by Joey Phoenix
It was below freezing and windy in Salem, MA when I met up with photographer Susannah Bothe (she/her/hers) for a portrait session. The sun was bright on the Punto Urban Art Museum murals and the steam from laundry vents filled the alleys with a strange yet beautiful mist.
I couldn’t feel my fingers but I didn’t care. It was such a vibrant and urban aesthetic, and more importantly, we were making art.
Crafting Visual Narratives From San Francisco to Boston’s North Shore
Susannah Bothe has had an expansive journey as a photographer, beginning in the world of art and graphic design as a college student in San Francisco, where she took her first photo class. That experience, coupled with an adventure to France in her mid-twenties, inspired her to start working with interplay of light and shadow and how that could be captured through a photographic lens.
Soon after, she switched her major and found herself walking through new creative doors, including a job working for San Francisco-based Wired Magazine.
“[At Wired] I worked in the photo department and I was just around some really inspiring portrait photographers who we would hire,” Susannah remembered. “I was assigned to behind the scenes, setting up the shoots, making it happen.”
She also worked as the studio manager for National Geographic photographer Ed Kashi, an artist known for raw documentary portraiture featuring dramatic lighting and the full range of human expression and emotion.
“Through my work both at Wired and with Ed Kashi, I was exposed to what good photography actually was,” she said.
While Susannah officially started her own photography business in 2008, it wasn’t until 2017 that she fully knew what kind of work she wanted to create.
“It was only three years ago that I feel like I found my voice in photography, using lights to make those dramatic, expressive faces,” she said. “I knew that I found my style.”
Over the last few months, she’s been capturing environmental portraits as part of her Small Business Owners series, using her unique style to feature familiar North Shore faces in compelling environments.
Portrait Photography as a Conversation
From the beginning of our portrait session Susannah was direct and communicative. “Lift your chin slightly,” or “Turn your body a bit more,” or “Hold your hand behind your ear just so,” she would say, never giving me a chance to feel awkward or disconnected from the process.
On a photoshoot, it’s a photographer’s and their team’s job to be a kind of mirror to the subject being photographed. Although professional models need less direct instruction on how to hold their head or where to place their hands, all photoshoots are an ongoing conversation between who’s in front of the lens and who’s behind the lens.
“I’m often meeting people for the first time when I photograph them,” Susannah said, “And I’m a pretty good judge of character. So I feel like I pretty quickly can tell if they’re comfortable or not comfortable in front of the camera.”
The best photographers are the ones who can set up a shot, capture the light elegantly, and then communicate to the subject of the image in a way that both enables them to feel their most effortlessly confident self and also puts them in a position to make the shot great.
During our shoot, Susannah not only put immense care into how we were connecting and how comfortable I was, but she also managed to expertly navigate me into the frame to create beautiful images like this one.
She has a gift.
One of the most interesting things I observed throughout the session is how particular Susannah was about light, and how there was nothing incidental about how she uses it in her work.
“I’m very picky these days about light,” she explained, “For some people, it’s faces or colors or composition. And for me, it’s really the light, and I don’t feel as inspired unless I have some dramatic light.”
The reason for this is because the lighting allows for a strength of emotion and feeling that sometimes gets lost in studio portraiture. That’s not to stay that studio portraiture can’t be emotive, it’s just categorically different.
“I love the emotive quality of a portrait,” she explained. “I’m really not drawn to the smiley ones, but to more expressive faces, pensive thinking, authenticity, the details of people’s lives are the stories I want to tell.”
This year, she’s taken this perspective and attention to detail into her Small Business Owners project, highlighting the humans behind the creative economy that is the fabric of small towns and cities on the North Shore.
“I really love people. And I think that makes me love my work,” she said, “I’m so interested in people, I want to learn about them.”
Her work has such a vivid, documentary quality that is evident in all of her images. To learn more about Susannah, to see more of her work, or book her for a portrait session, visit her website at https://susannahbothephoto.com
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore and the Digital Content Manager for North Shore Pride. Send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to email@example.com
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We wanted to shine a spotlight on many of the small businesses that make up the fabric of our communities and support them as much as we can throughout the Winter.
Stay tuned to this event for information on businesses throughout the North shore. We will be highlighting the humans behind the small businesses, showcasing specials and promotions, and also curating experiences that will make your local shopping even better!
A priority this year will be to educate consumers on the safety protocols that so many of our fantastic businesses have implemented in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.