BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
What began with photographing little scenes with her dolls using a brownie camera has led Susan Aurinko to capture the short life of one of the most famous women of all time. Her beautifully executed show on Joan of Arc runs through October 21 at the Loyola University Museum of Art.
Susan, who is perhaps most famous for her street photography, describes her approach to the French heroine:
“Most ideas about Joan of Arc come either from church or school: a young woman standing proudly, a flag waving triumphantly overhead, or Joan mounted on her powerful black steed, fully armored, her closely cropped hair a gleaming helmet around her determined face. My series seeks to show her as a courageous but vulnerable young girl from a small village who followed the directives of voices presumed to be heavenly, across France on a mission that would save the country she held dear.
“Jeanne was perhaps the first feminist, proving that a woman could do anything a man could do, for which she paid with her life, tied to a stake on a pyre, flames consuming her while hundreds sobbed, and her inquisitors gloating for having tricked her into a false confession.
“I begin my project in the summer of 2013 after visiting the Chateau of Chinon in France where Jeanne d’Arc traveled to ask the Dauphin for troops to raise the siege of Orleans. As I researched Jeanne’s short life, I became fascinated with the multitude of images of her that exist, with no two being remotely alike.”
On a second journey to France, Susan drove throughout the country capturing as many of these images as possible. She photographed Chicago artist Robin Dluzen, to represent her vision of the saint, intermingling photographs of her with those of statuary and some of the 209 Joan of Arc churches in the United States.
“I collaged and layered these images, placing images of Jeanne in real-life settings that were important to her story in her native tongue, and to embellish these, in some cases, as was done on manuscripts of that time, with actual gold-leafed text. The pieces, framed in heavy gold, as portraits might have been presented in the church at that time, are meant to give a face to a heroine from the people and of the people. As each image of Jeanne is from the imagination of the artist who created it, each piece from this series is unlike any other.”
Susan began her professional career photographing interiors.
“I was an interior designer, and one day our photographer didn’t show up for a shoot. My partner told me I should do it. My claim to fame at that time was shooting Nate Berkus before he was famous. I went on to performance photography for some dance companies—both modern and ballet—and portraiture. I had a studio on Wabash and did dancers, singers, and actors’ portraits cheaply but with class.”
We asked Susan about being a photographer in Chicago and what she most enjoys about her art.
Is Chicago an encouraging place to be a working photographer?
Because of Filter Photo, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Columbia College, yes, there is a lot of encouragement here for photographers. It is easier to be a big fish in a small(ish) pond here than, say, in New York or Los Angeles.
You are a mentor, through the Chicago Artists Coalition, to many emerging photographers. Is this role very important to you?
I’ve been on the CAC board for 17 years, serving as chair for three years, and do workshops for them. It has grown to be a wildly successful organization, supporting artists in so many ways. It’s really one of the only organizations like this in the country.
I was on the board of Chicago Photography Center and served as a mentor to several certificate students. If someone approaches me and seems to have the right stuff, and a good eye, I’ll often mentor them. I have been mentored wonderfully in my life and believe in paying it forward.
What advice do you have for the average person who wants to do a better job photographing the things that are important to them?
Take a class or a workshop. For the average person who doesn’t know how to make the image they imagine in their mind, that’s the only way to learn and become better. Not everyone is a natural photographer, so study and practice are the keys.
And for heaven’s sake, it’s not the equipment! Buy a simple camera. I recommend the Olympus Pen E series to many people. It has interchangeable lenses, yet is so small that it fits in a purse or backpack. It’s a great camera, and if you set it for large files, is all you will ever need if you are not professional.
Do you have a favorite photograph that you have taken?
I have two, actually: one from Paris that I shot on color negative film and printed in the darkroom in black and white and the other, also darkroom work, was shot in Brussels in the middle of the night—it is not at all what you see when you look at it. Thus, I use it when teaching to prove that photography definitely can lie.
Do you have a favorite photographer, past or present, whom you greatly admire?
Barbara Crane is a role model—not to do work like hers but to have the courage to try anything, no matter how outrageous it may seem, and to just keep working. She is in her late 80s and still goes to the studio most weekdays and still makes work.
I love Atget because he was all about details, and details of the world are what I’m interested in photographing. And I think that both Irving Penn and Richard Avedon raised fashion photography to a high art.
Whom do you choose to photograph?
I do a lot of work with nudes, many, many mannequins, and images reflected in windows. Doing street work, I love the lone figure, and in my mind, I write their stories.
And my ‘Muses and Mythology’ series are all women who portray these icons: the four seasons; the four elements; the three graces; the Hindu goddess Shakti, complete with eight arms; Pandora and her box; and the signs of the zodiac.
I loved watching your beautifully talented daughter, Thalia, dance. Did you take many photographs of her during that time?
When I was studying darkroom at Columbia College, I did a series of her called ‘Fifteen Weeks,’ which was the length of the semester. She hated it! But when she performed, she was ok about being photographed. I was the staff photographer for Ballet Chicago for quite a few years and covered all their performances. Thalia danced in all of them. And, of course, I shot all her audition photos.
Are there new photography techniques that you particularly like?
I am pretty much same old, same old. If it works, why fix it? And I despise over-Photoshopping regular photographs. Aside from the work I’m doing with my assistants on things like Joan of Arc and the Muses series, I pretty much shoot straight and don’t Photoshop anything.
What are your photography plans for the future?
I want to keep working, seeing, and capturing as I travel. I shoot far more from abroad than at home.
I am totally project-oriented, so I travel to make work. I have been working on a series about Auschwitz since I was in Poland two summers ago, and it’s very important to me to make sure that gets shown.
Susan Aurinko’s exhibit at LUMA, 820 North Michigan Avenue, is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11-6. On Tuesdays, the museum is open from 11-8. Docent-led tours are available.