7 Questions with Susanna Howe

May 6, 2010
Outside Magazine


1) You began your career as a journalist. Why switch to photography?
Wanting to be around people, I guess. Photography felt more people-oriented. I was only writing and did photography as a hobby on the side before I totally switched. I wrote for George, Paper, and various Condé Nast publications. During the photo-editing of a 1998 book I wrote, ((Sick): A Cultural History of Snowboarding,) I realized that I didn't want to continue leading a life that wasn't visually centered. Photography just came more naturally. Writing was really hard.

It was a messy transition from writing to photography. I moved from New York, where I was writing, to California without much of a plan. I started renting photography equipment and teaching myself how to use it because I didn't have anything else to do. I was still writing for a living in California for some Japanese magazines when I began taking pictures. It felt natural.

A cinematographer told me to get Ansel Adams's The Negative. That was really helpful. That's the only photography book I ever read. I learned a lot from assistants, I have to say. I had some assistants who went to art school and learned a lot of technical stuff. I'm a little bit sheepish about the fact that these guys who spent all this money to attend art school then taught me how to make my pictures. But I think knowing how you want something to look is more important than being able to make it. There will always be people who can tell you how to make something happen.You have to have the content in your head. And my years working in journalism and having those contacts helped jumpstart my career. I worked hard as an editorial assistant and junior editor in magazine jobs. I feel like that's where I paid my dues because I really studied magazines—what they need and where they lie in our cultural spectrum—and knowing that stuff was indispensable. A lot of kids who go to art school for photography and don't know much about magazines might be confused when they put these portfolios together and don't get any work. Their portfolios have nothing to do with what people need at magazines.

Having worked in magazines, I had a natural inclination towards doing photography for them. For me, visually expressing stories in magazines is much less literal than words. Both have their formulaic sides to them, but you can sneak in things you like in pictures and people can enjoy it on different levels, whereas the writing is pretty straightforward. When I first saw how the light appeared in a Vermeer painting hanging on a wall, it inspired me to do that with photography.

2) You shot the U.S. Men's Soccer Team for the current issue's Style section, (Six Shooters from the May 2010 issue.) The lighting was kind of hazy and loose. How did you approach lighting that piece as opposed to, say, an advertising campaign for The Wall Street Journal?
We were shooting these very romantic clothes in this ugly stadium. The juxtaposition of those two things was not appealing to me. So I put the sun behind the subjects in almost every picture. I was shooting with film, which I try to do as often as possible. When you put the sun behind subjects on film, it creates, as you called it, a sort of hazy loose moody back-light scenario, which you don't see a lot these days with digital photography. But I love it. I think it really helps bring those clothes into focus.

Sometimes you have a lighting game-plan and sometimes you don't. If I know a lot about the location and subjects, then I'll have more of a game-plan. This one we didn't. I didn't know much about the location, guys, or clothes. When I got there, I knew I needed to do something to make it have feeling. That's what's great about pictures. They evoke feelings instead of ideas, in a way.

3) Why film over digital?

It looks more beautiful to me. I guess it has a lot to do with what you're raised on. It sort of scares me that people are now being raised on digital imagery because they'll think that's better looking. Colors are subjective. The colors I find to be the most real are Kodak colors, you know? Digital colors are different from that. The way light is gathered in digital cameras is completely different than the way light is gathered in a conventional camera. I strive to make pictures feel timeless so you don't know when they're from. For me, that's still only really doable in film.

I use regular old film—Kodak Portra. Nothing special. I like negative film, the neutral, natural, faded, desaturated color. The same person processes my film every time. People are surprised to hear I shoot film, but I find that editors are mostly psyched because none of their other photographers are doing it. It hasn't been a problem yet for editorial work. I shoot a lot more digital for advertising. That's more of a work flow thing and it doesn't matter for the picture and it's actually a really good application. But I really hope that editorial doesn't go that way. Art and commerce meet in editorial work. If they stop using film, then I think it will be so much more like advertising.

