Susan Sims-Hillbrand began light painting in 1977. She was in a photo class at California State University, Northridge (where she graduated with a BFA in 2-D Art) when her instructor Jerry McMillian assigned the task of creating an unusual self portrait. Susan was throwing around some ideas when her husband suggested “you should try outlining your body with light” that statement sparked the idea of Susan’s first “Penlight” and what would become a lifelong passion. Using a pen with a small light on the end Susan sat in the dark, opened the shutter of her camera and traced her body with the light. Susan says “The outcome was so dynamic I was encouraged to continue on the path and have been doing them ever since.” Throughout Susan’s career she has stayed on the analog path never making the jump to digital. Although her cameras and printing processes have changed over the years, she continues to shoot on film and to this day does her own darkroom developing and printing. In the 70’s Susan focused on her penlights and made photo silkscreens and glass etchings of her images. In the 80’s, while living in NYC, she did a few more penlight photos but started a family and was spending less time with her art. In the 90’s while living in Ohio Susan was commissioned to do some penlights and the spark was reignited. In 2006, in San Francisco Susan learned to color print, from this point on she started doing exclusively color penlights. Susan views her work as a performance and she refers to the end result as Spiritual Landscapes. “They are like a choreographed dance, movie or play on a single frame of film. They tell a story. Still today it fascinates me to know I am in the piece yet you never see me.” Check out some of Susan’s incredible images and read her full light painting photography interview below! For even more images and information check out Susan’s website http://susansimshillbrand.com
Interview conducted by Jason D. Page in 2014
Who is your favorite Light Painting Artist?
Until recently I was not aware there are others who refer to themselves as Light Painters. As of yet I do not have a favorite.
What is your favorite food?
I love the smell, taste and appearance of seasonal farm fresh produce.
Do you create in any other mediums other than light painting? If so what are they?
Yes – mixed media, sculpture and writings.
What is your favorite Light Painting Photography image that you have created?
Although I like all of my images, each one is unique with it’s own story and always a pleasant surprise, I was most pleased with “Transmutation”. It was the first time I mixed day with night and the concept I had worked.
What is your favorite Light Painting Photography image of another artist?
“Picasso Draws a “Centaur”, which I came across shortly after I did my first piece.
What is the most difficult part of Light Painting Photography?
I have an on/ off relationship with the work. There is much to learn about myself through the images. How I do them, the interactions with the subjects and what my expectations are all play a part in the ease or difficulty. I push myself to explore more possibilities within the constraints I have imposed and that can be demanding.
How do you get your Light Painting Photography work seen?
Entering shows – having shows – word of mouth and my website.
Do you sell your Light Painting Photography work?
Are you represented by a gallery?
No, but recently I had two pieces posted on an online gallery site- YourDailyPhotograph.com
Where can we see more of your work?
On my website – SusanSimsHillbrand.com
What is your favorite quote?
I have two favorite quotes –
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
“No matter how slow the film, spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.” Minor White
Who is your favorite artist?
There are so many from various time periods and art styles. To name a few – Georgia O’Keeffe, Eva Hesse, Picasso, Gabriel Orozco, John Baldessari, Anselm Kiefer, Chantal Akerman, Darren Almond, Van Gogh….
What is you favorite activity other than light painting?
Being with family and friends having stimulating conversations.
Tell me a good light painting story.
I had a strong urge to use a burning sage stick for my next light painting and to do a totem pole concept. Not soon after this thought I was asked to be apart of 10 photographers photographing the same adolescent boy. “Will 10 photographers provide an understanding of this boy or will we dismantle his identity through so many interpretations?”, that was the question the curator asked.
I did not know anything about the adolescent boy until the day of the shoot. Could not have been a better subject. Turned out he is half Native American and lit sage sticks often with his friends while sitting in a circle during conversations. I usually only do one image but I decided to do more that night. Three images were strong and any one of them could easily represent the request but not once I saw all three together. The curator only wanted one. Realizing if I stacked them I would have the totem pole, a story, concept and three would become one so that is what I did. The bottom image, represented what he did – “Boxer, Wrestler, Referee”, who he was becoming, “Green Aura” and what he can become, “Sempiternal Rose”. The final piece was 10 feet high, 30” across and thick rope framing the sides. The rope ties the piece together and represents the climb we make in life – physically and spiritually.
Tell me a nightmare light painting story.
No nightmares but I have been asked if anything happens to the people I outline.
Have you ever been arrested or ticketed for light painting?
What do you say to people when they see you light painting and they ask “what the hell are you doing”?
I explain what I am doing.
Where do you find inspiration for your Light Painting Photography?
I find it everywhere. All of life inspires the creative process.
Who would you like to punch?
There is no one I would want to punch. Might be better to ask what would I punch. Having the desire to punch is an internal frustration of understanding and communication so a pillow or punching bag would be a good outlet.
Who would you like to kiss?
Why do you Light Paint?
There is an element of mystery and magic capturing the essence of existence when painting with light. I like the performance aspect. There I am on the other side of the camera entering the scene, interacting with the space and people, using lights to define what is there, and being in the photo yet never showing up, unless it is a self- portrait.
What is your favorite time to shoot?
When I am inspired and that comes in spurts. My favorite time of day is at dusk when colors are intensified.
What is your favorite subject to shoot?
People, nature and urban decay.
Where is your favorite place to shoot?
If you could travel anywhere to Light Paint where would you go?
To the Northern Lights
Have you ever invented a Light Painting Photography tool? If so what was it and how did it work?
Do you ever get sick of explaining your work to people?
I like explaining what I do people are intrigued.
How many times have you heard the word photoshop when someone was describing or asking about your work?
Since I have been doing them before photoshop existed the assumption has always been that I must be manipulating the photo whether in the darkroom or in photoshop. People are always surprised to hear I have not.
What makes you happy?
Simplicity of life’s beauty makes me happy.
What makes you mad?
Being hard on myself can upset me.
What part of Light Painting Photography do you enjoy the most?
The whole process of light painting fascinates me. I get most excited in the darkroom when the image appears and I see the final results.
What part of Light Painting Photography do you hate the most?
There is nothing to hate.
Do you have a website? If yes what is the address?
What is Light Painting Photography?
Light Painting Photography is a performance using lights to place emphasis on a particular subject.
Give me some advice for anyone that might like to try Light Painting Photography.
Experiment and see what happens.
Are you scared of the dark?
Not any longer but when I started doing light paintings I was and wrote this about the experience.
“My creative self has brought me through the fear and innocence of darkness.”
It took me a long time for that to come true.