Anxious Desires: The Photography of Susan Dobson

BORDER CROSSINGS: A number of your bodies of work look at the relationship between consumer culture and natural culture. You often structure the bodies of work in terms of binary oppositions.

SUSAN DOBSON: I don’t construct them consciously from the outset, but I think they do evolve that way. When I was shooting “Retail,” I was drawn to box stores and empty parking lots. I had been reading Jane Jacobs and was thinking about dead space and what happens to space when there are no cars. It is always about reading for me; my ideas evolve through reading. I had come across the introductory essay to Vitamin Ph where T J Demos said photography used to speak of the past, and now a digital photograph can read as the future perfect, the time of “will have been.” It seemed that the way to critically talk about these spaces was to address some sort of foreshadowing that speaks of the end of automobiles and the oil industry. Sometimes it takes a very long time for work to evolve. I leave myself a lot of latitude at first. I know that some artists structure the process from the onset; they work within a concept and they set themselves limits. I tend to push those limits a little bit at first and let the work teach me over time what I’m interested in. Eventually, a certain logic or structure does evolve.

How do know when a body of work is done?

I think a body of work is done for me when I both love it and hate it.

Welcome to the binary world.

Okay, you read me well. It occurred to me the other day that every time a body of work is finished I am euphorically happy because I feel it’s resolved and layered and has the meaning I intended. The next day I can’t stand it and I go through reams of self-doubt. Then I look at it again and I think it is good. That’s why I make more work. If I thought it was perfect each time I probably wouldn’t make the next body of work. It’s when I doubt myself that the evolution begins to happen.

You do seem restless when it comes to subject matter. You’re very nomadic that way.

Yes. I don’t want to be pinned down. I don’t want to be known as the person who shoots subdivisions, or who shoots portraits. I have parallel practices going on; one side of me wants to take photography as the subject and is rooted in a very emotional connection. That happens in “Rememory,” in a series called “Vanishing Point” and in the video. Then there is a more critical and distanced look at landscapes or the built environment, and that work takes commuter culture and consumerism as its subject.

That comes up in “Sprawl” and “Home Invasion” and “Open House.”

It comes up over and over because it comes from my past; it is very much rooted in who I am. The other work occurs because I need to address the medium I’m working with. People ask how can one person make these radically different bodies of work, but for me it seems perfectly logical.

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Above image: Susan Dobson, *Screen, from the series “Dislocation,” 2008, lightjet print, 35 x 50”. Courtesy the artist.*

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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