Film, Plastic, and Silicon

The Low-Tech and High-Tech Images of Susan Bowen

Back to


I WAS AN ART/PHOTOGRAPHY MAJOR at Allegheny College (a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania) in the 1970s, but I let my art slide; computer programming ended up being my profession. Five years ago, however, I abruptly changed direction. I give two reasons for this: one being 9/11 (I’m a New Yorker), the other being a major personal loss the year before. Both those events reminded me that life is damn short, and that I had better get crackin’. The vehicle that got me jump-started was a four-week class I took on this silly camera called the Holga (of which I had never heard). I have been going full speed ever since.

The Holga is a plastic camera that uses medium- format film. The film advance doesn’t force you to advance a full frame; one can turn the knob any arbitrary amount. My images are done by only partially advancing the film between shots, meaning the images overlap as I shoot. The composition is therefore primarily done in-camera; it comes off of the negative this way.

I enjoy shooting very fast and spontaneously, and I like the surprise element involved in working this way. A roll of medium-format film of maybe 24 or so overlapping exposures will at most give me two final images (I usually use a 7:1 aspect ratio, which is about half of the length of the roll). Occasionally I’ve printed an entire roll as one piece, but that is one unwieldy print. Most rolls will at most yield only one piece, from somewhere on the roll.

Yellow Machine, Swirling Sky

Lights of Fremont, Golden Nugget

Subject matter-wise, I like industrial objects, monumental things such as grain elevators and Times Square billboards, and big crowds of people. My work primarily expresses motion. Either I am shooting people that are in motion or I myself am in movement around my subject. I will stalk my subjects, be they a swarm of gesturing humans or abstract shapes of color and light.

Digital fixes

I scan my film using a large 11×17-inch flatbed scanner (the Epson 1640XL). I can scan a half roll at once, and then only need to do one splice for an entire roll. Because I want the option of printing large, I always scan at the maximum optical resolution (with this scanner that’s only 1600 ppi). Though I wish I had a higher- resolution scanner, in actuality the files are enormous even at that resolution—they often start out at a gigabyte or more, and are never less than 250MB as the finished file.

Once they’re digitized, I work a long time on my images. Due to the overlapping, the film has very uneven exposures. I select small areas of the image, create an adjustment (usually via curves), clear the area adjusted, and then paint that adjustment on wherever needed. I go through many, many adjustment stages, usually flattening the image as I go, due to the large file sizes involved. I beef up the color by increasing the contrast; I like purity of color and am usually trying to nurse that out of the file. I also edit the images, removing distracting details like cigarette butts on the ground, and sometimes moving things around. Rarely do I combine images from multiple rolls. I sometimes do remove chunks of image, however, just to keep pieces a manageable width. I am usually taking away, not adding to the imagery, if changing it at all.

My exhibition prints are digital C-prints. My standard print size is 30×7 inches, matted and framed at 36x 12.5 inches. I also print them larger, most often 15 inches high by 5- to 8-feet wide. I recognized early on my desire to make these images really big, which is why I started applying for public art projects. Recently I was awarded my first commissions. I am currently having four murals produced for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (images of construction projects and DOT trucks and equipment, which I shot in Minnesota). These will be 2 feet high by varying widths, the largest being 24-feet wide—a full-roll image. I am also working on a mural for a public school in New Haven, Connecticut, on the topic of the labor movement; this is a different endeavor in that it will be a collage of existing historical photographs. That mural will be 5 feet 3 inches high and 48-feet wide, and will be printed as porcelain enamel on steel (it will be comprised of twelve 4-foot wide panels). The Minnesota pieces are being printed as digital high-pressure laminate (a process similar to Formica). Both of those materials are very durable, which is important for public art.

I like to think that my work has a lot of richness and complexity, and I intend for the images to celebrate the everyday details of life. I also am delighted by how often these mostly unplanned juxtapositions capture my experience of a particular time and place and, at the same time, have an identity all their own.

Sauk Rapids Bridge for Below

Does Bush Really Know?