Far from New York City: The Grapevine Work of Susan Lipper

by Gerry Badger

In one sense, photography is easy. It’s simply a matter of placing yourself in front
of what you want to photograph, raising the camera, and clicking the shutter. If the subject is moving, it’s slightly more complicated, you need to wait for the “decisive moment” before clicking. And although that might require a certain anticipatory skill, you either get the shot or you don’t.

The real trick—and here photography becomes immensely difficult and complex—
is deciding what to photograph. And that, in essence, is a two-step process, or
more accurately, a two-level process. The first step, or level, deciding upon the raw material—trees, nudes, war, raindrops on windows—represents a photographer
finding her or his subject matter. It’s an important step, but not yet “job done.”
The second, and much more difficult step, is to say something— something
unobvious and personal—about the raw material. The two are very different entities,
and a photographer’s subject may bear only the most oblique relationship to her subject matter.

The problem is the medium’s presumed literalness, so the photographer is not only trying to go beyond subject matter and find subject, she has to take her audience with her. Most people, and this can include people quite sophisticated and well versed in other arts, assume that if the photograph is of a white horse, the photographer is talking about white horses rather than loneliness or loss, or any number of apparently unlikely subjects, as well as the more obvious metaphors like strength or grace. Of course, the ultimate task for any photographer is to talk about the most unlikely things and the white horse, in short, to tell the subject’s tale as well as her own. And that, I feel, is what Susan Lipper has done with conspicuous success.

Needless to say, many photographers never progress beyond stage one, except in the most trite and obvious ways. The projects given to students at college, where they justify what they are about to photograph in writing, explaining at great and frequently unreadable length their theoretical position regarding the work, is one way of trying to get the student to progress from mere subject matter to subject. This strategy has educational merit, but I am somewhat dubious about its value in art. I am dubious about art education in general. Artists worthy of the name, it seems to me, educate themselves, primarily by using their eyes, not by writing essays.

Walker Evans once said that the best photographic education comes from “informal contact with a master,”1 and I feel that he was right. I learnt more from hanging out with Garry Winogrand in Los Angeles for two or three memorable days in 1980, than from a year of college lectures. I would add that quality time spent with any great photobook might also be classed as “informal contact with a master.”

Susan Lipper had a good teacher—Tod Papageorge, Walker Evans Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at Yale University. Papageorge had a lot more informal contact with Garry Winogrand than I ever did, and the fruits of the wisdom he learnt were certainly imparted to Lipper, whose work fascinates me
because it illustrates precisely the complex interrelationship between subject
matter and subject. The subject of Lipper’s art, indeed, could almost be considered
a quest for subject.

Lipper is probably best known for her book, Grapevine (1994),2 taken in and around the remote rural community of Grapevine Hollow in West Virginia. Her follow-up publication, trip (2000),3 is also highly regarded. There are direct links between the two books though they aredifferent in form and content, but it is essentially Grapevine I wish to discuss because it is so central to her oeuvre, and after more than twenty years, she is still visiting the area and making work there.

Two interesting observations might be made about the work in these publications, particularly Grapevine. Firstly, they seem—and seem is the appropriate word—to fly in the face of what was going on in American photography at that particular time, the mid-to-late ’90s, especially the kind seen in Chelsea galleries, and particularly the photography that was emerging from Yale. Lipper was making smallish, square black-and-white prints, while other members of the “Yale School” were making large color prints. She was apparently photographing in the documentary mode, while others were busy fabricating events to be photographed, and exploring the manipulative potentiality of photography and the computer.

Secondly, there was a tendency in ’90s documentary-mode photography to photograph what one knew, for photographers to focus upon themselves and things close to them, and to explore such issues as memory and identity. Susan Lipper chose to photograph an environment, a tiny community in the Appalachians, as far removed as possible from her own, the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She chose to photograph people as far removed from her own background—Jewish, urban, and privileged—as it was possible to find. Pentecostal, rural, and far from wealthy.

