June 23, 2023
Photography by Susan Bowen
Story by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
The panorama has been redefined in the brilliant work of a New York City based photographer, Susan Bowen. In 2002 Susan found herself needing new direction after navigating through significant life changes. After a hiatus from photography, Susan found new inspiration in a class being offered at the New School.
“I was looking for a way to ease myself back into doing art in some form; I stumbled on a 4-week class (taught by Meredith Allen) on the Holga.”
The Holga is a very lightweight plastic toy film camera, conceived and fabricated in Hong Kong China in 1981 and introduced to the Chinese public as an inexpensive medium format camera. It is a rangefinder, so you are not looking through the lens. It has no controls, having a fixed f-8 aperture, and 1/100 shutter speed. The Holga is designed to use 2-¼”, 120 medium format film allowing for large scale photographic prints. It has a hot-shoe for flash photography, as well as a bulb mode for creating long exposures. These cameras were plagued with light leaks, became known for their out of focus, blurry, incorrectly exposed attributes that were more than frustrating to some, yet addicting for others, becoming a sought after cult camera.
Little did Susan know how this class would change her life, creating new direction and unforeseen inspiration.
“The lightness is a major benefit. I also enjoy the quirkiness of it; I work in technology (I’m a computer programmer) so I enjoy the low-tech-ness of it. Using a toy also encourages one to shoot freely and spontaneously. Also you can’t do the technique I do with a normal camera.”
Susan developed a unique process that embraces Low Fi Technology, and High Fi technology, combining the two to find equilibrium. She has an acquired wealth of knowledge accumulated over years of experience defining the world around her through the viewfinder and lens of a Holga. She is known for her overlapping, multiple exposure panoramas. Susan has mastered a way of creating a unified negative, a negative that has no dividing frames, making it one continuous image that is all encompassing.
This was achieved by first removing a rectangular piece of plastic on the inside of the Holga camera. This simple piece of plastic masks the film and creates individual frames, if left in Susan would not be able to create continuous 32” long film negatives. After releasing the shutter and exposing the film, Susan would not advance the film all the way, creating double exposures by overlapping the frames, exposing one continuous negative. Susan is often asked, how far to turn the dial, to advance the film. She has no exact answer, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less, allowing the visuals and living in the moment to direct the exact amount of the turn. Susan enjoys the magic that happens in those serendipitous moments, letting them be the visual stories documented in continuous thought and consciousness.
“The long overlapping images are created by only partially advancing the film between exposures – the overlapping occurs in the film itself. I don’t plan my images; they turn out however they turn out. I like the chance element and I like that they have a cinematic, narrative quality.”
Susan found this multiple overlapping technique to work well on a myriad of landscapes, from rural Midwest farm lands, to industrial wastelands, as well as a multitude of urban landscapes. Susan finds focus and inspiration through being open to the experience. She can apply her knowledge and technique in many different environments, understanding at once what will help create that continuous image and monumental landscape. It is an intuitive process from beginning to end.
“Although I have lived in suburbs, small towns, and have rural connections, the city is where my heart lies. Wherever I photograph, I see things from the perspective of an urbanite. I find it interesting how even in the country I seek out things industrial and man-made. Drop a city girl in a rural setting, and it's only a matter of time before she goes straight for the man made items. I enjoy exploring the contrasts and similarities between my urban life in New York City and my experience of rural America.
The urban experience to me is largely about motion. The intense pace and vitality of the city excites me; I like to shoot fast and furiously, to be totally immersed and to be swept up in, and along with, the tide of the moment. Either I am shooting people that are in motion or I myself am in movement around my subject. I will stalk my subjects, be they a swarm of gesturing humans or abstract shapes of color and light. Subject matter-wise I like industrial objects, monumental things like grain elevators and Times Square billboards, and big crowds of people.
I guess it mostly expresses that I’m uncomfortable sitting still! But movement is what invigorates me. I chose to live in New York largely because there is so much going on, people moving fast, things happening fast. In shooting people, if they are not in motion they bore me, and in shooting stationary objects I have to jump around the thing like I’m doing a fashion shoot or something. I’m not sure why, but that fast pace is inherent to how I shoot; it fuels it.”
For Susan, chance plays a major role, the serendipitous frame is part of what excites her, she is always on the outlook for the element of surprise. The continuous negative of multiple exposures captures the authenticity of the experience in the moment for Susan, where the single frame does not express this for her in the same way.
