Fine art photographer Suzanne Szucs mastered the art of the self-portrait years before the selfie was cool.
Szucs, of Rochester, explored the concept of self-portrait through 15 years of taking a Polaroid self-portrait every day from 1994 to 2009. The final “Journal in Progress” project of raw photographs capturing a huge array of everyday moments, contains about 7,000 images and stretches 110 feet when stacked 17 photos high.
Among her more recent work, “Sketch 4 I.D.” is a series of collages combining images of trees, skin and text from letters and poetry written by her mother. Her “Superfices” series depicts close-ups on bodies of water displayed on large banners.
“I’m much less concerned with making something look beautiful than I am with expressing its complexity or the depth of its surface. I’m interested in these things, and I don’t think we should look away. I think one of my roles as an image maker and as a fine artist is to actually look deeply and be OK with showing those things,” Szucs said.
In addition to creating art, Szucs teaches photography and art courses at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester and belly dances in her spare time as another form of creative expression.
Szucs has studied at the New England School of Photography, the Parsons School of Design, the San Francisco Art Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago. She then transitioned to teaching in Chicago, followed by teaching positions at the University of Minnesota Duluth, in the Twin Cities and at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. Today, she creates and teaches art in Rochester, Minn.
How do you financially support creating your art?
It’s always been about the making more than the selling, and that’s a luxurious place to be. You’re not going to make money doing the Polaroid project. You could spin it a specific way I guess, but it’s more about creating dialogue. That’s what I see my role as an artist is — to create dialogue, and that’s not really lucrative.
But I love to teach, so that’s lucky. I consider my careers as an artist and as a teacher bound together. They support one another and feed one another, but it’s definitely two full-time jobs.
How do you balance your roles as artist and teacher in the classroom?
I try to teach my students to figure out how they connect with their work. My goal is to help them become the best image maker in relation to who they are, and that takes me stepping away from myself. I have no desire to create a bunch of little Suzannes running around, but I’m trying to help them build a vocabulary for what is good, and make choices for themselves.
I had a wonderful class this spring and we did an exhibition at the end of the semester. They treated it like an exhibition, and that was my hope. They were invested. There isn’t a bigger thrill as a teacher than to see your students respecting what they’ve made.
What did you learn about yourself in 15 years of taking self-portrait photos every day?
I think one of the most fundamental aspects of learning about identity when photographing oneself is how fluid it is, and how much it shifts and changes in relation to any given moment. There are roughly 7,000 photos in that project, but the project is not a complete portrait of who I am as individual. As much as you try to sketch a portrait of an individual, we are always shifting and changing, especially in respect to people in our lives and how important those people are to who we are.
How is an artistic self-portrait different from a selfie?
To make a successful self-portrait, one has to be self-reflexive. You have to be investigating yourself to some degree. Selfies are fun and playful, like “Here I am!” but there’s no reflexivity there. It’s more of the “documenting because I can because I’m making my mark here.” You used to write little graffiti on the wall saying “I was here” and really that’s what the selfie is. You could probably take a project of selfies. I’m actually really interested to see Kim Kardashian’s book to see if there’s any self-reflexivity there. It could start with “here I am” and evolve into something.
The selfie is a phenomenon that will peter out. A self-portrait is never going to go away. People want to put all sorts of labels that selfies are destroying us, but it just is what it is. It’s kind of silly and kind of lovely and kind of profound all at the same time.
Would you say your Sketch 4 I.D. project was a way of creatively processing through your mother’s passing?
I always wanted to make work about my mother in some way because she was incredible and she gave me so much. She was my first editor, and my first curator. I knew she was a very creative person, but I also knew that it wasn’t fulfilled. I started that project before my mother passed away, and the first pieces are more about grasping about something, where I wanted to be working on a certain type of project and I was just grasping at it.
But then when she passed away, something sort of crystallized, and I started to think about the pieces a bit more like collaborations, and I was inspired in particular to take her writing and put it with some of these other things that also inspired me. I don’t know that they helped me process her death, but they have helped me maybe to do homage to her, and give her back something in retrospect.
What’s it like to do exhibitions and have people see your work?
It’s good. It’s always interesting to see what people are drawn to. When I had the “Superfices” series and the “Breathing in Place” video at the University Center Rochester Gallery last year, I had a really good reception and people were talking to me a lot about the work. What always interests me as an artist when people have an experience and they feel like somehow I’ve channeled something that’s important to them. It’s exciting and a little unexpected. People really appreciate your ability to express something that they care about, even if they can’t verbalize it and you can’t verbalize it.