?
Susan said: Using transcribed audio recordings made in the sleep lab for inspiration, I photograph shadows of models and props in my Dallas studio using a 4×5 view camera with a digital Leaf back. My studio practice involves intuitively reading phrases and spontaneously fabricating images that portray emotions and gestures similar to the dream-state. When fabricating environments, I create the backgrounds first and then invite models into the studio and intuitively direct them through a series of gestures and poses until a narrative comes to life. At this point, the inspirational phrases no longer matter, what matters is the emerging narrative.
My experiences and sleep research taught me that the dream-state itself appears to be pure thought that exists only in language. As a reference to this language, I use the shadow as a metaphor to bring pictorial representation to thought and to represent the cognitive representation of memory and experience.
The shadow throughout the series is used to imply a sense of reality without being real. It allows fabrication of a world and narrative that occurs only in the photograph. By using characters and incongruous objects, I delve into the fantastic to create tableaux’s that capture lost and forgotten fragments of memory. In my never-ending quest to create images that depict a sense of mystery and provoke unanswered questions, I also use the shadow to create worlds that suggest both familiar and ambiguous spaces between illusion and reality.
We asked: Tell us about your most recent book, “Shadowed Memory.” What led you to displaying your photography in handmade books?
Susan said: The work and subsequent artists’ book, Shadowed Memory originated as a collection of images created for Conduit Gallery’s 20th anniversary collaborative exhibition. This style of portraiture is reminiscent of and inspired by traditional silhouette portraits of the late 18th century yet captures an evocative romanticism that emanates a contemporary ambiance. The formal execution can be traced back stylistically to my fascination with shadows and marks the beginning of accepting portrait commissions in my Dallas studio.
Designed in collaboration with graphic designer Randal Hill, Shadowed Memory was created during a residency at the Visual studies Workshop (June 2005) in Rochester, New York. The Visual Studies Workshop, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Leonard Nemoy Foundation, Clampitt Paper Company and private donations funded the project.
Shadowed Memory addresses issues of memory, identity and recollection by combining shadow portraits of anonymous individuals juxtaposed with poetic phrases written during the residency. The scale and tactile quality of the book format is significant to the content and transcends the gallery wall. My intent was to create an intimate and evocative piece bound in a lush grey suede-like material that feels warm and soothing to touch. To reference memory, the title is blind stamped on the cover with transparent ink and symbolically moves in and out of legibility depending on the point of view, a technique also utilized for the interior pages of text. To complete the work, sixty pages of images and text were printed in the Spring of 2006 in Dallas, Texas using Kodak NexPress digital technologies at Padgett printing and bound by Universal Bookbindery Inc. in San Antonio, Texas.
To begin working, I printed and hung 35, 8″x10″ shadow portraits on the wall of the studio. Early mornings were spent in quiet contemplation sitting in front of the portraits and studying the images. This was an inspiring experience. It felt as though an essence or aura of each individual was present as I examined their soft focus dimensionally. I began noticing memories and thoughts about the personalities of the subjects and created imaginary scenarios about their lives.
In order to create the text for the book, I spent time writing about the subjects in an “Automatic” style. The technique employed was to isolate one portrait, stare at it and then sit backwards towards the wall and intuitively write phrases based on memory. Later phrases were edited and I began highlighting different words, which eventually became the format for the text pages in the finished book.
I worked most evenings, via email, with my collaborator Randal Hill whom was in Dallas. We worked together on the layouts and concept of the book. The intention with this type of design was to create a layout that portrayed the act of remembering a significant attribute about a person or the recollection of thoughts and experiences and how those memories change quickly over time. The techniques incorporated include using repeated lines of type to create the appearance of a patterned backdrop over an entire page and then specifying subtle changes in the shade of the text in order to emphasize different words. As the reader skims over the page, specific words stand out and appear more legible than others, which create a shift in the emphasis and meaning of the phrases.
Time was also spent experimenting with scale, printing techniques and creating mock-ups to arrive at a size and design appropriate to the content. Once the scale was determined, I used the VSW digital studio to work on image files and type design. For printing the final edition, multiple tests were done utilizing local print services with Indigo print technology, which rendered unsuccessful and the decision was then made to print the final edition in Dallas after the residency was completed.
We asked: You have received many teaching accolades such as the “Excellence in Photographic Teaching Award.” What do you think the key to your success in teaching is?
Susan said: As a young art student, in addition to acquiring important knowledge, of great significance was learning self-confidence, self-discipline, creating supportive networks and the focus and courage to discover the power and strength of our individual voices. As an educator, I strive to instill these same attributes in my students by focusing on the psychology of being an artist and the physicality of creating art within the context of the history of the medium. I think it is crucial to create a balance between theory and practice.
I empower students to see both from their external and internal worlds. Through the lens of artistic training, they look at their lives and experiences with new perspectives. By examining significant photographers throughout the history of photography, they build a context by which to view their own and each other’s work. Within this context, I encourage students to create networks of support for one another that inspire community engagement and connections for life.
Writing is also significant. Every project has a creative writing component to encourage students to examine topics with both their vision and their heart. No matter what style of photograph is being made, I believe the heart is always involved. Writing exercises are designed to get in touch with one’s inner thoughts, observations and feelings. This encourages a deeper look into the meaning and significance of the work. I find writings inspire students to clarify what they are passionate about and provide insight into courageously creating powerful art from those passions.
We asked: On what occasions do you typically find yourself encountering stress. How do you work through it?
Susan said: I can be an obsessive organizer and tend to get stressed out when allowing myself to be consumed by distractions rather than my creative work. When I go to the studio to be creative yet find myself organizing everything in sight and answering emails, I work through it by getting physical. Building a set and getting my hands on the camera relieves stress. I usually start by streaming the meditative sounds of my favorite station “Soma FM Radio” (The Drone Zone) and turning on the main light on the set. That experience gets me present to the joy of experimentation and fascination in casting shadows. It’s much like standing in a forty-foot photogram.
Acknowledgement of my fears and insecurities, collaborative conversations with my best friend/husband, Richard Klein and sharing creative commitments with a group of women artists that make up my support community keeps me empowered and on track. I also keep a rigorous exercise and meditation schedule and spend time visiting galleries and museums with friends for inspiration. Keeping myself immersed in these structures is vital to my creativity and productivity.
We asked: If you were going through photography school right now, what advice would you hope to receive from your professor?
Susan said: Slow down, be quiet, listen to your heart and always be courageous. Follow your intuition and curiosities and experiment with new ideas. When you listen, trust that your intuition will guide you. Look for threads of interest in your work and dedication, don’t give up on yourself. Learn to speak about your work and set up networks for support. Attend as many artists’ lectures as possible and intern with professional photographers. Watching others work and hearing the personal stories of how artists develop their practice is an inspiration and validates one’s own dreams and aspirations.