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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Susan Ressler: At Owner's Risk - My Journey Among The Algonquian

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Susan Ressler
At Owner's Risk - My Journey Among The Algonquian

Sometimes you have to look at where you‘ve been to know where you‘re going. My particular artistic path began with the straight documentary photograph and a pivotal summer on an Indian reserve in Quebec, Canada. The experience changed my life. How ironic, then, that these photographs, made in 1972, lay buried in a drawer. Buried in a drawer, but working on my heart.
I realize, now, the power of these pictures and why they speak to me. They evince the same ethic of care and conscience that has characterized all my work since -- as an author and educator, as well as an image-maker. These photographs, and the experience I lived then, have shaped who I am today.
In 1972 I was but 22, and just out of college. When an anthropologist offered me the chance to photograph in northern Quebec, I jumped at the opportunity, not realizing what I was in for. I‘d grown up in an affluent suburb, and was unprepared for the crushing poverty of rural Quebec, magnified by unemployment, alcoholism, and alienation on the reserve. Three months and 50 rolls of film later, I had little idea what I‘d recorded. The experience was too raw, and I was too young to comprehend it. I printed the pictures, showed them once to my professors, and then I put them away. Until now.
In January 2004 I took early retirement from my full professorship at Purdue University in order to concentrate on my artwork and live full-time in New Mexico. Now I had "come home" -- literally and spiritually. I took these pictures out of the drawer, and saw them with fresh, unencumbered eyes. Having just finished a book on women artists the previous year, I was ready to start a new project. Here was a major body of work, never exhibited or published. I still had my negatives and the journal in which I‘d written copious notes. But now I had new insights, time to reflect, and the motivation to move forward.
I want to create a book about these photographs and the issues they raise. Who are these people, and how did they come to live this way? What can explain these horrific conditions, and the strength of character and caring that comes through nonetheless? I am interested in the theoretical issues that pertain to the documentary photograph. But even more, I am concerned with the stories these pictures tell, including my own.
During 2006-2007, I worked with Rush Creek Editions in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to produce a fine art portfolio of this work. Under my supervision, master printer Steve Zeifman made high resolution scans of the original 35mm negatives, and together, we made a set of archival digital prints using pigmented inks on photo rag paper. I wrote a short text to accompany the photographs, and the portfolio, housed in a custom case, was completed in July 2007.
Not coincidently, my most recent photographic work also explores the documentary tradition. However, rather than photographing in French Canada, I‘ve been photographing in France! This new work consists of several series: "24 Hours," which pairs images made during a 24-hour span that reverberate between past and present and allude to global terrorism, "Go Forth," a triptych that combines text and images that reference Thomas Mann‘s Death in Venice in tandem with the threat of avian flu, and "Le Sinistre et Le Petit Sourire (The Sinister and the Little Smile)," made during April and May of 2007. The last series combines memento mori in a narrative that veers from war memorials, to ecclesiastic sculpture, to dolmens and menhirs from Neolithic sites in France.
What informs all my work, whether documentary or digital collage (which was my emphasis from the mid-1980s through about 2000), is a concern with linking past to present so that our work in the world furthers a greater good. This requires, in my view, critical thinking combined with an appreciation for both beauty and fallibility. How else can we grow and act with conscience? 



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