When Grapevine appeared, there was a temptation not only to label, but to judge. Hardly since Walker Evans traveled south in the mid-1930s to photograph sharecroppers in Alabama had a photographer from the Yale-Harvard axis ventured forth to photograph ordinary rural Southerners. But Evans, no matter what his personal reasons, was nominally photographing for the government, for the FSA and Roy Stryker’s documentary unit—and in addition, for an article on sharecropping he was doing with James Agee for Fortune magazine. Even Doris Ulmann, who came from a privileged background and made Appalachian portraits in the 1920s and ’30s, was photographing what she knew. She emanated from a family of plantation owners, and her somewhat sentimental portraits resulted from a close but feudal relationship with her subjects, with “her people.”

In fact, Lipper’s Grapevine work is no more a document of rural West Virginia than the rural America depicted by Evans in the ’30s, no more a record of rural everyday life than Sally Mann’s images of her Virginia family. Nevertheless, by acting through what we might term documentary surface, Lipper’s work, and that of similar artists, from Robert Adams and John Gossage to Alec Soth, begs a question. What has happened to social documentary photography? This is an issue that is debated frequently in these days of postmodernism, where photographic images are perceived not as simple records of what’s out there, but complex webs of received ideas and hidden agendas. Photographers have been characterized as brutish aggressors in their never ending search for the telling image, violent mercenaries carrying cameras instead of guns. Even to say that one photographs to expose social ills is no mitigating factor, it would seem. Photographers of the social landscape are forced onto the defensive, caught between a rock and a hard place—political ethics on the one hand and on the other, the notion that straight photography is outmoded and passé, on the grounds that if the medium’s fidelity to actuality is suspect, why bother?   

Ironically, as still photographers have been forced to become a deal more circumspect, television reportage and “reality” programs intrude into the lives of people as never before. Practices that would cause outrage if perpetrated by a still photographer are openly tolerated, even invited, if carried out by the television camera. It is a question of media power, and, it would seem, of perception. Television subjects fondly imagine that because the medium allows them to “speak,” that they have a degree of control, that they have a voice. Still photography is “mute,” therefore its subjects by definition are mute.

In the work of Susan Lipper voice is clearly an issue. The tone in which her images (and videos) address us is all-important, for there is much debate—often ill-considered—as to whether an authentic portrait of a specific culture or self-contained community can be made by an outsider. The question is a thorny one. Current academic debate, reacting against past and present sins by those “colonizing the means of representation,” would contend that only those born into a culture or community can truly know it, and therefore only the self-portrait is viably authentic.

Yet clearly, like all questions relating to imagistic representation, much depends upon point of view. The insider’s view is likely to stress the culture’s positive aspects, but is that any more authentic than the possibly critical view of the dispassionate outsider? Equally, does the so-called objective stance of the scientific, sociological reporter automatically predetermine a more truthful result than the perhaps more intuitive, psychologically tuned one of the expressively inclined photographer? Truths are relative and highly contingent, and in the long run, any answer depends upon individuals, upon indefinable mixtures of such qualities as sensibility, talent, perspicacity, insight, and even chance.

Rather than bracket Lipper in the sociodocumentary genre, Val Williams was more perceptive when she included some of Lipper’s work in the exhibition she curated at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1994, Who’s Looking at the Family?4 This exhibition identified a persistent trend in late twentieth-century photography, where, as a result both of serious questions regarding the medium’s ethics and sociocultural factors, many photographers have chosen to retreat inward, to photograph only those communities they know, and are part of—where any charge of misrepresentation or intrusion is either invalid or unlikely. In recent years, the smallest, closest to hand, and most intimate community of all has become a fruitful area of enquiry for photographers. The family would seem refreshingly free of the ethical difficulties facing photographers delving into the world outside, especially if that world is of a different social class or culture. In representing one’s nearest and dearest, after all, one is representing oneself.

But even here, the ethical thorns remain to snare the unwary or uncaring. Sally Mann, whose sensitive, sensuous images of her children acting out fantasy games are among the most remarked upon of her generation, has been called everything from a bad mother to a child abuser. Critics have failed to realize what might seem obvious to the photographically sophisticated: Mann’s often pessimistic imagery is not a record of her children’s lives, but a fiction, a game even. As the photographer herself put it, “many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen—a wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes.”5 Their ultimate purpose, however, is neither lighthearted nor playful.

