Photography is a strange response to our being in the world. It seems a response that questions our connection to the continuous experience of a complex whole, one that we can only understand in relation to our selves. In this sense, photography is a strange mix of standing within and outside, of nearing through a certain distancing: a dialectic of opposites, a blending of diametrically opposing extremes. Despite the long record of its (mis)use, we know in principle and are reminded through the photographic image that there is no disinterested and neutral position to be taken up in relation to the world.
I say this because Susan Worsham’s work can seem, at first blush, to be deeply interwoven with the extraordinary intensity of suffering she has experienced in her life, and then sought in part to understand through the actions of the camera. In response to multiple bereavements she seems to have set out with the camera to measure the weight of loss, and to illuminate the ways in which loss can continue to be present and meaningful in life. In some of her work, such as Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane, and Bloodwork, this history of loss has formed an integral part of the subject of her camera’s attentions. However across the sweep of her evolving large-scale project Some Foxtrails in Virginia (of which this published work, By The Grace of God, is an excerpt) the relationship of biography to subject matter is more complex, and the scope of photographic ambition is concurrently broader.
In that work one can see, perhaps most clearly in the portraiture, how Susan’s images have been informed by her experience of the perilous fragility of life without becoming subject to the attendant grief that must have accompanied the manner of that realisation. In much of the Foxtrails imagery an understanding of loss and fragility is the ground by means of which intimacy is achieved, is the basis for the lucidity of the view we are offered, is the measure of tenderness and concision that softens even the hardest edges of the reality she has chosen to address. Being a photographer from the American South, there is a good deal of hardship on offer. Frequently in the Foxtrails work, the frame collapses inward on an emptiness that is made magnetic by Susan’s instinctual facility for colour – an emptiness that is transfigured into something bittersweet and reverential by her unwillingness to conceive of form and subject as essentially separate. Susan’s photographs work not only to invert the givenness of the world but also to celebrate its, and thus our own ephemerality.
The photograph brings the there here, now, and in Susan’s photographs that there takes the form not of event but wordless rumination – a sounding out of the interplay between memory and experience, symbolism and sensation. Her images are shot through with a contest of opposites, a battle between fecundity and dilapidation, sadness and wonder, intimacy and individuality. Susan’s photographs acknowledge no separation between consciousness and reverie, vision and wonder. They suggest that colour is not incidental but foundational, not exterior but interior to meaning in the world.
In By The Grace of God, all the monuments and symbols have been reduced by the passage of time to mere afterthoughts, anachronisms stacked atop dusty shelves, half-forgotten curios discarded in lonely but luminous corners. The subjects of the portraits confront the vivid strangeness of the world with curiosity and calmness, and address its harshness with resolve. So much of the work, made in the strange hinterland in which the workaday South is given lyrical expression, emerges from the kinds of places untouched by luxury, or even good fortune, but patterned in a colour luminous enough to suggest some vibrance in even the deepest gloom. Even in their abandonment her pictures find wonder sufficient to dispel the temptations of hopelessness, uncovering the natural inevitability of decay without apparent anxiety or morbid fascination. By some strange alchemy, even in their darkness Susan’s pictures seem bright.
In this sense of opposites and inversion, grief is a means of wrestling with time, and loss is a means of glorying in the present. The warm solidity of wood even in a derelict space can recall the firm truths of home; the fading flesh-pink hue of sprayed ink invokes a kind of delirious dream; the deep pulsating red of a carpet conjures up the sanctity of the womb. Colour here is the measure and shape of those vital truths that operate beneath our instrumental need: those that snatch back awe from complacency and reveal the metaphoric in the mundane. Colour in these images uncovers what we know to be subcutaneous, unheralded, and yet essential to any experience of oneness with the world.
The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole
Has exposed us naked
To the world
And will not close.
Blankly the world
And we compose
And the sense
And there are those
In it so violent
And so alone
They cannot rest.
— George Oppen “Five Poems about Poetry” from New Collected Poems
If there is an argument in these pictures, perhaps it is that the photograph is not technical but oracular, and can induce us through its actions to refuse the distance of certainty, and engage the intimate enigma of experience: contingency as comfort, set against the simple mystery of the world.