Susan Seubert is a nationally exhibited fine art and editorial photographer based in Portland, Oregon and Maui, Hawaii. In 2011, she went on assignment for Smithsonian magazine, capturing the beauty of Haleakala. In November, her photography will appear in Smithsonian’s 101 Objects special issue, but you can see her latest work by following Smithsonian magazine on Instagram. As our featured photographer of the week, Seubert will be giving us an insider’s look at Maui. To find out more about Seubert, visit her fine art and photography websites.
What are you Instagramming this week?
I'll be focusing on Maui's natural beauty, specifically through the lens of plant endemism. Native, indigenous and endemic - Maui (and Hawaii in general) has one of the highest rates of plant endemism in the world. However, because of various reasons, these plants are slowly becoming extinct, right along side the native birds.
Some aren't very showy but have great stories and make good patterns for visuals. The hiking is the fun part with tremendous views of the valley isle as a bonus. Some plants were introduced by the Polynesians, some only occur on Maui, some only occur in Hawaii (throughout the islands). It's an incredible story and I thought it would be an interesting way to showcase Maui, along side of the usual, glorious ocean. I'll probably throw in a turtle too.
What was the first time you got paid for your photography?
My first assignment was shooting for Newsweek as a second photographer - it was the Tonya Harding scandal in Portland, Oregon. The photo was terrible. As I wrote on my own site, “My grandmother was thrilled and brought a copy of the magazine to her church in Ohio. I would like to say that the image was fantastic, but it was in fact a little embarrassing. The subject’s eyes were closed and I can’t help but think they ran it only because it was in focus.”
Who are your favorite influences?
I've always been drawn to specific works rather than people. Anna Atkins' early cyanotypes, early portrait works from the likes of Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron all the way up to the Untitled Film Stills by Cindy Sherman, the Kitchen Table series by Carrie Mae Weems, some of the performative works by Dieter Appelt are a big influences, but so is the street photography of some of the Magnum greats like Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier Bresson.
There are so many great individual works too: at home my husband and I have a piece called the "Blister Gunner: Rescue at Rabaul, 1944" by Horace Bristol. That piece is amazing - it informs a whole generation of fashion photographers yet was made as a documentary piece during World War II. To me, this piece is one of the finest examples of the transformative power of photography. But we also have a lot of portraits by Herman Leonard. He taught me that being positive, not only towards your subjects, but also to fellow photographers, is one of the best ways to contribute to our photographic community. He was amazing
What is your favorite part of the creative process?
You have two very distinct styles, fine art and photojournalist. Tell us more about how that happened.
I went to an art school for college, but was very interested in working in journalism. I was 18, 19 years old at the time and studying a lot of history of photography but also working on trying to shoot as a photojournalist. I completed a story about the logging industry that ended up causing such a stir that one of my fellow students got up and left the room during the critique. She was in tears. That was intense!
During my thesis year, I moved to New York for a semester and worked with Magnum as well as the highly conceptual team Clegg and Guttman. That was a seminal moment for me because I learned that I could marry my two passions for photography. I remember talking to a group of MFA students at Harvard who had the same question - they thought that it wasn't possible to make conceptual work and also pursue magazines with an entirely different skill set. My answer to them was this: photography is a form of visual communication - sometimes it's didactic and sometimes it's more conceptual. It's like having a toolbox - a hammer is good for one thing and a screwdriver another… an ambrotype is good for a certain kind of visual communication whereas a digital file is good for another.
Do you keep a journal?
I'm pretty bad at keeping a regular one. Keeping my stock library super organized helps me keep a visual journal. I should be better, though, at writing about experiences. Writing is an integral part of being a photographer.
What is your favorite time of day for working?
I like to start in the morning, but the edges of the day are usually the best for light. So all day, every day. Hah!!
What do you listen to while working?
I try to keep my ears open to the world when I'm shooting, but if I'm in the darkroom, it can be anything from foreign language lessons to really crappy pop music.
What was the biggest mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?
It seems like every assignment I make some kind of mistake and try to carry the "lesson learned" with me to the next one. My greatest downfall is not being able to remember names. Often I will write people's names on my hand while I’m working with them because I think it's rude that I can't remember… I wish I could fix that, but it's been that way my whole life.
What are some of your favorite blogs/websites for inspiration?
I actually turn to books for inspiration. So much of what I do ends up in print that it feels appropriate to look at a printed image. Also, I like the quiet of flipping through a monograph of pictures rather than trying to sort out the internet. I find blogs and web sites to be generally overwhelming.
How does where you live, both Portland, Oregon, and Hawaii, impact your work?
Portland is a great city - it has a wonderful airport that's easy to navigate, the food scene is thriving, “Portlandia” has brought a lot of attention to the quirky parts of the city. It rains a lot in Portland, so that's a bit of a drag, but Maui makes up for that. Maui has no real infrastructure for photography, but it's so beautiful. The evening and morning light is incredible and the ocean is everywhere. It's difficult to say how it impacts my work. I travel so much that I'm not sure it matters where my actual house is - that might be part of the reason why travel photography has been such a great way for me to make a living.
What do you do for fun?
Surf, pluck on the ukulele or try to work on my piano music, cook, play with kittens, read, dream up personal projects, sleep, read books, take pictures, play with kittens some more...