In her book Immediate Family (1992), Mann wrote: “When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths ‘told slant,’ just as Emily Dickinson commanded. We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty. But we tell it all without fear and without shame.”6

Well said, but clearly it would seem that photographing from the inside rather than the outside is no guarantee against exploitation. Neither it is a guarantee against bad pictures nor fair and honest representation. Insiders have no monopoly on either artistic talent or good intention. The currently fashionable genre of the participative documentary, as it is known, has its dangers. For example, one of those included by Val Williams in Who’s Looking at the Family? was Richard Billingham. The work shown was his series, Ray’s a Laugh, which pictures his own family, notably his unemployed, alcoholic father. Billingham has taken pains to stress the collaborative, participatory nature of his inside view, using it rather as a deflective shield against potential criticism, although he is unrepentant about the work’s scabrous qualities. Would-be moralists and guardians of photographic ethics, shocked by his unblinking view of lives circumscribed by too little money and too much booze, were given the finger, left to take it or leave it.

Susan Lipper’s position is more ambiguous. She is an outsider by virtue of her class, but certainly an insider in terms of her psychological involvement with the people of Grapevine. In purely photographic terms, she sits comfortably within a tradition that encompasses such distinguished predecessors as Walker Evans and Paul Strand, and contemporaries like Mark Steinmetz, but also embraces some of the unapologetic fervor of Billingham, or in the United States, Nan Goldin and Jim Goldberg. She has spent considerable time, indeed still spends considerable time with her adopted community, and has become as much a part of it as any outsider with a camera possibly could. Lipper first visited Grapevine in 1988, and has returned on extended trips at least two or three times, sometimes five or six times a year since. That, at the time of writing, is just over two decades of her life.                 

So, what was a cosmopolitan Manhattanite doing in a place like Grapevine Hollow? It is so small that “if you didn’t know it was a hollow you would think it was someone’s driveway,” as one local put it. The few trailers and mobile homes that make up the community are smack in the middle of a part of the United States badly hit by the decline of the coal industry, where alternative industries include the long-established one of distilling moonshine, and the newer agrarian initiative of cultivating marijuana.Lipper found the community while on a cross-country trip. Something registered with her—certainly not simply an instinct that here were “good” pictures, because if that was the primary motive, her pictures wouldn’t be as good as they are—and she stayed, and has continued to return. It’s an obsession, and the best photographs come from obsessive photographers.

Her personal commitment to the community not just as subjects, but as people and as friends, would seem to be unquestionable, yet she is quick to echo the words of Richard Avedon: “My photographs are works of fiction. Any truth you see is my truth.”7 She is not saying, however, that her imagery is artificial, dishonest, or unauthentic. She is merely declaring candidly that she is not making a simple social document. She is making portraits not just of her subjects’ lives but also her own. “This series of pictures is my journal,”8 she says of the Grapevine project. Thus her imagery should be regarded as a deal more subjective, more ambiguous certainly, and probably more involving—records of experience, a portrait of her psychic interaction with the place and the individuals portrayed. Adopting a literary analogy, we might say that Lipper’s Grapevine series is the equivalent of a Bruce Chatwin essay—redolent with all the poetry and intensity that implies—rather than an anthropologist’s field report. We might say that Lipper is a spinner of ominous rural tales in the manner of West Virginian writer, Pinckney Benedict, or casting further afield on the North American continent, of small town family psychodramas in the manner of Raymond Carver or Alice Munro.

