Q+Art: Artist Tiffany Sutton Captures ‘Black Body Radiation’ in Her Long Exposure Photographs
Photographer Tiffany Sutton began snapping photos of family and friends after being gifted a Kodak camera one Christmas in her early teens. Primarily self-taught, Sutton now works exclusively with Black women as a way to reconnect with herself and explore social issues that directly impact Black lives. In her Black Body Radiation series, Sutton photographs Black women in mundane, intimate settings, creating a narrative that’s been largely ignored by mainstream media.
Though their surroundings are mundane, the women in Sutton’s photographs are anything but. The artist uses a special photographic technique that lets her capture several exposures on one negative, which gives her subjects an airy, barely-there appearance. The radiating, transparent body parts are a product of arrested motion, but they also serve to cloud a uniform perspective. “The barely-there bodies in domestic spaces, and seeing multiple facial and body expressions of the sitter, emphasizes the complexity of each woman,” writes Sutton in her artist statement.
Sutton’s narrative-based photographs place Black women and their experiences, however trivial, front and center: “I am determined to catch every moment in the subjects’ life,” she writes, often traveling to on-site locations where she captures women in their bedrooms or backyards. In abstracting her portraits, Sutton encourages us to look closely at multiple meanings, our dual perceptions, and the infinite possibilities contained inside one person.
Drawing on Black feminist thought, the photographer captures her subjects in a state of natural grace that exudes an easiness of spirit and a comforting intimacy. In doing so, Sutton creates a safe space for her subjects to express themselves as the protagonists of their own lives, rather than a side character in someone else’s story.
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In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Tiffany Sutton discusses her favorite literature from Black writers, the Black body in Western art, and the work involved in her Black Body Radiation series.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Tiffany Sutton: I’m a huge fan of literature written by Black writers. Currently, I'm reading Beloved by Toni Morrison, and I’m looking forward to reading Sula and The Bluest Eyes also by Morrison. Each of these novels feature a Black woman at its center. Each woman is different from me, yet we have common experiences and hopes, and that informs how I capture portraits of Black women.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
TS: Richard Avedon and James Baldwin, because they created a book, Nothing Personal. I’d talk to them about how they came together to make this work of art and if it changed the way they looked at each other, if it changed how they make work and finally how they see America.
What are you trying to express with your art?
TS: The first Black woman I saw in a painting was Manet’s “Olympia,” and she was a servant. It seems that any Black character, man or woman, in art was an anthropical study, or subjects were ignored and seen as not important or have a meaningful impact. Like so many Black artists, I wanted to change the idea of the Black body in art.
In my current work, multiple exposures speak to the complexities of Black women in society. What I am attempting to communicate is the same meaning a Black woman attempts to communicate with fashion, hair and nails—we are ourselves, not what is projected on us by society. Using multiples, the viewer is challenged to look more deeply. In exhibitions, there are single exposure images in which the viewer's eye can rest. It is also an opportunity to see the Black body without distraction.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
TS: No. I would show my work for the exposure all of the time early in my career. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I recommend budding artists and photographers charge an amount for the work they provide anyone or a business, even if it's a trade of merchandise. Customers value work they have to pay for, free work is less valued and means you are willing to work for free in the future. I advise new artists to just create work and expand their skills, then advertise those skills on ALL social media platforms.
What person has most influenced your work?
TS: My mom, because she is the first person to show me value in taking a picture of someone. When she took pictures of me, she showed me she loved me in the most inspiring way.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
TS: Becoming a 2020 Harvard Fellow for my work about my mom, and being featured in Buzzfeed for it as well.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
TS: Practice, practice, and practice some more.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
TS: Yes and no. It all depends on how much work you put into your education as an artist. If you don’t excel at school then, the school of hard knocks is a tried and true method; think of Basquiat. However, if you learn more effectively in a school environment and you have the means to go, then an arts education would be beneficial.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
TS: I would change how artists of color are depicted in art history.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
TS: Brittney Spears, but don’t tell anyone. 😉 Also, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, any album, and Janet Jackson’s Control when I want to dance.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
TS: I was an artist that benefited from the pandemic. Not having to work for a year really pushed my arts practice. In fact Black Body Radiation was created during the pandemic. All the subjects were available and we practiced social distancing when we shot indoors. Additionally, because I received several grants, I was able to pay my models a sitting fee, which helped them financially.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
TS: Hopefully, art buyers, galleries, and museums won’t sleep on artists of color any longer.
Tiffany Sutton: Website | Instagram
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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