Although Susan Stanton creates what her galleries consider fine art photography, she doesn’t perceive herself a photographer at all. “I was taught by a painter,” she says. “Being taught by an art teacher, I’m an artist first – a photo artist, not a photographer. I’m a half-breed: half photographer, half painter. My camera is simply my brush.”
Stanton, whose studio is in Horse Shoe, North Carolina, creates a wide variety of beautifully composed, hauntingly original nature scenes saturated with deep, textured colors…exposures so painterly, that many of her clients insist that’s exactly what they are.
She specializes in locations throughout the Southern Appalachians. “I love Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I moved to this area because I loved it many years ago; I found it peaceful and relaxing compared to my life in a fast-paced, corporate world. Seeing these scenes touched and changed me and I wanted to share that with other people,” she says.
Photography has not always been her central focus. Although she took classes in high school and college in the early and mid ’80s and was offered a full scholarship in photography, she turned it down in favor of pursuing a career in business. “Back in school, I fell in love with photography. Yet, I was always geared toward business. I always believed just from family that photography or art was not a career, that I had to keep my eyes focused on business,” says Stanton.
She went to college and eventually bought a pharmaceutical mail order company with a business partner. “The hours were long — literally 80 hour work weeks. I became a workaholic. After 12 years, I just completely burned out,” she continues.
An event toward the end of her pharmaceutical career changed her life forever. “I received a camera for Christmas from my husband in 1998 and it was like an old friend. When I got the camera and started taking photographs, I knew that’s what I was meant to do. We moved to this region in 2002 strictly for my photography. That’s when I became a full time photographer. I haven’t put down a camera since.”
While broad vistas are a significant part of her portfolio, Stanton’s personal favorites include those that are more intimate. “What changed my photography was that I had a hip replacement. Because of my physical limitations, I started to concentrate on what was near and accessible. It changed my focus, making my landscapes more intimate; I started noticing all the little details,” she says. These encompass scenes inside and out of old structures and buildings — highly personal, emotionally rich palettes of deeply contrasting colors that evoke comparisons to paintings by Wyeth and Hopper.
“When I get to a location where there’s something that strikes me as special, I become very quiet and sit there awhile. It’s amazing how the image comes to you. You start seeing things that you wouldn’t see if you hadn’t stopped and been quiet for a few moments. A mentor of mine taught me to do that. It was very difficult for me to do, coming from a fast-paced life, fast-paced business world. Being still is hard. I’ve learned that it really pays off because I’m much more receptive to what I see.”
To find her subjects, Stanton travels extensively, often driving 40,000 to 50,000 miles a year. “When I enter a scene in a forest, I immediately notice the composition, the lights, the dark, the textures. Once I find one that speaks to me as a story that I need to tell, I keep going back until I get that perfect shot. Sometimes you’re lucky in a serendipitous moment when you get it the first time; other times, it’s not unusual to go back 30 or 40 times. When something appeals to me, I’ll stop. I know there’s a photo here. I compose as I shoot. I know what the finished product is going to look like before I ever snap the shutter. It’s just going to take me a minute to find it,” she continues.
Scenes that speak to her, ones she can forge a relationship with are critical to her work. “I call it courting my subject. What makes it special? You have a certain dialogue. Just opening my mind to what that subject has to say. What is it telling me? What story do I want to share? It has a story and I need to be able to convey. It’s an experience when you’re there, the moment you connect with your subject. You can force and take a picture but it will not come out the way you’ve envisioned. If I have to force it, nobody’s going to buy that photograph. If it’s not speaking to me, how can I possibly expect it to speak to somebody else?” says Stanton.
Stanton takes great pains in creating the proper atmosphere to make her art memorable. Like most of today’s photographers, she uses a digital camera. Yet, she doesn’t use any special filters, automatic camera settings or digital gimmicks. She relies solely on a blend of natural light, manual settings and time exposures.
She prefers overcast, foggy days, especially when it’s raining or misty. “A lot of my color comes from waiting until there’s moisture in the air; there are a lot of little natural fill-flashes that give this really rich color that only Mother Nature can give. I shoot 90 percent in the rain because it brings the color and texture out. That’s what I want to capture.”
To transfer her camera’s images, Stanton imports them to Photoshop® where she can dodge, burn and crop to whatever size she wants. The majority of her work is reproduced on canvas using a commercial large-format printer because it affords the textures and mood she wants to capture.
“Emotion drives my photography. As an artist, I want to place the viewer right where I’m standing. I want to share my vision, my thoughts. The more people that can view your art, the more satisfied you are. They all don’t have to like it, but as long as you can stir something in them and make them stop and ponder and think for a moment, then I’m happy,” she concludes.