“I began photographing in Grapevine because it was as far removed from the life I knew in New York City as it was possible to be,” Lipper says,9 which might seem somewhat disingenuous, but is actually revealing. Many artists, after all, cannot reason logically about the drive that moves them, about the instincts that compel them to their subject matter—even if they rationalize prior to, or more likely, after the event. Such rationalizations, while useful, tell only part of the truth, and artistic creation as any artist knows, often owes much to serendipity. In effect, Lipper’s explanation might raise the specter of nostalgie de la boue, perhaps amplified by her square, somewhat confrontational prints and a passing resemblance, both in her own social background and artistic concerns, to Diane Arbus. The profound results of her not inconsiderable endeavors, and the evident depth and seriousness of her commitment to the project belie such a cheap shot on the part of such critics, who also accused Arbus of exploiting subjects out of her realm.

We might look at the work itself for further clues. It is blindingly obvious yet clearly pertinent that metropolitan New York, considered as a community of souls, is vastly different from Grapevine Hollow, a string of isolated houses and mobile homes that barely registers as a blip on the map. Grapevine is a tightly knit community, if we define community as an agglomeration of interactive, interdependent human beings living in close proximity. Some might say that community hardly exists in social shifting Manhattan, at least not in the traditional sense of families settling a place and putting down roots over generations. And community, as we shall see, certainly is one of the book’s primary themes.

Another leitmotif, closely related to community, is family. Grapevine Hollow is a typical small rural settlement, an isolated cluster of single or multigenerational family units, most of them interrelated. Indeed, given the inevitable nature of human relationships in such an enclave (popular myths about the Appalachians notwithstanding), the whole community may reasonably be described as an extended family—an extended family Lipper was privileged to join. That in itself was no mean feat on the photographer’s part, because prurient preconceptions aside, this is a depressed, economically disadvantaged area, where long-term unemployment and its attendant deprivations are endemic, and where folks do not take kindly to strangers—any strangers, far less a lone, middle class, New York woman.

Human relationships, therefore, lie at the core of Susan Lipper’s work. She was drawn to Grapevine because of its people, perhaps driven by a desire to know this extended family, to become a part of it. Yet we should not indulge in too much idle psychological speculation. The impulses driving the project were undoubtedly complex and highly personal, a combination of the artistic, the social, and the psychological, perhaps more psychological than social or artistic on Lipper’s own admission, but then the compulsion to create art is so often driven by the psyche as much as the intellect. All we can say is that to overstress the personal at the expense of other, more considered and cerebral motives, is to misrepresent the vitality and complexity of Lipper’s view.

Any photography that relates solely to the photographer’s internal life, without reference to the external world, is likely to lack depth, as is work that is merely bland record, containing little or nothing of the photographer. Lipper does not fall into either trap, her view is a fully rounded and eminently complex one. Some of the images in Grapevine surely emanate from Lipper’s intellectual perceptions, some straight from her guts. The majority probably strike an ineffable balance between the two psychic states. Taking photographs on the wing is inevitably a spontaneous, intuitive activity (particularly if sharing a six-pack with the sitters). The more considered, unemotional, intellectually rigorous part of the process occurs later in editing, when images are tested in relation to each other, and potential meaning—the meaning of the book—slowly emerges. And that meaning, hopefully, is drawn from outside itself. It becomes, in a word, social—that is, in the sense that it has the capacity to engage the reader, both emotionally and intellectually.

By virtue of the personal and artistic risks she took, and by reason of the book’s intelligent and cogent editing, that certainly can be said of Lipper’s imagery, fully repudiating any charges of infiltration, colonization, and exploitation. The results confirm her motives, about which we might say the same as Robert Adams said of Paul Strand: “Photographs as exceptional as Strand’s originate, I think, in personal need, in an urgency to find out what the artist has to have to be at peace (the mediocrity of much assigned work results from the lack of this compulsion). The necessity builds, sometimes from wholly private, individual factors, but often from the way these relate to the social context, until the artist is forced to take the risk of making something untried.”10

The themes and motives in an extended photographic work as ambitious as Grapevine reveal themselves slowly. Groups of sequential images pick up the threads of argument and weave them together, as in a musical score, relaying them back and forth, amplifying, underlining, counterpointing them, adding variations, until the whole work sounds them all together. The musical analogy seems more apt than a literary one, for a photographic “text” is rarely as concrete as a text constructed with words. It tends to be a mood piece, a little fuzzy around the edges, open to interpretation in a way the precision of words (in theory) should not countenance. If a writer states that something is bad, then it is bad, no arguments. Of course, writing has its ambiguities and subtexts, but it is difficult to be as unequivocal in photography. Clear, unambiguous narrative is not one of photography’s strengths. As Bertolt Brecht once famously remarked, a photograph of the exterior of the Krupp factory says little or nothing of the detailed nature of the institution within. To do so without the crutch of textual captions, the photographer must employ suggestion, metaphor, and allusion, in the form of carefully sequenced groups of images.

