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BEST OF 2013, Susan May Tell
New York, NY
Project: Personal fine art project shot on Tri-X film, documenting Appalachia and the Rust Belt in 2012.

© Susan May Tell

© Susan May Tell


In the summer of 2012, Susan May Tell traveled 4,000 miles through rural Appalachia, a region known to have fallen on hard times. Shooting Tri-X (black-and-white) film in her Leica, she explored deserted downtowns and shuttered steel mills, sleeping in her ’90s rust bucket.

“I chose to not have a fixed itinerary, trusting instead that I would meet local folks along the way to recommend places that evoked a palpable connection between the past and present,” says Tell. “Unlike commissioned editorial work, it was liberating to photograph only those scenes that resonated visually and emotionally.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Susan May Tell: I’ve been a photographer since buying my first camera in 1974. My focus was on personal fine art work, black-and-white. Fortunately, it received solo exhibitions and was acquired by collectors. In 1982, 6 weeks after photographer Lilo Raymond suggested showing the work to local newspapers, I began photographing for the New York Times and the business expanded to include editorial work.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

SMT: 25 years — having joined when based in Cairo, Egypt and needing international camera insurance. In 2008, after choosing to once again photograph only personal work, I was able to become active in and give back to ASMP, and was appointed the New York chapter’s fine art chair. During these past five years I’ve met many wonderful ASMP photographers and made several close friends.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SMT: I’ve done a bit of everything in addition to fine art. During my career my greatest interests have been photojournalism, editorial, travel, portraits and later on, sports.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

SMT: Determination, persistence and resourcefulness. Editors knew they could rely on me to always “get” the picture. A photo editor admiringly compared me to a pit bull: “Once you latch onto something, you never let go.”

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

SMT: My work is known for its very formal compositions: lines, angles, dividing what is within the frame. It is known equally for its powerful emotions: feelings of isolation and melancholy. Taken together, these seemingly disparate elements create photographs that are direct yet poetic, mysterious, quiet and understated.

ASMP: Please briefly describe your career trajectory, from your first assignment photographing cracks in the sidewalk for the New York Times to covering the Middle East, shooting for the New York Post and now concentrating on personal work.

SMT: As I think about the trajectory, I need to say how blessed and damned fortunate I’ve been.

I’ve always considered myself first, foremost and forever a fine art photographer. In fact, it was personal work that led to my receiving assignments from the New York Times. When I met the legendary John Durniak, director of photography, and Paul Hosefros, assignment editor, I brought matted 11-by-14 and 16-by-20-inch gelatin silver prints of work that was then in a solo exhibition in New York City. One of the most important things Durniak and Hosefros said during that first, fateful interview was the importance of suggesting story ideas. Although the Times gave me a great many assignments, I suggested quite a few, too. I always remember them saying “There are lots of excellent photographers; we don’t hire photographers — we hire ideas.”

And, yes, my very first assignment from the Times was to shoot cracks in the sidewalk — a landmark violations thing. Terrifying. Friends offered to purposefully trip so I’d have something to photograph.

A couple of years later I started freelancing full time: the Philadelphia Inquirer, Agence France Presse, Crain’s New York Business, the Washington Post. The assignments, a mix of features and spot news, were exciting: the immediacy, directness and relevance of news-oriented photography.

It was always my dream to cover the Middle East. So a couple of years later, I packed up my apartment and bought a ticket to Cairo. Five days before leaving, I sent a slide carousel to a boutique photo agency. How lucky was I? Marcel Saba, the international photo editor, appointed me as the Middle East photographer.

Once in Cairo, thousands of miles away from timely news sources (pre-Internet; thank you for BBC short-wave radio), it was time to find people, places and events to photograph that the agency could license. These included the more mundane subjects, such as stock photographs of the Pyramids and visiting personalities, for instance Muhammad Ali. More challenging were other stories, such as a nine-month project with Egypt’s drug enforcement agency. Breaking news often informed where and when to go — such as refugee camps for Iraqi Kurds in Eastern Turkey after Saddam gassed them, or riots in Algeria. Remembering the Durniak/Hosefros dictum — to come up with story ideas — I suggested that I photograph the 30-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea to LIFE Magazine and they went for it.

