Life in the Fast Lane
By Susan B. Markisz

There was a time in my life not so long ago, that I was known simply as “mom,” although I confess that on some level, I yearned to be known as something more than that.

I am a late bloomer to photography. In 1990 I was part of a group of 21 artists who founded a cooperative art gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, called Upstream Gallery, the first of its kind in Westchester County. While not always cooperative (it took us months to decide on the name), we shared a commonality of experiences as we searched for our niche in the art world, struggling to define ourselves, as sculptors, painters, photographers, and in a larger sense, as human beings. Some were already well established in their careers but were looking to re-energize, and some were seeking a safety net for new work. Others were emerging-artists bursting with creativity, energy and new ideas. Some of us were parents of young children, looking for a balance between our career goals, our aspirations and expectations, and our own realities. What the gallery did was to provide a nurturing space for us to share ideas with other like-minded artists (and others who lost no time in challenging our direction). It allowed us to work on meaningful projects, to explore new work, and to have the confidence to exhibit it. This is the space that first allowed me to explore, in a very public way, issues that I, and I felt other women were grappling with at the time: motherhood, career, laundry, exhaustion!

It was around this time that I was beginning to discover the importance of photography, and new career issues, in my life. I had finally come to the conclusion in 1987, after three decades of taking pictures with a point and shoot camera and no photographic training, why my pictures weren’t masterpieces. So at the age of 35, with two little kids in in tow, in between my daily routine on the car-pool circuit, ice skating lessons and soccer games, in between my volunteer work as president of the nursery school parents’ group and board member of the local elementary school in charge of fundraising (we raised $60,000 that year! – Now if I could only translate candy sales into photography sales!) and Oh, did I mention meals?…I went back to school to study photography at night.

I had a wonderful teacher named George Tucci---God bless him---who told me I was great and I believed him, although I won’t be doing a show and tell of those first pictures any time soon. I soaked up darkroom courses at Lehman College and lighting courses at ICP in Manhattan and listened to anyone who would teach me. I photographed my neighborhood. I experimented with a small set of Speedotron strobes and my Hasselblad camera and the only medium format lens I have ever been able to afford, shooting portraits of my children and other folks who started to pay me for the privilege of allowing me get my feet wet in photography.

And I spent hundreds of hours more printing pictures late into the night, as the wonderfully malodorous eau-de-hypo wafted through that darkroom and my psyche, determined to be the next Cartier-Bresson or Margaret Bourke White. In 1988, I submitted a feature picture to my local soon-to-be-Pulitzer prize winning local newspaper, The Riverdale Press, which published it. They soon hired me and I was on my way to being a newspaper photographer.

Having just discovered my “niche” so to speak, not a year later, at the age of 36, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly after my diagnosis, I began to work on a series of self-portraits to document the emotional ramifications of the disease. Feeling the surge of adrenaline, I set out to show the world that “Hey look at me, I beat the disease and there’s a world full of beauty beyond breast cancer.” When I printed the pictures, it was like seeing myself for the first time. I didn’t see the “world full of beauty” part, only something very real which had changed my world, and lots of anger. I didn’t believe that I was angry and I tossed those first pictures aside disparagingly, determined to come up with something more truthful, and, dare I say, more beautiful. (Let me say here that in my personal experience, pictures never lie!). In 1991 I took a picture that I called “The Road Back,” which was in many ways pivotal for me, evolving into a small body of autobiographical work and photographs of other women who were confronting breast cancer, like myself. It was a painful but creative time.

The men and women of Upstream Gallery provided a comfort zone for me to explore issues of mortality, motherhood and career and it is there, that for the first time I discovered that my work had some sort of power to move people. “The Road Back” was first published in the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine, in conjunction with the 1992 Women in Photojournalism Conference at the Rhode Island School of Design and ultimately made its way to several museums, and to Congress in 1993 along with some of my writing and other advocacy work, although “The Road Back” was censored in the House of Representatives due to “unsuitability for viewing by the general public.” (Go figure!). Although my breast cancer advocacy work has been published and exhibited nationally and internationally, it is much less about the photography and more about the connections with other women facing similar situations.

What I soon discovered, however, was that the issues of career and motherhood were almost as profound, even troubling for me as the subject of breast cancer had been. In 1992, a fellow Upstream member and photographer and I worked on a project and curated an exhibit that we called “Family Album” in which we explored some of the choices we were making, and the uneasiness of some of those choices. We questioned the perceptions that society has (or at least had) that if you didn’t have a career outside the home, somehow your value to society was proportionate to how much you were being paid (which as a full time mother was zero). Come to think of it, it’s not unlike photojournalism! As young mothers, we were working full time raising our children, active in our communities, connected to other women through our children, women who often became lifelong friends. Yet we felt that there was a certain disconnect with women who worked full time out of the home, and among women in general and society, which we wanted to explore in greater depth.

Working for The Riverdale Press as a staff photographer, more than once I had a child in tow with me, on assignment. While the pay was low, it offered me a greater connection to my community, a great deal of flexibility, allowing me to stay home with the kids and even shoot some of their little league games for dough! I had as much film as I could shoot, the keys to the newsroom, the use of their darkroom day and night, and the ability to shoot and write stories for the newspaper which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for editorial writing. Soon they sat me in front of a computer and we taught each other Photoshop. However, as I branched out into other kinds of work and began freelancing for the New York Times, the UN, UNICEF and other organizations, I realized that the theoretical choices that I had left behind at Upstream Gallery, were very real and I had to start making them.

I loved walking out the door for a late afternoon assignment, just as I would have to be making some decisions as to what I was going to feed my family. I used to love to cook. But 365 days a year times 3 meals a day times 4 people and cooking began to feel like a prison sentence. I discovered that photography was just the excuse I had been looking for to get out of cooking. I loved hearing that pager. Bye Bob! Bye kids…Don’t wait up!

Lucky for me, my husband is self-employed (he’s an architect, but you never hear him bragging about it, it’s a lot like photojournalism, similarly underpaid but without the photo credit). He was often nearby to pick up the kids and take them to the dentist, or help them with their homework, and more importantly, to make dinner. He was understanding. He was supportive. He was proud. And he could make spaghetti. We called him the “Spaghetti King.” And there is no way on God’s green earth, that I could have done what I have been doing the last decade without his unconditional support. I on the other hand, was out spreading myself so thin at times that I didn’t know which way was up. Still trying to find my niche in photojournalism, still trying to figure out what kind of photographer I wanted to be, and worried that I was missing the proverbial photography boat, I was missing some of my kids’ parent teacher conferences.

I discovered a couple of things along the way: I love to write and I really love shooting in my immediate backyard, which of course is something like 10 million people. The work that I’ve been doing has more to do with my connection to the world than any grand design for me to fill Cartier-Bresson’s shoes. Writing is as fulfilling as photography and multimedia has allowed me the
ability to pursue other avenues and develop other, dare I say, talents, that may have remained undiscovered.

Motherhood, like photography, is precarious balance of the mundane and the magnificent. Although I wear more hats than Bella Abzug, it has always been difficult for me to wear more than one at the same time, and there have been times when I have had to take a step back from the frazzled world of freelance photography and just be a mom, make a pot roast, go out to lunch with a friend, and smell the roses. The opportunities that one has are limited only by one's choices --- and sometimes the compromises, one is
willing to make. Being a journalist and mother is not life in the fast lane; it's just, well… life.

.© 2002 Susan B. Markisz


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