4) These soccer players are more used to being covered with mud and sweat than cashmere. How did you make it work?
One of our references for the shoot was the movie Chariots of Fire. The way the light flares in the camera when they're running along the beach in that famous scene. That was a time in which people wore more formal clothes for sporting, you know? I love seeing people doing formal things in informal settings. InEurope, when you go to the beach on Sunday, there are families in theirchurch clothes on the beach. They haven't changed into their shorts.It's just more elegant. I kind of love that. I feel that sportswear in America has ruined the stylishness of sporting. So to me, that sort of throwback was appealing. Flying, for example, used to be more elegant. You'd dress up for it. In my mind for these pictures, the guys were the traveling team and were dressed up for that. Conor was kind of like the captain in my mind because of his authoritative vibe, so I had him wear a tie and be more buttoned up. I feel that's the way people used to travel with their team and the America's Cup will be traveling to South Africa. So the British/South African thing was kind of in my mind as well. You have these ideas and then they snowball with what the stylist can get for the shoot and it evolves. I go with what will make an interesting story as opposed to how they always look in real life.

5) For Outside, you've shot athletes like X-Gamer Shaun Palmer, (Huck from the February 2009 issue,) British Mountaineer Joe Simpson, (Making the Cut from the February 2004 issue,) former professional cyclist Joe Papp, (Vanishing Point from the June 2008 issue,) and the U.S. Men's Soccer team. How does working with professional athletes differ from working with movies stars or models?
They're not that different. I probably shoot more Hollywood people than anything else, so I love shooting people that aren't that because it's more novel for me. I love going to places that aren't hotel rooms or fabulous houses. I'd much rather go somewhere strange, like that trip to Pittsburgh to shoot Joe Papp. It was a bizarre weekend. Pittsburgh is weird and he was weird. It was like the Twilight Zone all weekend. I love going to weird places and meeting people who are strange and interesting. I shoot for Newsweek too, so I do all sorts of different things. That's one of the real perks in being a photographer. You get to meet all these different people you'd never otherwise have access to meet. The best of that is not the Hollywood people, believe me.

6) What's in your emergency travel kit?
A lot of Ziploc bags with random stuff in them. I'm not very organized. Let me think of something cute... Uh, food mostly. I try to eat very healthy food and that's not always conducive to traveling. Usually the first thing I do when I get somewhere is to identify where the health food store is. I go there and get a bunch of stuff. I check out chowhound.com for every town I visit. Hotels are mostly a wasteland of disgusting food.

7) What are your thoughts on the current state of photography? And advice for aspiring professional photographers?
I think the state of photography is a little bit worrisome but everybody probably always thinks that. There's the iPad and all these ways people are shifting to looking at video... I just made a video for a magazine because the issue will be on the iPad. It worked out okay but it's sort of like doing two jobs instead of one. If you're really focused on making the most beautiful photographs you can make, thinking about getting the video footage is not ideal. But with paper magazines dwindling and people looking at these electronic alternatives... Video and digital photography are encroaching. So, for a person who shoots film, it's worrisome because I feel like the aesthetic of the world is changing. And that's a shame. I mean, I guess the aesthetic of the world is always changing but...it's just not as good. (Laughs) Everyone's digital images need to perfect, sharp as a pin, with popped-up color. It feels clinical, like being in a hospital or something. It's more than perfect. It's super-powered imagery.

I mean, people are buying 3D TVs to watch sports. This artificial metaworld is surpassing the physical experiential world. That's scary to me. I always think sports on television are dangerous because they keep people from participating. If you really feel like you're there, then what's the point in going out and throwing a ball around? I remember I went on this bear-watching expedition one time and it's crazy what you realize when you go. You never get as close to the bear as you do on TV, but the whole place—the smells and how the air feels in this rainforest with trees, eagles,and orca whales—was so vivid that the bears were just one small part of it. Whereas on the TV, you get the closeup of the bear and don't think about anything else.

Regarding advice, this will sound obnoxious, but don't go to art school. I believe in academic education and having other experiences, you know? I would recommend having other interests. Look at all the fine arts and popular arts. Don't think about photography as being separate from those. I was an English major in college and was obsessed with movies. I took film classes as all my electives and saw all the European movies from the 50s, 60s and 70s. That's a huge part of my visual language. I go to art shows that aren't photography a lot more than I go to photography shows. I think it can be dangerous going to art school for photography and then immediately assisting photographers. If your only frame of reference is other photography, then it's a lot harder to know what your taste is.

Susanna Howe's work is regularly published in Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Outside, among others. She divides her time between California and New York and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her dog, Louis.

--Stayton Bonner

Filed To: Media, Photography

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