Interview with Suzun Lucia Lamaina, Fine Art Portrait Photographer

Interview with Suzun Lucia Lamaina, Fine Art Portrait Photographer

Suzun Lucia Lamaina was born of Italian and Gypsy descent and began using her first camera, a Diana, at age twelve. Her work is influenced by female photographers, especially those who work in portraiture.

Ms. Lamaina has taught with noted Farm Security Administration photographer, John Collier Jr., at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). She exhibits her work nationally & internationally, and she is also a member of Women in Photography International.

She attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), received her BFA from SFAI, and earned a Masters of Interdisciplinary Arts from San Francisco State University. Her approach and artistic philosophy to photography is, "Take responsibility for the world around you, communicate visually, and make photographs which come from your heart!"

Ms. Lamaina & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks

  Ms. Lamaina and Her Career

At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to be a photographer?

I was given a Diana camera when I was 12. I started making images then but I had always been involved in "looking" at photographs from a very young age, (six years old). I am Italian Gypsy. My family is from Italy, and my grandmother had a box of photographs of our family in Italy, photographs that dated back to the late 1800s. Those photographs sat inside the credenza (in a box) in front of our living room window. I would take the box out of the credenza and "look" at my ancestors. I would stare at the photographs; they were mainly portraits, and I would wonder how I was like them. It was probably then that I had unconsciously decided to become a photographer, but I didn't know it. I have always been a visual person.

Tell us about your photographic work. Do you have a specialty? Is there a particular style or method that you use?

I am a fine art portrait photographer, which is a big word and can mean a lot of different things. I define it like this: I make black & white silver gelatin portraits of people in their environments. For example, I am interested in the objects that one has in their homes, which tells us (the viewer) who they are. It could be reflected in the family pictures, which sit on top of their television set or the chaos and order in the clutter, which sits on their dining room table. This, however, is only one aspect of my work. I have three photographic projects going on simultaneously.

The second project is making slides of coffee logo signs that I find walking around San Francisco and the greater bay area. I make emulsion Polaroid transfer prints from the slides onto watercolor paper. With this project, I am interested in the visual implications in the experience of signage. For example, when folks are interested in having a cup of coffee (when in public spaces), they are looking for the logo and not the store itself that will grab their attention to "having" a cup of coffee. These logos come from the local coffee shops in and around the bay area and not the chain stores such as Starbucks. The hand-painted signage of these coffee logos is unique because each one is painted with beautiful vibrations of the swirls of steam floating off the top of the cups. Not one of them is the same. The greatest part of this project for me is that I am not a coffee drinker, so I get to observe folks' reactions on the street when they are "looking" for that cup of coffee.

Thirdly, I am working on a series of black & white silver gelatin prints that I make while driving my car. Using 1600 Neopan film, I make these photographs early in the morning before sunrise or late at night, after 10 pm. The project came about as a result of the intense amount of driving I do.

You've been a teacher of photography at a number of schools. Tell us about this aspect of your career. What does it mean to you, personally and professionally?

I began teaching after I graduated from San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). My professor of photography at the art school was noted Farm Security Administration photographer John Collier, Jr. He hired me to teach with him at SFAI. We were collaborators, and we co-taught Visual Communications and Visual Anthropology classes in the photography department. Personally, I love teaching because I enjoy watching my students blossom into accomplished photographers. The greatest joy for me in being a teacher is learning from my students. Professionally, I continue to grow as a photographer because the more I teach, the more I learn. Learning did not stop for me when I received my degrees; it continues for me on many levels of my artistic life.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments and favorite projects and why?

One of my proudest accomplishments was working with John Collier. He was a great teacher and a great photographer. (If you are interested in looking at his Farm Security Administration work you can log onto the Library of Congress web site and type in his name). He could visually read a photograph like I'd never "seen" before. By the smallest of clues in one's photographs, he could reflect back to you what was going on in your life. After all, photographs are a reflection of one's self. Right? His encouragement to me was a great gift, and he saw my greatest potential as a teacher immediately, before I even recognized it.