After four years, I relocated to Paris, still with Saba. The work was mostly features: film actors, wine, food, hot air ballooning, tourism. Three-star restaurants. Five-star hotels. Did I say wine? It was a welcome relief. Immigration stories were a constant, too.

In 1995, I came back to Manhattan, where I was born. Back to the directness of in-your-face New Yorkers. I freelanced full time for the most in-your-face daily, the New York Post, until becoming staff about 18 months later. Murders, car accidents, perp walks, stake-outs. Victims and heroes. Major stories included a week in the UK after Princess Diana died. Always liking new challenges, I started shooting sports and photographed the National Basketball Association Finals for two years. Somewhere along the way, I also became the weekend night photo editor.

After being on staff for 10 years, and even though it was the best job ever, I left to pursue personal projects.

ASMP: What influence did your background in photojournalism have on your Appalachia and Rust Belt project? How did the experience you developed over the years help you with this project?

SMT: It was quite the opposite. This project was about letting go of photojournalism and editorial demands, where content is necessary to inform and illustrate stories. The goal of this road trip was to photograph spontaneously, to react to what I was feeling and seeing, and to allow myself to be seduced by a scene’s visual aspects and its impact on my gut.

ASMP: Your describe your goal as “reconciling memories of growing up when the U.S. was a manufacturing giant and the reality of the present day.” Had you thought about this issue over time, or was there a recent event that inspired you to explore this theme?

SMT: The memories just sort of float in my subconscious and are triggered now and then by a particular story which happens to make the news.

ASMP: How did you prepare for the trip? Did you research specific areas of the country and predetermine a general path?

SMT: It’s important for me to say straight away that somehow, although born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I love country music, bluegrass and fiddle, which is plaintive and tells stories. Although I never lived in a small town and would probably hate to do so, the music, which I understood to have originated in Appalachia, appeals to a “just plain ol’ folks” sensibility that, for whatever reason, moves me emotionally.

In addition, my BFF, Christine Palamidessi, who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, was having a sculpture exhibition opening about an hour or so outside Pittsburgh. I knew I would be there — just as she had traveled from Cambridge, Masachusetts to Florida when my exhibition A Requiem: Tribute to the Spiritual Space at Auschwitz opened at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. The events coincided: I was going to the Appalachian Rust Belt; my friend’s show was the perfect starting point for a trip I had long been thinking about.

I started asking people in New York what they knew about the region. Most knew nothing, although a very few had gone to school there decades ago. I decided to visit AAA because they give free maps to members. I was lucky. A generous AAA advisor — someone who came from the area — used green highlighter to draw circles around places that might satisfy my interest in hard times.

ASMP: Did you consult any past or present visual or literary works as part of your research for this trip or inspiration for your photographs?

SMT: Quite the opposite. For editorial work I might have been interested in visual references. For this project it was essential to see with a blank slate, to visit places without them being filtered by the visions of others. The approach on this journey was similar to my approach to other personal projects, such as Requiem. It was important for me to react to what I was feeling and seeing, and be seduced, or not, by a scene visually and whether it resonated emotionally.

ASMP: You didn’t have a fixed itinerary, but you concentrated on Appalachia and the Rust Belt. What was your starting point? Did you have an end point in mind?

SMT: It began in the small Allegheny River town of Natrona in Western Pennsylvania and ended along the Ohio River in an even smaller mill town of Mingo Junction, Ohio, along the Ohio River. This 65-mile distance — according to a map — took 4,000 miles to cover, and included spending a great deal of time in parts of West Virginia. There was some crisscrossing back and forth as I followed suggestions of locals. There was no set end point.

ASMP: You traveled 4,000 miles for this project during the summer of 2012. How long were you on the road? At what point did you decide to return home? What led to that decision?

SMT: I was on the road for six weeks, which was pretty much what I had anticipated when starting out. I knew that I’d have to get back to New York City in time to bring my car in for its annual inspection.

ASMP: You set out expecting that you’d meet locals who would help guide you to interesting and relevant locations. Were people as helpful as you had hoped (or more so)?

SMT: I rolled the dice and had faith that people would steer me in the right direction. Twenty-five years of doing editorial assignments led to my having plenty of experience reaching out to strangers and knowing when to trust a person’s input.