Not only has Susan developed a method to expose this 32” long negative, but through trial and error she has discovered innovative ways to print them. Susan soon realized she faced another hurdle, how to display these very large prints. Through her creative ingenuity she came up with economical and beautiful solutions to all the obstacles she faced. As technology advanced over the six year period Susan found the need to stick with film, there was no digital camera that could do this technique. However, with the advancement of digital developing software like Lightroom and Photoshop, allowed her to work in ways that were nearly impossible in the darkroom. Through the scanning of the negatives Susan could fully embrace the digital production of her continuous multiple exposures.
“Things have changed so dramatically just in the short time I've been doing photography again. Most of the labs and darkroom rental places that were still flourishing 8 years ago are now gone, which is sad. The technology is great...I scan my negatives so from that point on I'm digital...so I love the amount of control you have with Photoshop...and that it is permanent (that you don't have to redo the process with each print). Doing these prints in the darkroom was a nightmare (all the dodging and burning due to the uneven exposures)...especially in color where you have to work in complete darkness. So I appreciate the technology.
I am however really concerned about the impact of the over-accessibility of image-taking and the ease of publishing ... everyone shooting anything and everything and posting hundreds of images all over the web. This overwhelming flood of mostly mediocre images dulls the senses and makes the appreciation of good photography, art photography harder. I also worry about the increasing rareness of the physical print; the vast majority of digital images get posted and that is that. These images are not going to be preserved over time. That much historical documentation is going to be lost.”
Susan spends many hours editing and making tonal adjustments to the scans of the negatives in Photoshop before printing. There is a lack of continuity where the images overlap and become a multiple exposure. Some of the areas would be dark, while others could be light, tones that needed to be evened out, it was a balancing act that Susan became very efficient at.
“I scan my film using a large 11x17 flatbed scanner (Epson 1640XL). I can scan a half of a roll at once and only need to do one splice. Because I want the option of printing large, I always scan at the maximum optical resolution (with this scanner only 1600 dpi). Though I wish I had a higher res scanner, in actuality the files are so large even at that resolution. My files often start out a gig or more and are never less than 250MB as the finished file.
I work a long time on my images. The original exposure is very uneven (due to the overlap). I select small areas of the image, define the adjustment (usually via curves), clear the area adjusted, and then paint on that adjustment wherever needed. I go through many, many adjustment stages, usually flattening the image as I go due to the large file sizes involved. I beef up the color via increasing the contrast; I like purity of color and am usually trying to nurse that out of the file. I do edit the images; I remove distracting details like cigarette butts on the ground, and I sometimes move things around. Rarely do I combine images from multiple rolls. I do, however, sometimes remove chunks just to keep the piece a manageable width. I am usually taking away, not adding to the imagery, if changing it at all.
A roll of medium format film of maybe 24 or so overlapping exposures will at most give me two final images (I usually use a 7:1 aspect ratio, which is about half of the length of the roll). Occasionally I've printed an entire roll as one piece, but that is one unwieldy print. Most rolls will at most yield only one piece, from somewhere on the roll.”
Susan’s exhibition prints are digital C-prints. Her standard print size is 30”w x7”h , matted and framed at 36”w x12.5”h. The negatives have a high resolution allowing Susan to print images as large as 28’w x 2’h. It wasn't long before Susan recognized her desire to make things really big and started applying for public art projects, where they financially support the creation of the art.
The Holga opened up a whole new world for Susan. A good reminder to all of us that you can change direction in life, and to not be afraid to learn new things. Susan went from creating no art at all, to allowing for a new direction to fully envelope her, enriching her life, and bringing much inspiration to ours. Susan believes coming back to her art later in life has its advantages. She feels she benefits from her maturity. She approaches her work without the fear of failure, or being accepted, giving her the freedom to be genuine to her art.
“Doing any kind of photography allows one to engage with the world in a way you don’t normally (to be more intensely attuned and responsive to what is going on around you). The Holga does help me to be more spontaneous and put myself in places I would normally be too shy to go. I’d say I interact with the world differently when carrying a Holga.
I like to think that my work has a lot of interest and complexity, and I intend for the images to celebrate the everyday details of life. I am also delighted how often these mostly unplanned juxtapositions capture my experience of a particular time and place and at the same time have an identity all their own.”
This was a period of growth for Susan, her fearless journey created new critical and creative thinking patterns that motivated and inspired a profound body of work. Most of all Susan allowed her art to help change her life. The Pictorial List is sincerely grateful to Susan for sharing her diligent exploration and insightful discoveries photographing with a toy camera, and taking it to its extremes to create exceptional art. Please follow her links, she has a resource of knowledge that is hard to come by. Follow and support her on social media to see what she is currently up to.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.