This is the final part of a three-part series profiling the visual lives of three exceptionally creative photographers based in Portland. Part One introduces the series and covers Grace Weston. Part Two is devoted to Laura Kurtenbach. The following profile of Susan Bein comprises Part Three of the series.
Susan Bein grew up in Los Angeles, and although her parents were not artistic themselves, they always encouraged creativity in their three children. As a child Susan already had a vivid imagination, and she used drawing and painting to interpret her world and give form to what she pictured in her mind. She was considered an “art kid” at a very early age. However, by the time she became a young teen she had grown discouraged by her inability to accurately depict her imaginings with a pencil or a paintbrush, so she tried her hand at photography as a way to capture her vision of the world.
It was a perfect fit. With her camera she now had a creative partner that allowed her to visually describe what she imagined in a way that more perfectly expressed her inner world. While still in high school, Susan took classes from Edmund Teske, the eccentric American photographer famous for his experimental photographic techniques. Throughout her teens she also took classes from some of the great photographers of their day, including Ansel Adams, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, and Paul Caponigro.
After high school she enrolled in Goddard College in Vermont, a progressive “hippie” school with no required curricula, allowing her to take all the photography courses she wanted. At Goddard Susan fell under the tutelage of Jeff Weiss, an excellent, but demanding, instructor who required his students to wear their cameras at all times, make fifty new prints every week, and subject their work to rigorous critique sessions. She was pushed hard, but she learned important critical thinking skills and developed a work ethic that she practices to this day.
After receiving her BFA in fine art photography in 1974, Susan received a teaching fellowship at Goddard and taught there for a year before setting aside her camera for a while to become a graphic designer. Eventually she returned to the classroom, teaching graphic design and photography classes at a various institutions, including Monterey Peninsula College and Carmel High School in California. After moving to Portland in 2008, she taught photography classes at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, as well as the Newspace Center for Photography. She remained on the Newspace faculty for many years until the center closed its doors in 2017. Until digital cameras became available, Susan shot with black and white film, using 35mm, medium and large format cameras, and processed her photos in the darkroom.
However, she quickly adapted to the digital age, preferring the immediacy of DSLRs and the comparative ease of Photoshop to process her images. When the iPhone came onto the scene she became an instant fan, and by 2013 she had stopped using her regular digital cameras and started shooting exclusively with her iPhone. Currently, Susan spends much of her time teaching iPhone photography, as well as Photoshop and various iPhone apps. She also continues doing graphic design, as well as book design, working freelance from home.
Susan’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in a variety of venues, and her photographs are held in many private collections. She has had several solo shows at Camerawork Gallery in Portland, including exhibitions of her series Shamans & Ghosts and Head Games. Her solo show iPhone Portraits was exhibited at Emerald Art Gallery in Eugene a few years ago. A number of her images have been juried into group exhibitions in various galleries in Oregon, including the LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria, the Art Center in Corvallis, and the Newspace Center for Photography and the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. Susan’s work has also been juried a number of times into the Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, including selections from her series The Belmont Goats (2015), Morocco (2017) and Head Games (2018). She has also exhibited work with PhotoAlliance and the Center for Photographic Art in California. A few years ago, LensCulture featured Head Games, her series of silhouette double-exposure portraits, and in 2008 it featured her series Night Park, a portfolio of long-exposure images of dogs cavorting in a dog park at night. In 2015 Hipstography.com nominated Head Games for its Creative Portfolio of the Year, and honored the series with its Special Juror Prize. Susan has also published a few books over the years, including Fort Ord Requiem, a collection of photos of the abandoned buildings of the former U.S. Army post near Monterey Bay in California. Another book, Nowhere in Particular, features photos taken from moving cars, buses and trains. And Susan just published
Slightly Totally Bonkers, a book of iPhone photos she made during the year of the 2020 pandemic.
To find out more about Susan Bein and her work, the author had the opportunity to interview the artist via email. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you make art?
Bein: If I photograph every day, it’s a good day. If I don’t, grumpiness ensues. For me, each day is a treasure hunt. I go forth seeking pixels and hope I’ll get lucky. Nothing makes me happier than doing a photograph I love. It feels like a magic gift. But the rigor and discipline of doing constant practice are also really important to me. You have to make yourself available for the muse to find you by showing up ready to work.
What forms of creative expression have you pursued in your lifetime?
Bein: When I was a child, I worked on various art projects. As I got older, I was frustrated that my drawing and painting skills couldn’t produce what I could imagine in my mind’s eye, so when I began photographing it was a much better fit. I could actually capture what I saw and imagined. Later I began using computers and learned graphic design, which continues to be another creative outlet. Writing and editing are also part of the package. I’ve been a visual type since anyone can remember, and it permeates everything I do, from buying a toothbrush to peeling an orange. Hard to live with, but it makes me good at what I do.
You are now almost exclusively an iPhone photographer. How did that happen?