Currently, my favorite project is the one I am doing of my family, in my family village of Garaguso, Italy, located three hours by train, south of Naples. I go home once a year for five weeks. I am photographing the village, its people and life style. My family has been in this village for 300 years. It is a remarkable place where the past and the present live side by side. These 500 year old stone houses now have satellite dishes that adorn the roofs. But at the same time the people maintain their connection to the earth and farming, which is something we are losing very rapidly in this country - our connection to the Earth. I am making visual records of this place. My long-term goal is to set up a darkroom there and teach the children how to make photographic books that tell stories about their lives.


The Actual Work

Who do you work for? How do you show and sell your work?

I work for the University of California, Santa Cruz extension program and the Walnut Creek Arts program. I exhibit my photographic work by showing it in galleries. I enter my photographs into at least four competitions a year. I sell my work via the gallery exhibition's and private collectors.

What kind of camera do you use most often? Do you use any others for specific reasons or projects? What are some of the most important attachments that you use?

The camera I use most often is my Canon A-1. I have had this camera since the 1970's. It is a great camera! The body was built for journalism use; it is very strong and durable. It was made to be bounced around a lot and take the wear and tear. I love this camera because of the beautiful craftsmanship that went into building it. I have the entire FD series lenses that go with this camera. I like all the older camera equipment because it was built to last. It has automatic and manual features, which gives me the option to choose how I want to work. Most of the new 35mm cameras on the market only have the F-stops and shutter speeds located inside.

As a photographer, I believe it is very important to know how the camera works as a machine. With all the functions being internal in cameras now, students do not get to actually feel how the equipment works - for example, turning the aperture setting or changing the shutter speed button. I use my 50mm lens to make my portraits, and people who like my work are amazed at the fine quality of the prints. I believe it has a lot to do with the photographer and not the equipment. In other words, one can have all the equipment in the world, but it will not make great photographs unless the person behind the lens has a vision.

What about other equipment and facilities? What does a photographer need, and do they most often own, rent or lease things like enlargers, dark rooms, studios, etc.?

Each photographer is different, in terms of equipment and facilities. Someone reading this may say that a photographer should have all up-to-date equipment and, depending on the project(s) that each photographer is working on, this is true. Studio equipment is usually rented, unless you have a wealth of funds to invest in studio equipment. For some photographers, it is in their own best interest to have a darkroom/studio space in their home. Other photographers find a place to rent darkroom/studio space.

What are the major professional organizations for photographers? How important is the role they play in the industry?

There are a vast number of professional organizations for photographers. They play a major role in the industry because they give photographers a place to focus their ideas, connect with other photographers and create a forum in which to present their work, be it commercial or fine art photography.

Here are a few organizations that folks may be interested in looking at. All of them have web sites and are uniquely different in what they support in the world of photography. To find out the details of what they offer go to their web site.

What's the difference between the typical expectations and the reality of a career in your line of work?

The typical exceptions and the reality of a career in photography differs vastly from photographer to photographer. For example, if your expectation is to be a commercial photographer, you seek out a commercial photography school, like the Brooks Institute of Photography, and study commercial photography. This can lead to many areas of work, such as advertising, within the food, graphics, modeling, and the world of fashion photography (only to name a few avenues).

In the world of fine art photography, you may have your heart set on trying to find a full/part time teaching position within the university system, or you may want to freelance. In either of these cases, the reality of a career is that it is all hard work and a lot of banging on doors to get work and recognition for who you are as a photographer. This is a good thing because it allows photographers to set goals and achieve accomplishments.


Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education, including schools attended and degrees or certifications earned. What did you like and dislike? How has your education benefited your career?

