Vanderbilt University’s Space 204 Gallery | June 5 – July 28
WORDS Karen Parr-Moody
There is a whiff of the Grand Tour in the Italian images taken by Susan Bryant, a professor of art at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Bryant captures the romance of the Grand Tour forays that date to the 1500s, capturing photographs of the very sights that would have inspired those early privileged travelers.
When dapper young aristocrats polished off their formal education via the Grand Tour, they visited such Italian cities as Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa, and Genoa. In 2014, Bryant visited Montepulciano, Venice, Florence, and Rome with her digital camera in tow. Over five centuries, thousands of English gentlemen viewed the splendid ruins and statues that Bryant has captured so brilliantly with her modern-day lens and a 19th-century photographic process called wet-plate collodion process, invented in 1851.
The Grand Tour and Bryant’s antique process intersected around the time that wealthy youths from England spilled into Italy at increasing rates. Bryant photographs her subjects with a digital camera, then creates glass negatives and positives, tintypes and ambrotypes, thus reviving the wonder of early photography. With this combination, Bryant, who has taught photography for the past thirty-four years at APSU, creates images that seem steeped in the centuries, complete with a graininess that infuses them with seeming authenticity.
“It amazes me how much life there seems to be in the stone.”
It is fitting that Bryant captured traditional sightseeing imagery—the Colossus of Constantine, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s sculpture David, Venetian rooftops—from romantic chapters of European travel, for romance is Bryant’s forte. She credits her style to the Hudson River School painters and her “unabashed connection to Romanticism.”
The images from her series Italian Vistas, as well as those from Southern Landscapes, will be on view in the exhibition Borrowed Light at the Space 204 Gallery at Vanderbilt University from June 5 to July 28. The opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on June 8.
Since 1486, when the broken remains of a statue of the Emperor Constantine—the forty-foot-tall Colossus of Constantine—were discovered, they have fascinated viewers with their magnitude. It was Constantine’s gigantic hand that inspired Bryant’s photo Italian Gesture #13. She has been fascinated by hands for years. As she says in her artist’s statement, “I’m interested in how hands have mirrored human emotion and intention throughout the history of art and how such gestures lend themselves to metaphor and are imbued with a powerful presence.”
Constantine’s hand drew Bryant in, naturally. “I’ve always found that Constantine piece so strikingly strong,” Bryant says of the sculpture in Rome. “Whereas with some of the other hands that I photographed, I was drawn to them because they were graceful, this one feels like it’s commanding.”
The photo of Constantine’s hand is just one of many postcard-worthy shots in Italian Vistas. Bryant also captured Michelangelo’s masterpiece in marble, David, by closing in on a heavily veined hand from below after circling the piece for an hour. It is called Italian Gesture #5.
“From that vantage point the hand just seemed so large, but also so graceful,” Bryant says. “It amazes me how much life there seems to be in the stone.”
For Italian Gesture #16, Bryant found a subject that was off the beaten path in a female sarcophagus sculpture located in a Montepulciano church. Again, she focused on the hands.
“They’re just so graceful,” Bryant says. “They don’t necessarily make me think about death; they just have so much grace and peace in them, along with the way the sculptor handled the fabric, and how organic and beautiful that was, as well.”
Beyond capturing emotion and beauty, Bryant is a master of freezing a simple motion, as with her photo entitled Italian Gesture #18, in which a hand reaches just beyond the statue’s hip. “It’s so graphic in that it doesn’t look like a pose that was held for very long,” Bryant says. “It looks like a gesture of the hand that was captured in a split second, which is what one can do with a camera, photograph a gesture that is held for only an instant. But the fact that a sculptor could do that is also amazing to me.”
Another discovery Bryant made in Italy occurred as she watched the legendary sunset from the Piazza Michelangelo in Florence. She transferred her resulting image Sunset, Florence to a tintype that surprised her in its translation.
“It seemed really timeless to me when I looked at it, like it could have been taken in another century,” she says. “There was the atmospheric perspective, the way that the tones recede into space and become lighter and lighter, that reminded me of the Hudson River School paintings that I have always loved. I just didn’t expect it.”
But timelessness is what one can expect from Bryant’s blend of modern and antique technologies. Her gorgeous images are informed by a history of beauty and discovery—and it shows.
Borrowed Light by Susan Bryant is on view June 5 through July 28 at Vanderbilt University’s Space 204 Gallery. A reception is slated for June 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.vanderbilt.edu. Susan Bryant is represented by Cumberland Gallery, www.cumberlandgallery.com. See more of Bryant’s work at www.susanbryantphoto.com.