Consider the first image of the first six or seven in Grapevine. This opening sets the tone of the book and introduces the themes before development and recapitulation. The first picture, which also is featured on the front cover, can be considered a primary scene setter, the chief establishing shot. It shows a standard frame house, fronted with the rural staples of station wagon and pickup truck, set against the densely timbered hillside that confirms Grapevine’s location in one of those narrow, wooded valleys that snake through the Appalachians. Also in front of the house is a basketball hoop and backboard on a bent metal stand, confirming the nicely all-American nature of the scene. It’s a scene setter, but much more than a scene setter, for the emotional temperature of this distinctly ordinary, ubiquitous tableau is raised considerably by another detail, not uncommon, also all-American, but perhaps defining a slightly darker side to the American dream than the peaches and apple pie cheer of a neat house and healthy slam-dunk exercise. Hanging from the hoop’s strut is a dead deer, strung up in a casually brutal, ostentatious way that might remind us of a different rural order, perhaps that “pastoral scene of the gallant South,” written about by Langston Hughes, and sung about so devastatingly by Billie Holiday.11 If located elsewhere in the book, such an image might not have quite the same resonance, but picture number one and the front cover? The suggestion, although not absolute, seems clear enough.

The emotional charge generated by this image is lowered over the next two, which could also be said to be scene setting, and feature more cars, a mobile home, a horse, and another American icon, a poster of Elvis. Then the fourth picture introduces us to the first inhabitant of Grapevine, someone certainly attempting the surly swagger of the young Presley without quite pulling it off.

He is a bearded, narrow-eyed young man, dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, grimy T-shirt, and jeans. He stands with folded arms, legs slightly apart, eyes hooded—a posture that is part defensive, part confrontational. To emphasize his guarded body language, in his left hand—pointing away from the photographer, but glinting ominously—is a nickel plated handgun. It’s a classic wannabe teenage gang pose, seen on Facebook sites worldwide. In the background, below the wooded slopes, are a number of vehicles, including two ambulances.

We move quickly from this image of bristling aggression and suspicion, where we are clearly outsiders, to one of extreme intimacy. Susan Lipper takes us right into a bedroom, where a young woman, wrapped in a bath towel, is making up in front of a dressing table mirror. She seems in an upbeat mood, and the ominous tone of the first few images is dispelled, although we should note in passing that while we might expect to see a reflection of her face, it is obscured by a “twelve pack” label, stuck to the mirror’s surface.

The unsettling note, however, returns in the next picture. On a chair sits what is presumably a young baby, its face disturbingly blurred by a time exposure, so we are unsure whether we are looking at a real human being, a distorted rubber doll, a wrinkled fetus, or maybe a weird Ralph Eugene Meatyard–type scenario.

Now thoroughly rattled, we stay with the child theme for the next image. A half-naked boy struggles playfully in the arms of a woman who is presumably his mother. The mood is light-hearted, although once more it cannot escape us that the boy is waving the typical toy, it would seem, of boisterous young males everywhere—a large plastic dagger.

These opening half dozen or so pictures then, set the agenda for the book and its interrelated themes. There are images of calm normality, but Lipper always disrupts these with one or two of outright menace. Community, family, and gender relationships seem to be at the core of her investigations. They are at the heart of work by many photographers who deal directly with life, but are aired with a particular sharpness here. In a small place like Grapevine, isolation and hardship are potent forces, to which we might also add issues of fundamentalist Christianity and (to an extent) racism. All contribute to the various motifs Lipper mixes into her shifting, subtle, yet highly elliptical narrative.

