Interview - Susanna Pershern

Hello, Everybody, and welcome to my second artist's interview. The subject of this post is of particular interest because her story takes us into the fascinating and often unfamiliar realms of both Alternative Process and underwater photography. Her work is unique, inspiring and of subject matter most of us would never otherwise have the opportunity to see. Yet, what is most noteworthy about this work, is the personal vision that she shares with the viewer, the transformation from the already otherworldly shipwrecks and coral reefs to the dream-like mordancage and gum bichromate art prints.

So, without further ado, it is a pleasure for me to introduce you to Susanna Pershern.

susanna pershern - morrison, co

Susanna Pershern

Susanna Pershern

Who are you and what do you do?

I am an audiovisual specialist for the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) of the National Park
Service. I grew up in Wisconsin, earning a BA in History from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.
After graduation, I moved Vermont, and eventually worked as a videographer at the University
of Vermont. I studied photography at Rockport College (now Maine Media Workshops) in Rockport, Maine in 2002, and then moved to St. John in the Virgin Islands to be a wedding photographer's assistant. Wedding photography was not meant to be, and after volunteering for the Virgin Islands National Park, I
became their Museum Curator in 2006. In 2010, I was hired by the SRC and moved to Denver
with my husband and two cats. My work is represented by the Michael Banzhaf Gallery on St.
John, USVI. I also have a small selection of work at The Framery Gallery in Capetown, South Africa.

Original digital capture of a seafan, Florida Keys

Original digital capture of a seafan, Florida Keys

What inspires you?

I was inspired by the village children I saw in Rwanda last year who had nothing in terms of material possessions yet whose smiles and laughter showed how little one needs to be happy.  In terms of artistic inspiration, I am all over the place.  It’s what ever strikes me as being truly authentic.

Silver gelatin prints, on drying rack, before going through the mordancage process

Silver gelatin prints, on drying rack, before going through the mordancage process

What is your process?

My process is photography, and within that I specialize in mordancage.   I really like the way the mordancage process distorts an image, much like pressure changes things underwater and I am usually happy with the unexpected. But it is also maddening because it is so difficult to control.  I’m not sure it’s a process that can be mastered. Nor am I sure one would want to. But the people that have come the closest are Jean-Pierre Sudre and Elizabeth Opalenik.   I also like the gum bichromate process,  the cyanotype, and platinum/palladium. Yet I would never call myself a platinum printer. 

After bleaching and toning (mordancage)

After bleaching and toning (mordancage)

What project have you been working on most recently?

The project I was working on in Maine this summer was a continuation of the year before, when I tried to make an eight print panel of a seafan image in mordancage (28” x 44”). I tried three times in 2013 yet could not get the individual panels to match. So this was on my mind coming into the week of Historic Process mentoring with Brenton Hamilton.  Before I left, I asked my husband to cut a nine-inch circle out of plywood. I had an idea of using this as a “portal” or porthole into the underwater images.  It worked, and I liked it, so I just kept printing that week with the template. On the last day of the workshop, I tried the seafan panel again. This involved breaking the color digital negative up into four sections and printing it on Pictorico OHP 4x5. I have to thank Mark Dawson at Maine Media Workshops for helping with this step. Then enlarging the 4x5 negative onto two pieces of 11x14 Ilford Warm glossy paper.  Once the eight images were printed in the darkroom, they had to go through an acid bath, and then several other baths of toner, redeveloper, and a final, long rinse. I was very happy with the result. The panels matched quite beautifully. It was a nice way to end the week. 

Final mordancage panel assembled digitally

Final mordancage panel assembled digitally

The second week was a tri color gum workshop.  When I had a show on St. John in 2009, I made a cyanotype/gum bichromate just before the opening and it was almost my favorite piece, among other platinum prints.   And ever since, I’ve been trying to make another successful gum bichromate.  Last winter, I started to work with tri color gum without much success.  So this summer, I was very happy to learn the mistakes I had been making. I printed more of my underwater images, and then switched gears and scanned in a few small abstract watercolors and made digital separation negatives to use in gum.  I’m interested in the way so many photographers try to make their photographs more like paintings--let’s stand that on its head and take a painting and make it a gum bichromate image. 

