Susan Worsham

Susan Worsham (b. 1969, Richmond, Virginia)

Susan Worsham grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where she enjoyed childhood field trips to sites ranging from cigarette factories to Civil War battlegrounds. Worsham continues to live and work in Richmond, where she creates art that is both imaginative and deeply personal. Her work is found in collections that include the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and The Do Good Fund, Columbus, Georgia. In 2015 Worsham received both a Lensculture Emerging Talent Award and a Lensculture Portrait Award, and she was nominated for the 2016 Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer, one of the largest national awards among the grants and fellowships available in photography.

The majority of Worsham’s photographs featured in Southbound are drawn from her Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane series, made by the artist as she reflected on, and came to terms with, her brother’s suicide in the family home. Much of the project is guided by Worsham’s interactions and conversations with her elderly neighbor, Margaret Daniel. Over time, Daniel became Worsham’s true subject, as she recounted stories of Worsham’s family, and her memories became comingled with Worsham’s own. In seeking to make a project about death, Worsham instead stumbled onto a project about healing.

Many images in Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane, in which children of Worsham’s friends act as stand-ins for the photographer and her brother, are metaphorical visual poems, with references to death and renewal captured in vivid color and through Worsham’s dreamy use of light. In Georgia, the Day after the Family Dog Died (2013), Georgia as Susan is framed through an open car door. Her strikingly colorful pink hat and blue-sleeved coat draw the viewer’s eye to her small, defiant face. In her posture and gaze we read signs of weariness and conflict. This child’s next moves are unpredictable, and we wait expectant, as she holds back tears or screams.

The second series included in Southbound, By the Grace of God, likewise revisits Worsham’s childhood experiences. In this body of work, she seeks out faces and spaces that elicit the intimacy of the South that she knew as a child. Marine, Hotel near Airport, Richmond, Virginia (2009) is a portrait of a young African American Marine about to ship out from Richmond. His austere military uniform and sober expression clash with the room’s sterile atmosphere. Worsham’s framing of the man in front of an electric teal wall, in the very center of the composition, push him and his impending deployment outward toward us. We see his youth and vulnerability, and we fear for him after he leaves the safety of that bright room. The bed, slightly tousled and surely not the most comfortable, may well be the last real bed this serviceman sleeps in for some time, perhaps, it dawns on us, forever.

Because she is skilled at capturing scenes that don’t just show us subjects but also reveal them to us, Worsham’s photographs enable the viewer to deduce the entire life of a subject collapsed into a single still moment. A portrait of a young girl, presumably the titular Destiny, Virginia (2010), stands in an overgrown yard. The mint green of her shirt and the pink of the blanket behind her head both serve to attract attention to her face, which is calm and devoid of readable emotion. A young boy, perhaps her brother, meets our gaze from the rusting swing set behind her. Destiny, in this reading, is a child charged with the care of a child. There is no room for her on the swing set, physically or emotionally.

Drawing from her own life experiences, Worsham makes photographs that examine the all-consuming human experiences of grief and hope. Her work is laced with metaphor and pulses with life in its Technicolor palette. The dichotomies of youth and age and life and death are all explored through Worsham’s masterful eye for composition and storytelling.

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