There is, of course, also violence. Guns appear regularly, often joined in the same image by alcohol or drugs, and this—as seen the world over—is a potentially lethal combination. In dealing with the family, Lipper is also dealing with gender relationships, both within and without the home and hearth. She is dealing with animosity, even hate, as well as love. The males of Grapevine were one of the first aspects of the place to catch her attention. “I was both attracted and repelled by howmacho the men were,” she says. “Or rather how different theirmachowas from the men I knew in New York City.”12

It’s a rural macho, perhaps different from the macho of the city, or at least the macho in Lipper’s peer group. Life is slower in the country, but the gender divide is more differentiated, although implicit in her imagery is the fact that boys will always be boys. They will still play their games together, the games that men everywhere play, games based upon competition and aggression, even if just horsing around. Men hunt, whether in the woods of Grapevine or on Wall Street, while the women—wherever traditional “values” pertain—keep house and raise the kids. When the men and women get together, and drink together—that’s when things get a little dangerous, and violence as well as sex and courtship is in the air.

As well as Susan Lipper’s search—for another “family,” or another self, whatever it might be—a basic theme of Grapevine, I would suggest, is claustrophobia, the effect of barriers and fences, both material and psychological, which press in upon us, shaping our lives and circumscribing our ambitions. Enclosures, and the desperate measures taken to break free of them, is surely a primary leitmotif, from the wooded walls of the valley itself, to the four walls of domesticity that enclose women saddled with kids at an early age, to the ring fence of boredom around the men, most of them without regular work, to the tight, enclosed society created by geographical isolation. And yet, as Lipper points out,13 the isolation and claustrophobia cut both ways. What some might rather melodramatically see as a grave, could also be seen as a womb. In their isolation, and enforced indolence, the inhabitants of Grapevine might feel safe and protected, free from real responsibilities, except within their own world.

Rural life might present its inhabitants with grand horizons in a physical sense, but in depressed areas, be tightly circumscribed in a psychological and emotional sense. Lack of work, even if nine to fivers think that an ideal lifestyle, inevitably leads to terminal boredom. Throw in a third factor—lack of education—and the social implications of Lipper’s work, resonating far beyond Grapevine itself, can be readily seen.

So Lipper’s pictures cut both ways. She can be objective—in her outsider mode, we can say—and ruthlessly delineate these social facts. But when in her subjective—that is, her insider mode—she is as tender and sympathetic as any photographer who photographed such subject matter. Of course, there is no hard and fast dividing line between each mode, and these apparently contradictory feelings can appear in the same picture, or at least within each small sequence of pictures. Lipper is a complex artist, and appreciation of her work has been hindered by the fact that both her books were published first in England (neither her fault nor the publisher’s) where some reviewers were quick to label them as either Southern Gothic or social documentary, or both. And they are far from that.

Let’s now return to Lipper’s more personal search, by looking briefly at her book trip. As the title might suggest, trip is a book of road photographs, and represents another aspect of Lipper’s search for subject. One could say that it is almost a rite of passage for an American photographer to cross the country, possibly in search of America, possibly in search of the self. But Susan Lipper had apparently found her America and her self in Grapevine, so what was she looking for in trip?

Well, different aspects, I guess, of the same thing, is the immediate answer: a different body of work, a different approach. The trip photographs, at least to an American if not to me, were unmistakably taken in the South. Although I don’t think they are directly about the South. I think pictures similar in feel could have been taken in other parts of America, except that Lipper drives south from New York City to Grapevine, so driving south comes naturally to her.

The trip images are not Grapevine. It’s important they aren’t Grapevine, and yet they are related to Grapevine, though not directly. She herself sees the Grapevine work, taken over years, as an insider’s view—inside looking out, while the trip imagery, taken on brief stopovers, is the outsider’s view—outside looking in.

Typically, the trip pictures are fragments snatched along the journey, enigmatic glimpses of urban landscapes and interiors. The book has been described as nonnarrative, yet as Matthew Drutt has written, “though neither travelogue nor visual diary, this series of photographs has a journal-like structure.”14 Certainly, the narrative is highly elliptical, but there are definite relationships between the pictures—it wouldn’t be as good a book if there weren’t.