Bein: I’ve had a lot of cameras in my 50 years in photography. I started with a Deardorf 5×7 view camera, but I’ve also owned Hasselblad and Nikon film cameras, and I’ve gone through a series of more and fancier Canons. I still have them all these years later, but I don’t use them anymore, mostly because they’re too heavy and bulky. So I fell in love with the iPhone, and it’s all I use these days. I’ve owned every generation of iPhone since they came out in 2007, and now I shoot with the iPhone 11 Pro, which has a great camera. iPhones are easy to carry and always available. They’re less intimidating when doing portraits, so people relax more easily, and you can show them the results immediately. Then they can give feedback and have input, so there is more collaboration possible. I miss more telephoto capability and longer shutter speeds, but other than that, they’re amazing tools that suit my spontaneous way of working. Some of my favorite iPhone apps are Hipstamatic for adding funk, Touch/Retouch for removing things, Snapseed for good overall adjustments, and Flipper for symmetry. But I still do a lot of post-processing in Photoshop too.
How would you describe your unique style of artistic expression?
Bein: My photographs tend to be painterly with lots of texture. My compositions are often very minimal, and I like to photograph objects with patina and pentimento. I find I like to use blurs in my images because I don’t really like too much detail. For the same reason, I love doing long-exposure photography. My father once gave me a really fancy Hasselblad camera, but I didn’t love it because it made pictures that were too sharp, too clear, too clinical. Some of my images are moody, some are playful, some are humorous. For example, one body of work I made and titled On My Mind involves photographing things on my bald head (yes, I’m bald! Not chemo, just bald.) Someone recently described my work as “quintessential,” and in an article about my work in Black & White magazine, it was described as “slightly bonkers.” My subject matter varies hugely because I photograph whatever is available, including people, animals, industrial areas, deserted buildings, urban decay, things found in nature, and architectural details. And despite not liking being in front of the camera, I’ve always done lots of self-portraits, mostly when I didn’t have anyone else to photograph. Beauty is important to me, but I often find it in things others don’t consider inherently beautiful. While I like beautiful scenes in nature, like sunsets, forests, and so on, I rarely photograph them because they are already beautiful, and the resulting images would say, “Isn’t this pretty?” That restates the obvious. I try to push myself beyond that to discover new ways of seeing the world, which is what I want for my viewers and myself.
What is your creative process? For example, how to do come up with an idea or vision, and when do you know when you have a finished image or series of images?
Bein: David Foster Wallace said, “Don’t think, just see. Don’t know, just flow.” That’s my motto. I go out on foot or bike and stay out for hours, photographing with my iPhone. I do this every day in all weather. I find that my photographs at any given time are very revealing as metaphors for what was going on in my life at the time I took them, but it’s completely subconscious. It’s all ongoing, so I don’t consider any particular project finished. The one exception to that was a series of in-camera double exposures I did for my Head Games series using a particular iPhone app. I did them intensely for a year, and then somehow I was just done exactly a year later. I post photos and write something every day on Instagram. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m a bit of a show-off, so posting on Instagram and seeing comments and likes gives me a little daily boost. I’m committed to posting something every day because it gives me structure and focus.
Which aspects of making art do you enjoy most? What artistic achievements are you most proud of?
Bein: I enjoy those rare moments after taking or editing a photo, when I just look at it and know it’s a good one. That validates my sense of purpose in the world, and it always feels exciting and new and a little like love. I’m very proud of being a teacher, giving others creative tools to use in their own creative journeys and styles of expression. I’ve taught for many years, working with many age groups in many different settings.
Who are your artistic influences?
Bein: I saw Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 when I was 15, and it resonated with how I saw everyday things as sculptural objects. To me nudes, sand dunes, and cabbages were beautiful sensual forms. I admire William Wegman, Nina Katchadourian, Paul MacPhail and Andy Goldsworthy for the way they make art out of what they find around them and how their playfulness is part of their process. And although not my favorite visually, I appreciate Picasso because he kept pushing and questioning and radically evolving his seeing even after he had success. I’ve also been inspired by various photographers I’ve seen over the years online via photo-sharing platforms like Flickr and Instagram.
How has the pandemic affected your work, positively or negatively?
Bein: Aside from my feeling sad about the suffering of others, the pandemic has not had much of a negative effect on my life. The last year has been a hugely focused and intense marathon of creativity for me. It’s also been an opportunity for less distraction, fewer social and family obligations, more quiet. I do look forward to being able to photograph and interact with people again. I also look forward to a time when I can travel more, especially when it means I can take photographic road trips again. But the most tangible legacy of the last year for me is the recent publication of my book called
Slightly Totally Bonkers, a retrospective of my year of iPhone photos taken during the pandemic.
Finally, how did you come up with your sobriquet Wizmosis?
Bein: I made it up so many years ago, I hardly remember. I think it was a combination of being a wiz at what I did and the word osmosis. I like sounds, and the sound of OSIS just makes things more fun!