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Retired SF Chronicle Editor Opens His First Solo Photography Exhibition

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Peter Y. Sussman may be known for his command of language, but he is poised to leave his mark on the visual arts.

On Friday, May 6, Sussman celebrated the opening of his first solo photography exhibition, “The Attentive Eye,” at Alliant International University in Emeryville.

Following his 29-year stint as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Sussman authored Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog and Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. He also held several positions in the Society of Professional Journalists, championing press freedom and journalistic ethics.

As a deadline-driven journalist, leisure time was scarce. There was little time for pause, much less another creative pursuit. But by 2000, Sussman had entered retirement. Life slowed. There was time for travel, aimlessness. There was time to dwell on details.

Admiring the liveliness of his grandchildren one day, Sussman was called to pick up his point-and-shoot camera.

Peter Y. Sussman says he was first inspired to take up photography while watching his grandchildren play. His first solo photography show opens at Alliant International University on Friday. (Photo courtesy Peter Y. Sussman)

“Their stages are so fleeting and so wonderful,” he says. “I had a desire to try and capture it, to preserve what I was seeing.”

This preservational instinct was familiar to Sussman.

“If nothing else, good journalism doesn’t tell you about something. It shows you,” he says. “This is the ‘show’ part. The photographs speak for themselves.”

Sussman’s urge to capture these moments gave way to a sustained passion, and he soon sought to abandon his point-and-shoot camera in favor of an elevated model.

Finding a lightweight, portable camera was paramount, as several spinal surgeries in Sussman’s late 50s left him partially disabled. In search of a model that would prove easy to grip while maneuvering his wheelchair or walking sticks, Sussman finally settled on the Sony RX1RII, a 42MP compact camera to be worn comfortably slung around his neck.

This camera became a constant companion of his, trailing Sussman on frequent walks around his neighborhood.

“In the beginning, I wouldn’t see anything worth shooting,” Sussman recalls of these early walks.

After walking around with a camera for a while, Peter Y. Sussman started to see strange and beautiful moments everywhere, as seen in these two photos hanging in Alliant International University. (Photo courtesy Peter Y. Sussman)

He found himself disengaged, a common malady of a mind sullied by sensory overload. The particularity and, indeed, peculiarity of the present had been obscured by “habitual perception.”

That is, until a curious thing began to happen. By practicing the attentiveness of a photographer, Sussman began to engage with his surroundings in new ways, identifying strange and beautiful moments seemingly everywhere.

“Once you’re accustomed to really paying visual attention, photographs just jump out at you,” Sussman explains. “Who else would see a blade of grass and say, ‘My goodness, look at this!’”

His camera taught him the folly of dismissing the weed.

Images of two single weeds

Of these two images of weeds, photographer Peter Y. Sussman says, “I hate to play favorites — all the photos in the exhibit work for me in one way or another — but these two resonate for me especially when run side by side, as a diptych.” (Photos courtesy Peter Y. Sussman)

“We tend to find beauty in conventional forms. We tend to look at the flower and not the weed,” he says. “There is so much beauty in the ordinary if you isolate it from its surroundings and pay attention.”

Sussman’s subjects vary. He photographs plants, architecture, people, shadow and movement. What remains consistent is his precise isolation of fleeting moments, uniquely precious yet almost always dismissed or forgotten as life hustles on: A streak of joy on a child’s face. Distorted reflections in water and windshields. Flowers unfurling.

It’s clear that Sussman has a fondness for macro photography, capturing an intimate closeness with individual flowers, grasses, bumblebees and copulating flies. He aims to seize kinetic moments in a static medium, identifying beauty at every stage of the life cycle.

“I find natural decay as interesting as buds,” he says. “I find beauty in the graceful decline.”

He attributes his sense of composition to nearly three decades of organizing the Chronicle’s page layout as an assistant news editor.

“I realized in the process that what you were doing was emphasizing something and cutting out something, and that you could increase the impact depending on how you zoomed in on something and focused the eye on what you wanted people to see,” he says.

“The Attentive Eye” features selections from Sussman’s archive of more than 3,000 photographs taken over the last 20 years. The works are on display across several rooms in the university library, in the company of books, desktops and Xerox machines.

Three of Peter Y. Sussman’s photographs at Alliant International University zoom in on signs you might not otherwise notice when walking by them. (Photo courtesy Peter Y. Sussman)

Sussman appreciates the utilitarian nature of the space.

“Galleries are so refined,” he observes. “I like that people Xeroxing will look up and [a photograph] will capture their eye…[Art] shouldn’t just be in places we set aside for the artistic elites.”

His photographs are complemented by a scattering of selected quotes, mostly pulled from poems.

“Poems, as photos do, capture not just the idea of a moment, but the feeling of a moment,” he says. “Poems and metaphors have always been part of the way I think.”

Through this curation, Sussman feels that he has constructed his own memoir in space. His favored quotes and visuals reveal him again and again, through subjects seized and framed just so.

“Art multiplies itself,” he says, quoting Fleur Adcock’s “Leaving the Tate,” a favorite poem of his that speaks to cultivating an attentive eye, conditioned by art.

“It’s what we decide to frame.”

“The Attentive Eye” exhibition is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays at Alliant International University, 1475 66th St., Suite 104, Emeryville. 

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Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky covers culture and curiosities for Bay City News and Broke-Ass Stuart. She publishes artist interviews and experimental writing at thought-rot.net. You can find her on Instagram at @rot_thought.

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