Two things crop up frequently, firstly signs and signage, and secondly, photographs themselves. This leads me to speculate—possibly a little wildly—that maybe Lipper is searching for her photographic roots here, in the shape of Walker Evans, a big influence upon photography at Yale. A further reason for this reading is the fact that trip is a particular kind of text and photographs collaboration. Susan Lipper worked with writer Frederick Barthelme, who provided texts that are not captions, but which work with the images, rather in the manner of random, subconscious association. Another book that had an abstruse, although rather different relationship between words and photographs was Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Whatever the substance or not in that speculation, trip is one of the great road photobooks, certainly one of the best in recent years, and a persuasive counterpoint to Grapevine.

Lipper’s recent work in Grapevine—that which I have seen at least—is very different from that published in the book, consisting in the main of a group of landscapes made in and around the woods, and a number of short video films that generally feature residents. The work, however, retains the quality that nearly everyone mentions in connection with her, that is, ominous. But if the landscapes are ominous, and if they focus often upon tiny pieces of landscapes in a way that could also be described as forensic, paradoxically, they also have a strange expansiveness. And these dual, rather conflicting qualities can also be applied to the videos, which can be regarded, to use a term of Paul Graham’s, as “filmic haikus.”

The new landscapes and videos, in fact, seem to be saying that, finally, Susan Lipper is thoroughly at home in Grapevine. Although one must remember that even if home is where the heart is, it still remains a place where one has to remain watchful and on one’s guard. Any family member knows that.

It will be interesting to see how this new work will pan out, and what will follow it, for it seems clear that Lipper is not yet done with Grapevine Hollow. This essay is only an interim report.

Susan Lipper might have slipped a little under the radar in terms of recent American photography, but the quality of her work will hopefully bring her more recognition. She is a particularly intelligent photographer, her work an especially intriguing blend of the modernist with the postmodern, the objective with the subjective, and the outsider with the insider. She deals with many of the issues that concern contemporary photographic art, especially revolving around the relationship of the self to the “other,” but does it in a uniquely personal and highly original way.

First appeared in: Gerry Badger, The Pleasures of Good Photographs, New York: Aperture, 2010.


1. Walker Evans, “On Photographic Quality,” from Quality: Its Image in the Arts (New York: Balance House, 1969), p. 170.

2. Susan Lipper, Grapevine (Manchester, England: Cornerhouse Publications, 1994).

3. Susan Lipper, trip (Stockport, England: Dewi Lewis Publishing Ltd., 2000).

4. Val Williams, Who’s Looking at the Family? (London: Barbican Art Gallery, 1994).

5. Sally Mann, Immediate Family (New York: Aperture, 1992), unpaginated.

6. Ibid.

7. Richard Avedon, quoted in the Evening Standard (London), January 19, 1993.

8. Susan Lipper, telephone conversation with the author, July 22, 2009.

9. Ibid.

10. Robert Adams, “Strand’s Love of Country: A Personal Interpretation,” in Maren Stange, ed.,
Paul Strand: Essays on His Life and Work
(New York: Aperture, 1990), p. 240.

11. Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (written by Lewis Allan, 1939, recorded Commodore Records,
New York City, April 20, 1939). Based on the poem by Langston Hughes, the song “Strange
Fruit” also concerns lynching.

12. Lipper, telephone conversation with the author, July 22, 2009.

13. Ibid.

14. Matthew Drutt, afterword to Susan Lipper, trip (Stockport, England: Dewi Lewis Publishing Ltd., 2000)., unpaginated.


Gerry Badger
is a photographer, curator and critic based in London.  Among his books are Collecting Photography and The Genius of Photography. With Martin Parr, Badger wrote The Photobook: A History (2 volumes, 2004 and 2006), winner of the Kraszna Krausz Prize in 2007. His book of essays, The Pleasure of Good Photographs (2010), won the 2011 ICP Infinity Award.