ASMP: Had you previously visited this area of the country? Did you already have (or seek out) any local contacts for advice in your travels?

SMT: I never visited the region or had contacts; none of that, or networking, was a factor. An important part of the project was having conversations and inviting the people to guide me to places and locales they believed important for an outsider to see.

ASMP: What gear did you bring with you and which Leica camera did you use? Did you have a backup camera?

SMT: I like keeping things simple and believe the less I have to think about equipment, the better. I had one camera body, the Leica M6; one lens, the Leitz 35mm f/2 Summicron; one back up, a Leica M2. I also brought an Olympus XZ-1 digital point and shoot for snapshots and sometimes used this to verify light readings.

ASMP: Why did you decide to shoot black-and-white film? How many rolls of film did you bring?

SMT: Black-and-white photographs touch my soul. As do gelatin silver prints because of their depth and sensuous layering. I haven’t experienced anything that can match the feelings this combination gives me.

I packed 50 rolls of Tri-X, not being sure of how much I’d need. Additional film was just a phone call away. When I ran low, I called a New York City store and ordered an additional 40 rolls of Tri-X, which were delivered to me during the trip. I ended up using 75 rolls.

ASMP: How did you store the film? Did you have film processed along the way or wait until you returned?

SMT: All film, except what I anticipated using that day, was kept inside the trunk of my car in a valise, which was dedicated to photo-related items. The exposed film was placed in special baggies when I returned to the campsite each evening. All film was processed in New York City when I returned.

ASMP: How did you pack for the trip? Please tell us a little bit about how you managed the logistics of living out of your vehicle.

SMT: The previous summer I had visited friends in Maine and drove up the coast, staying in motels, cabins and cottages. By happenstance I stayed a few nights at a state park and realized that those nights, sleeping in the car, under the stars, were fantastic. When I was anticipating the trip to Appalachia I knew that’s what I’d do.

The campgrounds in Maine had WiFi; that wasn’t the case in Appalachia. On the third day in Western Pennsylvania I phoned my cell phone provider to upgrade my plan and then I was able to tether my laptop to the iPhone.

Choosing campgrounds took time and planning. There often weren’t any sites near to the locales I planned to visit. So I ended up staying at the same site for several nights if it was relatively conveniently located.

The most essential gizmo was one I already had: a power inverter that plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter and charged a GPS, laptop and cell phone simultaneously. The car needed to be running to do the charging, which worked fine during the day while I was driving. During the Appalachia trip I chose campsites with power outlets and threaded a long electric cord through my slightly opened car window. A book light illuminated the car interior at night and also turned out to be very helpful in an unexpected way — its clamp could be attached to the campsite’s electrical power box to act as a guide at night.

Other than that, I didn’t have a lot. Camera, lens, film, a change of clothes, poncho, sweater, towel, flip flops for the shower, water, bug spray, notebook and pens. In the trunk of the car was one valise for clothing and another for photo-related items. Neither had to be moved and it was, in fact, simpler than shlepping stuff out each night to a hotel.

Upon returning to the campsite in the evening, I had a routine. I’d open the trunk, put the exposed film in baggies and inside the valise, ready the replacement rolls for the next day’s shoot and take out the laptop’s back-up hard drive. Then I’d “move into” my bedroom/office — aka the back seat — liberally dose myself with bug spray, charge the digital camera battery, set up my computer, download images from the digital camera, input IPTC data and eat whatever prepared food I picked up at a market on the way back to the campground. Then came a couple of fun hours of writing about the day’s experiences. When I got tired, I pulled a sweatshirt over my head and went to sleep. Toward the end of the trip, when nights became chilly, I bought a blanket.

ASMP: Was sleeping in your car ever problematic, either due to environmental conditions or safety concerns?

SMT: Since a car is metal and glass and the doors lock, I felt safe. That said, there were a couple times I got spooked.

One night, upon awakening at 4:30am, I saw what seemed to be a zillion stars. Incredibly beautiful. Totally unlike the sky in Manhattan. I got out of the car, grabbed my camera and was about to photograph the sky when I saw headlights coming in my direction. Quickly, getting back into the car, I locked the doors and hid. I heard the sound of tires on gravel and felt the approach of ever-brightening headlights. Then I heard a car door open, peeked out and saw a man standing a few yards from me. It took a few moments to realize he was sizing up the site opposite mine to figure out if his RV would fit in it.