My education started out at the Philadelphia College of Art (now known as the University of the Arts), Philadelphia. I liked the school because it gave me a well-rounded knowledge of my photography. It was there that I learned all my technical skills of photography. I studied liberal arts as well. After two years, I transferred to SFAI where I earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Photography. The Institute was great because I learned about the process of art. I had my technical skill under my belt, so I was able to focus on the issues and aesthetics of photography. For example, what we think and feel about photographs, how they impact us when we look at them, what makes a photograph interesting or not so interesting etc.

I went to graduate school at San Francisco State University, where I earned a Masters of Interdisciplinary arts. Majoring in interdisciplinary arts was a wonderful way for me to incorporate all the other applied arts I had studied. I tailored them to fit my photographic needs. I also studied anthropology and women studies, which became incorporated into my work as a photographer.

My education has benefited me in ways that I have yet to discover. It is a life long learning process. At present, I learned about being part of a community and how to be part of the great diverse community of different cultural groups we live with in this world and how to share creative ideas.

On a basic level, what are the most important skills required to succeed as a photographer? How can prospective photography students assess their skill and aptitude for the field?

On a basic level the most important things are a vision and a passion for your work. Prospective photography students can assess their skill and aptitude by taking classes, seeing what is out there and then make a decision if this is truly something that he/she is interested in.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an photography school or program?

First of all, ask "how much will it cost?" Just because the school costs a lot of money does not mean it is a "good school". There are many community colleges that offer degree programs that are just as "good" and don't cost a lot of money. The photography teachers at community college are also excellent teachers.

Secondly, a prospective student should ask, "why do I want to study there?" One of my reasons for attending the SFAI was because of the "noted" California photographers who taught there such as Pirkle Jones, Jack Fulton, John Collier Jr. and Linda Connor. Some programs are only fine art oriented, others are commercial and some are both.

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school for photography and why?

Yes, if someone already has talent they should still go to art/photography school because there are many things to learn that you don't get if you are not involved in the art school process. As a student, one is required to take art history as well as liberal art studies; these courses all enhance your vision and give you an in-depth knowledge of your field and of the world.

What do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for photography in the US?

There are many respected and prestigious schools, department and programs for photography in the US. The ones I like are:

These are only a few! Also, check into the local community colleges in your area; they often offer great classes and have excellent teachers.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in the field?

Graduation from a prestigious school looks good on your resume but it is important to remember to have an excellent portfolio to present to prospective clients and employers.


Industry Trends

What are some of the recent trends that you see in the field of photography which could help students plan for the future?

The most recent trends are the constant technical advancements of new tools to make photographs. Students should plan for the future by being skilled in all areas of photography, from traditional black & white darkroom to digital. It is to their advantage to know all of this so that they have in-depth knowledge of their field and can make conscious choices about what road(s) they want to travel down with their skills.

How have computer advancements, such as digital photography, affected your profession? How about the popularity of the Internet?

Digital photography has affected my profession on many levels, which I see as multi-faceted. On the one hand, digital is interesting because it is instant, you can download your images and send them across the world in a matter of minutes. But, I find the image quality poor and you need a lot of cutting edge equipment to make "great" photographs - this is costly. Your average user doesn't have the money to spend on thousands of dollars of equipment. So, I would not like to see digital become about the money, (i.e. how much money you need to spend on the best equipment) but retain its integrity regarding the image making process. On the other hand, I don't want to see this replace the traditional form of photography (the darkroom) because I think that would be a disservice to all photographers. The important thing to remember about photography is the image, the picture. All of the tools we have as photographers are unique and important, let us decide what we want to work with instead of letting the consumer-driven world we live in decide for us! The popularity of the internet is wonderful because it gives photographers the opportunity to see what other photographers around the world are doing. It is another tool to interface with.

What are the greatest challenges that artists in your profession face?

One of the greatest challenges for photographers is having enough money to support their creativity. Photography is very expensive. Also, finding jobs in a very competitive field, you always have to be one step ahead all the time so that you are at the right place at the right time to reach your goals personally, and professionally.  

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in photography?

In closing, I would like to say, "Take responsibility for the world around you, communicate visually, and make photographs which come from your heart!"

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