Susan Lipper Biographical Note

Susan Lipper was born and raised in New York City. After studying English Romantic poetry in college with a concentration on Yeats (including her junior year abroad in London), she graduated with an MFA in photography from Yale School of Art in 1983. Later she received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and most recently the 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Public collections include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

After leaving Yale and a three-year residence in London, she returned to New York and started making trips around America in order to take photographs, resulting in a body of work that exists both within and outside the documentary tradition. In 1987, her travels took her over most of the country, sparked by a newly found patriotism as well as a commitment to furthering photographic literacy through her work.

Lipper’s practice was to travel on small rural roads, yet she also wanted to stay longer in one environment in order to execute a project with more depth. A series of chance events led to her visiting Grapevine, a small unincorporated town in West Virginia, where she was immediately adopted by most of the inhabitants and, in particular, by a certain family.

Her first monograph, Grapevine, was published in Great Britain in 1994 and was later distributed in the United States. In her pictures of rural West Virginia, the British public recognized traces of their own culture—Appalachian communities themselves having stemmed from the northern British and Scots-Irish immigrations of the nineteenth century. Though the work was perceived as being part of the classic documentary tradition, Lipper’s work strongly spoke to a diaristic dramatization of her new home, with friends and adopted family playing part. The series contains scenes of collaborative staging underscoring the often polarized roles of rural men and women.

trip, her second monograph, is a fictionalized non-narrative jaunt through small-town America, photographed mostly on and off Interstate 10 in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and plays with the fabled—mostly male—stereotype of the transcendental American cross-country voyage. Here Lipper uses staged and found objects purposely to insert humor and to emphasize the subjective nature of her manufactured story.

During her travels Lipper was reading the works of Frederick Barthelme, in particular Painted Desert. As plans for trip progressed they entered into a yearlong collaboration over the Internet. They have never met in person. The finished book, which incorporates Barthelme’s writing, underscores an interest of Lipper’s in the conflicting roles of image and text and is not your typical 1930s photo story.

After trip, Lipper began a prescient series that was not unified by geography. In the Not Yet Titled series, she intended to combine selected found text from military installations with her images of a fictional cold war that reflected a dread of future conflict. The events of September 11, 2001, made her efforts irrelevant. By chance, at dinner one night in 2002, a female architect friend, also born and bred in New York, assembled a series of diptychs from her proofs. Lipper then decided to finalize the time capsule of joint associations by mounting the two gelatin silver prints for each work on aluminum.

During this period she divided her time between New York, London, and Grapevine. Off Route 80, a series of photographic landscapes and video portraits begun in 2006, returns to Grapevine but in an abstract yet romanticized way. It deals with the dichotomy of the viewer looking and being looked at. The wild landscapes depict a world almost Eden-like while intimacy with the sitters is both shared and withheld. This echoes the sentiments of her early portraits of Yale graduate students, completed in 1983, which investigated the role of the photographer’s and subject’s narcissism in the photographic portrait. However, narcissism is not the focus in this series; rather, the possibly intimidating experience of joining a small community is explored.

In 2012, she began a series in the California desert, which is still ongoing. What initially attracted Lipper was addressing the formal differences between her previous habitat of Appalachia and journeys along I-10. However, fueled by research covering topics related to the desert as trope and as prior photographic subject, and—in the light of the idea of Manifest Destiny—society’s attempts to comprehend a possible positive future for our country, the project has continued to evolve. She sees this project as completion of a sort of trilogy of her travels from East to West.