I am the proud and happy owner of a good camera, which I have been using to take pictures of my work until recently. Somehow a little voice told me that it was about time I invested in photos taken by a professional to better promote what I am creating. Some very good friends were in touch with Sussie Ahlburg, a professional photographer who specializes in Applied Arts and I thought: why not take the opportunity?
I met her at her London studio/home with a collection of my current work (silicone brooches) to discus briefly about what I was expecting. I was very pleased with the result and I found Sussie’s approach and personality so interesting that I decided to write about her own work.
Sussie is Swedish and when she was 7 years old a doctor discovered she was severely short sighted and prescribed her some glasses. This was a revelation for her: she had spent the first 7 years of her life thinking the world was blurry and suddenly she discovered what it meant to see the world clearly. She asked her parents to buy her a camera and her passion for images started at that moment in her life. This first camera was quite frustrating, as she couldn’t obtain the effects she wanted but she started to look at things differently and take notice of surfaces, patterns and new shapes.
When she turned 18, she decided to leave Sweden to travel and ended up taking a degree in photography in Central St Martins in London. She met her husband there (a photographer as well), got 2 children and eventually stayed in London.
She started photographing applied arts 20 years ago when she was approached to contribute to a book about London makers for a Japanese publisher. The whole team went to some countryside settings for a week and there she realised how much she enjoyed photographing objects and their makers.
Word of mouth helping, her commissions and talent developed nicely in that area… so much so that she now focuses mainly on, and sees herself as, a photographer of Applied Arts objects, although a few times a month she continues to take musicians’ portraits for CD covers and magazines.
I have chosen some photos from her website to illustrate how she works and what drives her.
Ceramics by Christie Brown
The above photo about Ceramics by Christie Brown is all about composition and light. What attracts Sussie is to understand an artist’s work through the material, the techniques and the concept and to do a portrait of the maker through a portrait of her or his work. She works with backgrounds, settings and lights to try and capture a mood that suits the personality of the artist.
When asked how precise the initial brief has to be, Sussie replies that it really depends on the maker. Some people give specific instructions and some leave Sussie totally free. In the picture of Yoyo Ceramics above, Sussie took the liberty to include a real pear to add some curbs and sensuality to the cup.
Metal work by Simone Ten Hompel
With the maker Simone Ten Hompel there is total freedom and trust between the two artists. Simone just drops her work to Sussie Studio and the magic operates. In this picture, the background adds a fascinating touch of colour and intrigue but is blurred enough not to distract from the work.
I personally like the idea that a photographer, when given freedom, can breathe new life to an object by highlighting some aspects that his maker, all absorbed in its creation for several days or weeks in a row, may have overlooked.
Vase by Anu Penttinen
What Sussie always discuss with the artist though, is the purpose of the photo shoot and the intended use of the pictures. Is it for a magazine, for a competition, for a website? That information can be paramount to choosing the background and lighting of the photo. In the picture above, the focus is on the object itself. White background, minimum shadows: the work stands out naturally.
In this photo of Luna Lights, Sussie has added a natural background and blurred flowers to put the object in a possible context like a subtle “suggested presentation”…
Ceramic by Sue Binn
Even with a neutral background, what I enjoy with Sussie’s photos is that she always tries to add something lively, her personal touch. In this photo, the background is white but Sussie has created an interesting composition.
Jewellery by Katy Hackney
In this shot, the necklace is put into movement. The piece of jewellery is not worn but nonetheless it seems alive…
Ceramic by John Masterton
Ceramic by Sarah Scampton
Silver work by Abigail Brown
The particularity of photographing Applied Art objects is that the photographer has to capture the beauty of the objects in 3D with its texture, shape, material, etc and to translate it into a 2D image. I have experienced myself how easy it is to lose all this richness with a poor picture. This is exactly where the professional photographer makes the difference: Sussie works with a Nikon D800 and various expensive lenses she cherishes. She tries to use natural light as often as possible but knows how to play with flashes and reflectors to enhance the beauty of the objects. She makes digital photos but avoids at any price to Photoshop them. The images above are striking examples of her technique: the reflection of the red bowl on the shiny surface magnifies the beautiful glossy surface of the ceramic, whereas the delicate and intriguing texture of the ceramic vase is rendered with a subtle game of lights. Abigail Brown’s beautiful silverwork was a tough one to handle according to Sussie: too much light and the striking edges would disappear, flattening the work. Too little or wrong directed, and the 3D complexity of the vessel would never be rendered.
When I candidly asked Sussie whether she didn’t find photographing objects a little boring, she was surprised I could even ask: she genuinely loves it, privately teaches how to photograph Applied Art objects and has written a book about it that I recommend: “Photograph your Own Art and Craft” (A & C Black Publishers Ltd - 15 Nov 2011).
Sussie’s book cover
Shan Valla bottle milk
I would like to conclude this portrait with this picture of a bottle of milk by Shan Valla. For me it encapsulates Sussie’s spirit: an impression of authentic simplicity, a genuine love for objects and a striking technique. Since Sussie photographed my work, I have found myself much more confident to show it around and I am grateful to her for that…
Sussie Alhburg’s website