“When I was on trips I used to put Polaroid’s in a container with sea water, sand and pebbles.
I’d swirl it all around to get scratches.
It’s this random element that I call ‘the drip’.
It’s the drip which might splash onto the other side of the canvas when you’re working on a painting and make you think ‘that is good’, possibly leading you to explore other things.
My whole life is spent in search of the drip; it can change everything.” David Bailey
Susan de Witt (born 1947) is a known for her experimental analogue photography, especially lith prints. She’s presently based in Portland, Oregon (USA).
In this interview Susan de Witt talks about her series ‘Mirage” and her attempt to photographing ghosts. Dealing with the otherworldly, surreal and dreamlike is a common thread throughout her work.
“Mirage” – Photographing Ghosts
Susan de Witt, your series “Mirage” is dealing with ghosts. Why did you choose that particular subject?
My concept for the Mirage series was clear to me from the start.
I wanted to alter reality, to diffuse, to bring in a surreal feel to my photos. Having printed with lith materials for a number of years, I knew what that process could do for my work. I cannot achieve the same results with straight black and white printing.
“The blacks progress exponentially and you cannot afford to wait past the point of perfection.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with just what lith printing is, let me say using the most brief explanation that with lith printing you heavily overexpose your negative under the enlarger, and then develop the print in a very dilute lith developing bath. The image could take 20 minutes to fully appear on the paper to the point where you think it’s just right.
At that point, you snatch it from your developing bath and plunge it directly into your stop bath. You must gauge your snatch point by watching your blacks, which will always come up more readily than your highlights. I use a small safe light hung around my neck to be able to watch the print come up. The blacks progress exponentially and you cannot afford to wait past the point of perfection – you watch, you see the blacks at the point you like them and then you quickly slap the print into the stop bath.
Many years ago I was in France staying in an old convent with a couple of friends. The convent had never been rented out before and was over 200 years old. One day we were having lunch, and I left the table to walk across the vestibule to enter the laundry area when I saw before me 5 monks dressed in brown cowled robes, heads down, sweeping the floor in unison!
They were not threatening and I ran back to get the girls, but when we returned, they were no longer there. I saw them. They were there. I was not afraid. Never before had I believed or not believed in ghosts. But now I know I believed. We stayed there for 2 whole weeks after that day and I had another encounter with a ‘woman’ who appeared while I was sleeping, and she simply terrified me.
My friend had to wake me from my heavy state as I couldn’t wake myself up. Upon returning home, I started to shoot and print with those ghosts in mind. Each image of my ‘Mirage’ series is intended to be but a tiny portion of a dream.
What do you think about digital photography?
I can definitely understand the huge possibilities that come along with digital photography. It’s really amazing to see how drastically this has changed the photographic scene. But for me, I prefer to stay with the old processes. It just works for me and keeps me happy.
In the long run, do you think digital photography will take over traditional photographic processes and make them disappear?
“My favorite papers for lith have been discontinued and so I use what’s left.”
Living in Portland, Oregon, where there are so many photographers who use alternative processes, I feel that there is enough interest in the old ways to keep them from disappearing. I believe there has been a resurgence in using the old techniques, nationwide. I belong to a local photography group here in Portland, with some 90+ members, and I would say that at least 1/3 of them are using the old techniques.
The unfortunate thing about the papers and chemistry that keeps people like me going, is that each year more and more important products disappear from the market. My favorite papers for lith have been discontinued and so I use what’s left.
Not all papers will work with lith chemistry. It’s sad. My hope is that the companies that produce these products will remember our end of the market and not just delete these items because of the digital explosion. I do understand however that it’s an economic decision.
We live in a world saturated with visual imagery. Keeping that in mind, do you think it’s still possible as a photographer to be unique these days? Or do you rather consider it to be more important to create your own style adding your personal twist to something that has already been done before?
As someone who primarily shoots portraits of women, obviously you could argue that it’s been done before in every possible which-way. But, by using my lith chemistry and my shooting technique, I think perhaps I’ve put my own brand onto a very traditional photographic style.
What is your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
I remember clearly the day I was doing a shoot in Seattle and I made a small mistake that has entirely changed the way I shoot now. It was a light bulb moment – and I’m thankful for it.
Philosopher Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
“I look past the obvious and search for the less obvious.”
Considering that before the year 2000 I had no interest whatsoever in photography, that chance happening of seeing Christopher Burkett’s beautiful prints in a gallery changed my life. I do view things now in a more studied way, as I look past the obvious and search for the less obvious.
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m somewhat tenacious in that I get an idea and almost jump up and down with excitement until I have taken that idea to its fullest extent.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which ‘landmarks’ do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
There are so many. Early on, when I was totally new and full of beans, I entered a small local contest. I can’t remember what it was about, but I felt positive I would win a prize. Well, I was actually surprised not to have won a thing for that image, but was even more surprised to see the winning image.
“I stay away from trends.”
It was a color photo of densely compacted bare branches in a woodland setting, with complete depth of field. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand it! As I look back on my memory of that image, it was actually very beautiful.
Without going into numerous events that changed me, bit by bit, as my knowledge and understanding grew, I finally came to the realization that I must only follow my own path, do my own thing, and not worry at all about what others are doing, or saying, or believing. I stay away from trends.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it ~ as well as the answer.
Kai, I think you have asked almost every possible thing and so I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in my photography and for putting me forth to your readers. You’ve been very kind to do so. If any of your readers would like to see more of my work, they can visit my website at www.susandewitt.net.