My site had been in a somewhat isolated area, in a remote state park with quite a few unoccupied sites. The next day I moved my rust bucket (a 1998 Corolla) to a site in a more populated section of the park.

Some nights later, at another campground, at 4:30am I got the photo, which is titled A zillion stars and one tree.

Then there was the night I pulled into a state park campground at dusk. Only 2 of the 50 sites were occupied and there was no cell phone service. I circled the campground several times, following the one-way directional traffic signs, to determine if any areas had service. Nope. The whole scene was a bit unnerving, to be so alone with trees and no people. I turned the car around, and was considering heading out when an official state park vehicle appeared, with lights flashing. The park manager was checking out the grounds. It was 9pm. He was following me with flashing lights because I was driving in the wrong direction!! I explained my predicament. The park manager then introduced me to a family who was staying at one of the two occupied sites.

The family consisted of a young woman, her husband, two children, her dad and a male cousin. They were staying in the campground during the week while the men worked in the area, laying cable. The woman and I stayed up past midnight talking.

From then on I never booked campgrounds online. I phoned, spoke to someone directly, asked if the campground had cell phone service and specified that I needed a site near other occupied sites.

ASMP: What kinds of technological tools (cell phone, GPS, Internet, etc.) did you have with you during this trip? How often were these tools nonfunctional due to your being off the grid?

SMT: My most essential technological tool was the power inverter that allowed me to charge the GPS, laptop and cell phone simultaneously as long as the car engine was on; I never had to be concerned about dead batteries. Second most useful was my laptop’s Internet connection being tethered to the iPhone; I used it to get directions and locate campgrounds. One morning when turning on my laptop, the tethering provided a pleasant surprise: a friend in France had chosen that exact moment to Skype.

The cell phone also played a critical role in reassuring good friends, when they checked in daily, that I was still alive.

Although I purchased a good GPS before the trip and it was helpful, it didn’t always locate the places and routes I wanted to find. Then again, neither did the old-school maps. There were whole swaths of the region that were off the grid.

ASMP: Did you run into any resistance when photographing people or locations? Were there times you just moved on from locations you were trying to photograph?

SMT: Although I was pleased to see factories still working, authorities seemed to not be so pleased for me to photograph them. Then again, authorities are pretty much the same all over the world and I’ve had practical experience in effective ways to deal with them.

One lovely day I stopped my car on the shoulder along Route 2 in West Virginia to photograph a factory. From out of nowhere a sheriff’s car, lights flashing, pulled in behind my car. As I walked over to him, I heard him calling in my New York State license plate number. I smiled, said hi, and asked, “Is everything okay? Am I doing anything wrong?” He answered, “Since 9/11, it’s against the law to take pictures of our factories.” It made no sense to contradict him. Instead I told him how terrific it was that not all the factory jobs had been shipped overseas and that some Americans still had jobs. Another sheriff’s car, unmarked, pulled up alongside. The two of them spoke briefly, then the first sheriff told me he had another job and both of them peeled off.

When I returned to the campground that night, the owner said, “If you had blacked out some teeth with tar to make it look like there were a bunch missing, or if you had a local license plate, the sheriff wouldn’t have cared.”

Then again, another time I was photographing a sheriff’s office in a small West Virginia town. The sheriff pulled up to the curb and patiently waited for me to finish. I gestured that it was okay for him to go in. He smiled, waved and did just that.

ASMP: What was your most interesting encounter during this trip (positive or negative)?

SMT: This trip was filled with positive encounters, meeting amazing people whose stories moved me. Each encounter has been detailed in the journal I kept during the trip.

If I had to choose just one, it would be the encounter with the person in the photo titled Odd-job Man. He is the young man with a disfigured face holding onto a bicycle and a broom. He approached me while I was photographing the deserted main street of a former mill town where he and his family lived. Entire buildings were closed or condemned. He followed me and told me the history of each building, offering more and more detailed information. Then he suggested I take a look at the old town baseball field that was wiped out during a flash flood in the ’90s. I followed his bicycle with my car — trying to keep up, because he was accustomed to biking on roads with cars, so he peddled “…as fast as them.”