How has your practice changed?

In my early 30s, I was studying film theory at the University of Vermont. My mentor suddenly retired and I switched to photography and realized that by studying film, I had developed a pretty good eye. I studied black and white craft at the University of Vermont and at Rockport College from 2000-2003. I then was hired as a wedding photographer and brought down to St. John, US Virgin Islands.  My resources were minimal yet I could make cyanotypes as the sun was plentiful. (It was a big deal when my older brother bought me a lightbox and managed to get it shipped down to the Caribbean.)  My big break was when a local resort found my cyanotypes and gave me a commission.  So I've gone from film, to traditional photography, to alternative processes, to underwater, and now I’ve begun to paint a little too and to use these in the gum process.  I would like to keep working towards abstraction in the mordancage process as well. 

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

The thing that most people don't know about me is that I am afraid of dark caves underwater
without adequate bailout gas. I love diving in caves yet they scare me almost to the point of
peeing my drysuit.

How does diving change your approach to photography?

My job requires me to be in the field for months at a time. I carry two or three DSLR’s for work and just don’t care to carry a fourth.  All of these images are public domain, meaning you, I, or anyone, can use them for personal use.  I think a theme of mine is using what I have – so I have all these underwater images and alternative processes is a way for me to put my personal signature on the images. I have quite a series of underwater images in alternative processes.  Diving is what I do right now, so the images are a natural result of my occupation.  Diving also requires my full attention so I can be fully immersed in a darkroom experience, eating and drinking photography, and the next week, be diving a rebreather on a deep wreck. I lose momentum with my art because of this. 

I once read that it takes photographers a long time to adjust to a new place. I think this is true.  I lived eight years in the Virgin Islands, and I still want to print from these years.  We’ve lived in Colorado for a little over four years. I’m gone a lot of the time, yet I just haven’t settled into the Western scene. It’s quite daunting really, because you have a lot of great photographers working historically in the West. Sometimes when I am messing about with mordancage and gum and having a lot of failures I dream about a pretty little platinum portfolio of Western landscapes.

In your opinion, what is the role of the artist in society?

I told my mentor a couple years ago that sometimes I don’t know what it’s all for. He responded, “Can you imagine life without art?”  No.  Art is what makes life fun. 

Is there a particularly inspiring place for you?  

I love the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art and I’ve grown very fond of the collection. I’m sure that the Met or the Louvre would inspire me too, if I could get there.  And then many of the places I get to work are awe-inspiring.  I’m headed to the Channel Islands later this month to dive and take images for the NPS Centennial in 2016.   There’s even a hike on Anacapa Island called  “Inspiration Point.”

Favorite Living Photographer:

Arno Minkkinen

Favorite Living Alt Pro Photographer:

Brenton Hamilton. 

Three favorite artists:

Three favorites…so hard! That’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite kid.  I can’t do it:

Henri Rousseau


Egon Schiele

Barnett Newman

Do you collect anything?

Over the long weekend, I became rather obsessed pinning all my favorite photographs and paintings on Pinterest, which I am using in conjunction with Wiki Art. I am halfway through the letter "C" and have found several new favorite artists, and additional images and paintings by my long time favorites. This is a work in progress and will be a good project for the winter months to keep me distracted from thinking about the spectacular beaches and warm turquoise waters of St. John.

Other than that, not really. We have a small house and I try not to accumulate too much. But I can never let go of my books. I do half-heartedly collect refrigerator magnets from the National Parks.  

What was the last great book you read?

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami. 

The Conference of Birds

Peter Sís

What are your goals in work? In life?

My goals are to lead a simple life with my husband, two cats, house, etc. etc. I would like to find a gallery on the mainland to exhibit my work, and eventually, have my images in permanent collections. 

A selection of recent work from Susanna's website

A selection of recent work from Susanna's website

To see more of Susanna's work, you can visit her website at, the Michael Banzhaf Gallery, or the Framery Art Gallery.