Now based in London, the photographer Susi Petherick spent her teenage years in Plymouth, and Dartmoor continues to feature heavily in her work. Her work itself defies genres, ranging from intimate macro to traditional landscape via ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) and abstracts. However, what does shine through across these genres is the quality of the work and a sense of calm.
The Collective’s Stephen Peart interviewed her.
Stephen: So, tell us how long, and why, you have become a photographer?
Susi: Recently I found my first ever photo album. White padded with grey pages, tiny black and white images. First page was titled ‘Lions of Longleat’, tiny whitish blobs between cars way into the distance. I must have been 11, on a family trip there. I was obviously very proud of these early photos. Years later a photographer boyfriend shared the joy of darkroom developing and I was hooked. Stopping work a few years ago to care for my dad in his final year, I returned to photography in a focussed way to help me cope with his failing health and subsequent death and my grief. It has proved to be such a great way to focus in on the world about me, to really see what’s there and to explore my thoughts and feelings through my images. In sad and tough times being out in nature particularly brings for me a sense of peace and connection.
Dartmoor was there as a schoolgirl in Plymouth for family trips out and Ten Tors walks. Many years later I spent most of my father’s last year with him in Plymouth and again Dartmoor was there for quiet restorative time when others could be there caring for him. I have always loved the huge contrasts of Dartmoor – the sometimes bleak inhospitable spots in wild weather to the gentle lush green places winding along some of the rivers and in woodlands. Wandering with my camera on Dartmoor was something I remember so strongly as a key part of that year of caring for my father.
Stephen: It’s interesting how a combination of an activity that requires forethought and concentration and a place of escape allows us to manage the grief within ourselves.
Susi: Photography has been such a key way for me to manage grief and I take photographs most days still. It brings such a sense of peace. Since my father’s death I’ve been down a few times to explore Dartmoor some more on foot and on bicycle and to take photographs. It’s such a beautiful place though it still feels so tinged with sadness for me. Some of the photos I’ve taken on Dartmoor in these last few years include infrared images of weatherbeaten trees and tors, long exposures of waterfalls, colour images of ferns by the river and intentional camera movement of the fast flowing waters. In the next few years I plan to come back and spend more time exploring. As time passes it feels easier to be there.
Stephen: Most photographers seem to focus on a particular genre and develop their own style within that genre. You seem to have done quite the opposite!
Susi: There seems to be a strong push in photography circles to focus down into one genre and within that to develop your unique style or voice. It’s a message I’ve heard in all sorts of places and lots of people describe themselves in these terms. I was swayed by this and strived to pin myself down to one. No sooner had I done this, another style was beckoning me. In the end I have decided that I just want to enjoy photography in whatever way I choose. I’m doing it for me, not for fame or fortune, so there is no need for me to limit myself. I feel different styles, landscape, macros, black and white, colour, abstract, infrared, more creative and so on all have something to offer me in different places and in different moods.
Always an avid learner, I have deliberately done workshops and studied online, watched YouTube videos, hung out with all sorts of photographers in order to learn the range of skills to do these different kinds of photography and to get a feel of what feels like the right fit for me. I am grateful for some great teaching and support on the way. Learn the rules so you can deliberately break them is an idea that’s always appealed. Perhaps I never did move beyond adolescence! But I did join the RPS and I did challenge myself in these COVID times to go for two of their accreditations, LRPS and ARPS, at the same time as my friend Jan Beesley, a talented photographer. That mutual support, encouragement and critique was invaluable.
So the qualifications with the RPS were to prove to myself I could do it. They have, and I have both built my confidence and learnt lots in the process, mostly about creating a set of photos that sit well together rather than single shots. That really shifted my thinking. Now I’m often working on a number of very varied projects at the same time and that’s really motivating. Lockdown days also saw me learning how to do my own photo books, concertinas and Japanese stab bound. That’s been a lovely development for me. Alex Hare and Lizzie Shepherd ran some great photobook making courses. Holding books I’ve made in my hand is a joy. It completes the process for me – from the feeling one moment somewhere, to the image, processing, sequencing and then to print on paper.
Stephen: Although you might work across a number of genres, there is, to my mind, a consistency of “mood”?
Susi: What I have learnt most importantly is that the images I take, whatever style, all need to mean something to me. They need to be a response to a feeling or a mood in response to a place or an object or brought to it by me, to try to encapsulate something of that in the way I take the image and hopefully then to evoke something in the viewer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a landscape or a macro image of a flower, it’s about the feeling. Most of my images are lower key than higher key, reflecting perhaps that sense of solitude, quiet, calm and reflection I seek and find through my photography.
Earlier in life I always had people in my images, but now very rarely. As an introvert, my images increasingly reflect the world I like to have about me – quiet, calm, nourishing. I seek out places and thus images that allow me to escape the busy urban life around me in central London, to find a sense of quiet, peace and wellbeing.
In lockdown in London, when I felt overwhelmed by the global scale of the epidemic and those relentless figures of deaths every day, macro shots of plants in my nearby park proved a way to make my world feel manageable. The walk there and back, focussing in on the shape and form, the light, the textures and the colours brought me hours of quiet calm followed by absorbing time at my computer afterwards. Days and weeks and months passed by that way. Having never really been a plant person before I got a whole new appreciation of them. I still know the names of very few but that matters not to me. I just enjoy them as they appear and then as they grow and then wither. A whole lifecycle on my doorstep I had hardly even noticed before.
Stephen: We’ve spoken of your journey as a photographer, of your motivation, genres and styles. How has your gender informed these processes?
Susi: Landscape photography seems to have such a higher proportion of men and there can be much talk about the gear and the mechanics creating technically impressive landscapes, that somehow evoke nothing in me. When they talk about their images it’s so often not about what they were feeling or what they are trying to express, it’s more about the technicalities of the images. There are though, thankfully, men I know who create images so very different from that – Paul Sanders being one example. His beautiful emotional images that are so much part of his mental health journey are extraordinary. I will always be more attracted to the kinds of images in the landscape space have something to say, like Paul’s, images that evoke things like a sense of sadness, loss, longing, calm, peace, harmony, strength, vulnerability, confusion, anxiety and so on.
I have some lovely photography friends, almost all women, who I love to go and take photos with – quiet companionable mutually supportive days in places we explore often in very different ways. Some places I don’t feel ok being alone as a woman so will seek out company to go there. If truth be told though I’d always rather take photos alone so I can get completely lost in what I’m doing but not everywhere feels safe to do that.
I’ve left three or four Facebook photo groups where there were just too many images of nude or partially clothed mostly pretty young white women draped in an uncomfortable and unnatural way being posted and lauded by (mostly) men. They made me uncomfortable, felt exploitative, and to me were closer to porn than the artistic creation the photographers claimed they were. I, or other women who commented, were told to just move to the next image, ignore the ones we didn’t like. Our protests silenced. A space that doesn’t feel good for women to be in isn’t one I want to inhabit.
So I left. Sheclicks, set up by Angela Nicholson, is a great space on Facebook for women who are photographers. Collaborative, mutually supportive and respectful. It’s just so much easier. After decades of my life campaigning one way or another on gender issues, it’s just tiresome to be still having to do that now in photography. So I choose where I engage now, reserving energy and attention for things I find more rewarding. It’s good to see the increase in women’s voices in photographers and women getting recognition, more women in panels, in awards and so on.
It does all feel painfully slow though and we still have some way to go even in 2021 to ensure that all photography spaces are fully inclusive. When everyone who wants to can have their voice heard equally through photography, that will be brilliant. I know photography has added hugely to my life and long may that continue.