How to Start a Project: Susan Lipper

© Susan Lipper

Two years ago, I asked a handful of friends in the photography world if they had advice about starting projects for my students. I continue to present their responses to students each semester.

It occurred to me that their collective advice would probably be of interest to others and under that idea I will be publishing some of the responses I received then as well as soliciting new responses to post a series of a dozen replies from photographers to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?"

We started the series with replies from Judith Joy RossIrina RozovskyAlejandro Cartagena, Phil Toledano, and Steven Ahlgren. Today we continue the series with a reply from Susan Lipper.

Susan Lipper is a New York based artist. She received her BA in English Literature from Skidmore College in 1975 and her MFA in Photography from Yale University in 1983. Among the monographs on her work are Bed and Breakfast (2000), trip (1999), and GRAPEVINE (1994). Recent projects have included The Not Yet Titled Series (1999-2004), which explores themes of narratives and dates, diptychs of gelatin silver prints mounted on aluminum as well as Off Route 80, an installation of video and landscape work from Grapevine, WV starting in 2006.

She is represented amongst other places in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art – Los Angeles, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the New York Public Library.

Her website is www.susanlipper.com.

Last spring I began a project in the California desert. In the interim I have edited the work, researched varied related and not related concrete or historical topics, read a lot, thought a lot and will return to the area in a few months. At that point, and on site, potential new images will direct my travels.

After a sufficient quantity of images of quality has been gathered, the next step will be to edit and shape the series or sequence. Maybe I will even re-evaluate technical choices to coincide with new thinking. This process is repeated as often as necessary until complete. Sometimes projects remain for years as fragments (sometimes always) while I work on others that have become more situationally accessible or until the initial project’s ideas become more realized.

Starting a project could be seen as entering into unknown territory and hopefully embracing something bigger than oneself most likely something in or pertaining to the world. Also it is a mixture of making conscious decisions while drawing upon essential innate material. That innate material being derived from - affected by- a combination of life-experience, cultural-conditioning, past readings, other art appreciation, and finally the unconscious visual ticks that make us ourselves.

In terms of subject, Lisette Model – an amazing teacher- used to say that a project takes us over and not the other way around. I used to feel this somewhat passive motivating approach was also a feminine viewpoint. I don't know if I still believe that, but it seems to hold true for me. Tod Papageorge – another amazing teacher – has stressed the value of reading literature to a greater degree in one’s daily life. Somewhere I have also heard the corollary that working breeds work. I believe in whatever succeeds.

Ideally decisions should be related to imagining – as close to the onset as possible – after basic technical choices have been made, the proper container for the work. Not all work is best suited to the printed book, which is in vogue these days, but rather an exhibition or something more transitory. A lot of the projects that I have pursued since the late 70's and early 80's have necessitated strict control of context with a fixed sequence and edit that also contains an interaction between image and text. As such, a book has been the most desirable format.

Finished work has usually been centered on asking questions from an imagined audience of like-minded people. Inviting them to make their own conclusions about subjects that I have strong feelings towards or to at least enjoy the imaginary tale or fable. Equally, though I have been drawn to some work of others that makes poetic statements.

Finally, it is the individual photographs that matter. Each one needs to be as strong as possible while containing a fragment of the whole. The edit, sequence and direction are constantly reworked, dragged down or enhanced by individual images. Of course, none of this struggle is visible in the final product or installation.

In the end it always looks easy.

- Susan Lipper

© Susan Lipper