In the Studio with Suzie Howell (2021)

British Journal of Photography Issue 7902, words & images by Alice Zoo

Out on the marshes with photographer Suzie Howell, it’s the kind of piercingly gorgeous winter day that doesn’t come around often in January. I’m watching as she climbs a tree, intense concentration on her face, pushing off from one branch to another with one hand, bunched white silk and a fistful of crocodile clips in the other.   

Howell — who lives and works in London, and shoots commissions for the likes of Toast and the New York Times, having studied photography at Filton College and London College of Communication — shares a studio space with three other artists. “It’s somewhere to edit, or look at prints,” Howell tells me later, “but most importantly it’s somewhere I can go to talk to other people. When I don’t quite know how to manage my day, I go there and feel uplifted.”

There’s no room to shoot there, but Howell isn’t really a studio photographer anyway. The Tottenham space is the anchor, somewhere she finds respite from the solitary life of the freelancer, but the bulk of her work takes place outside; her practice is deeply informed by the natural world, and exploring it on foot. “When I’m feeling a bit lost, or not knowing what I’m doing with photography or something else in my life, I go walking,” she tells me; and so we find ourselves striding out onto Walthamstow Marshes and fixing up a studio in the open air, as Howell often does.

The forward motion of walking, its open-ended sense of possibility, lends itself to an experimental artistic temperament. Howell recalls that this experimentalism was restrained early on by fears about its flimsiness, or her difficulty in explaining it. “I used to be quite reserved, and worried about what work I was making, that I had to fit into some kind of category, ” she says. “I often stopped myself from shooting because I thought ‘oh no, that’s too weird…’” It was a conditioning left over from university, where deep project research and careful justification for every creative decision was emphasised. “I was shooting things [and] desperately trying to find meaning to them,” she remembers. “I’ve let go of that now.”

She resolved to simply begin: to photograph the things she was interested in, even if she didn’t yet know why. She walked, and photographed, collecting objects, moving pieces of the landscape around her, waiting until she’d developed her film and printed it to form an impression. Her work is a practice in the truest sense of the word, a coming-to-know, as opposed to a means of expressing a foregone conclusion. Some of the experiments go nowhere, and others resonate, expressing something she hadn’t been able to articulate at the time. “A lot of my marshes work came about like that,” she says. “I was photographing weird stuff I’d found, and I couldn’t quite work out why.” This years-long project became Inside the Spider, a charged exploration of form and vulnerability in which she worked with collaborators and found materials to reflect on her experiences exploring the wetlands and wandering off their paths.

Her interest in form also shapes her work with found objects: pieces of scrap metal, an old tarp, some plums that she found in the street and kept in her freezer until the day she took them out and taped them to a window. Her interaction with “these accidental, forgotten things” is marked by a charming, anthropomorphic tenderness towards them. “It’s a bit sad when you find some of these things sometimes. Why’s this been forgotten about? I want to pick it up and turn it into something that’ll be remembered,” she says. “Like: you are worth something, weird little thing.” Amongst the bare trees of today’s temporary studio, she disappears for a moment while I photograph the silk she’s clipped between the branches, and she returns with a twisted old log that she refers to thereafter as “he”, “him”, and “this guy”. She strings him up in blue twine and photographs him hanging against the silk. Looking through my lens at the wood against the backdrop Howell’s made, I know exactly what she means: I can see him, too.

Most of all, Howell is trying to communicate sensation. She tells me that she struggles to express herself in words, and can be overwhelmed when confronted with (for example) a dramatic vista, not knowing how to capture it; her eyes are drawn, instead, to the rusted nail lying at her feet. A still life could stand in for the feeling of overwhelm, then, or perhaps kinship with an object that isn’t easily explained in words — I think of the plums in her freezer, “these perfectly formed bits of brightness.” “It’s not something you can control, what people feel or see when they look at your work, but that’s fine,” she says. “I want people to project themselves onto my work, to read their own emotions into [it], because I can only communicate how I feel.”

There’s a sense of the provisional in Howell’s constructions that reflects her mixed-media sensibility. Much of her present research is centred around poetry, theatre, and painting. “I feel like there’s this freedom within the painting world,” she says. “It has this way of asking about the nature of being. You’re able to ask questions.” It’s this kind of openness and experimentalism that Howell cultivates in her work. And, of course, there’s sculpture. “I’m interested in sculpture and still life in the same way that I’m interested in the body,” she says. “They both can represent something bigger than what they are.”

Given these influences, it comes as little surprise that Howell prints all her work herself, and shoots on film. She makes plentiful use of the kinds of “magical” accidents and contingency that are inherent in analogue processes: light leaks, under- or overexposure, water stains; the fact you don’t know how an image will look until much later. You’re dictated to, she says; fiddling with colours and tones until, suddenly, an image reveals itself to you in a way that you hadn’t quite imagined. And, as with painting and sculpture, there’s a forced slowness and consideration, a physical involvement that digital processes can’t quite access, not to mention something more ineffable that inheres in its visual quality. “There’s something in the velvet soft shadows in film that I find really moving,” she says. She doesn’t see her chosen processes as necessarily superior, though; it’s rather that these were the tools she learned with, and this is her vocabulary. “My reason for taking photos resonates a lot with the same reason a lot of painters and sculptors work, who are not trying to capture a perfect reality of what they’re seeing, but rather what they’re feeling,” she continues. “I can only really capture a version of reality, anyway.”

Howell’s newest project speaks to a reality that has become very familiar over the past year. With a working title of Distance — in place since well before the pandemic — it explores “that common, unsettling feeling of always striving to be somewhere other than where you are…of being lost, and longing for something, somewhere else.” She’s making new pictures for the project, and she’s back in the dark room, printing, reworking old ones too.

It all hangs together, like an old log in the light: the provisional quality of her photographs, their alternating boldness and tentativeness, the decision to make without an endpoint in sight, to forge ahead and follow intuition. Hence the experiments; hence the walking; the blue twine in the backpack, the feet that carry on stepping across the wet winter ground. “I’m trying to fix a feeling of being lost by getting lost, in a way,” she says. “You just keep going, keep going.”