When it was time to head back to the campground, the teen asked if I knew Children’s Hospital in New York. He said it was near the World Trade Center and asked me to please thank the doctors there for him when I went back home. He had spent two years in the hospital, from ages two to four, because of a cleft palate and cleft lip. “I still have the cleft lip,” he said. “Everyone at the hospital knows me. They were so nice and so good to me. I spent Christmas there.” Over and over he said, “Please thank them for me.”

I questioned whether the photograph was exploitative and whether or not to include it in the portfolio. I decided it belonged and hope that someone might know which “Children’s Hospital” the teen was referring to since I haven’t had any success finding it.

ASMP: On your Web site, you list some anecdotes about past photo assignments and travels. What anecdotes from this trip will you add?

SMT: Here are a few:

  • In a small Ohio village, mostly deserted because its steel mill had closed, I was invited into a 150-year old bar. Declining a drink because I had to “drive back to the campground,” a patron burst out laughing, nudged the guy on the next stool and said, “I told you she was sleeping in her car.” They offered to give me money to stay in a hotel. The woman bartender —- young, pretty, a graduate of a good college — had moved back home to that village after living in Detroit. She took me out the back door so I could get a better view of the closed steel mill, refused to take money for a bottle of water, and gave me the contact information for her best friend who owned a bar near Yankee Stadium.

  • Stopping for lunch at a coffee shop in a small Pennsylvania town, I was the only customer. The owner sat down next to me and one thing led to another. She brought out a scrapbook filled with photos and memorabilia, including her unused tickets to the 1969 Woodstock Festival. She had opted to get married instead.

  • At a state park campground in Ohio, a lovely couple had a beautiful display of intricate lanterns on their picnic table. The man explained that he created them from tin cans — something I would have never imagined from looking at them. As we continued to speak, I learned that he had been born blind in one eye, had received special training to become a state-certified machinist and worked at the same steel mill for more than 20 years. Although he had seniority, when new owners took over, they fired him, saying he didn’t pass the physical, because he only had sight in one eye! One of the first things I did when I returned to New York was to order a dozen of his amazing lanterns, which I now give as gifts to my friends.

ASMP: Please tell us about the meeting that led to your being offered a residency and exhibition in West Virginia.

SMT: Like so much of this trip, it was just something that happened. A man at a West Virginia campground suggested visiting Grafton, West Virginia, a once-thriving railroad center for the coal industry. I spent the day walking that town photographing what was there as well as what was not.

That evening, at an opening for a quilt exhibition, I met town residents, including some who had noticed me traipsing around their town for hours. They shared compelling stories about the town in its prime. The following day I received an e-mail from one of the amazing people I met. She had contacts at a nearby university and suggested the exhibition. Another person generously offered his guesthouse for the residency. I’m looking forward to returning in the future for the exhibition and residency.

ASMP: You note, “It was liberating to photograph only those scenes that resonated visually and emotionally.” Please describe such experiences further and how they compare to your previous assignments and personal work.

SMT: Personal work has always been more about the journey and less the destination. It’s about discovery, needing only to press the shutter at moments when I’m moved by what I’m seeing. Put simply: Why did I take that photo? My finger clicked.

In literary terms, personal work is about creating an “objective correlative” between the inner and outer, the seen and felt.

In comparison, assignment work was about supplying information and conveying ideas, and meeting the demands of editors, publications, the reading audience and writers. Of course I strived to make images that communicated powerfully and graphically, yet their purpose was for illustration.

ASMP: When and how was your film from this trip processed, printed and scanned. Did you do your own darkroom work?

SMT: Since I no longer have a wet darkroom, I found a lab that simulated the way I used to work, which meant editing from work prints and not contact sheets. At the same time the lab needed to incorporate newer technologies. All the requests were easier said than done, since nowadays digital supersedes analogue. After a bit of research I found LTI Lightside Photographic Services in Manhattan, and they have been nothing short of spectacular.

LTI developed the film; scanned every negative full frame with black border, with no corrections; made a 4-by-6-inch machine print from the scan with the full frame and black border; and made three index prints for each roll, one of which I submit to the Copyright Office as a deposit copy. As I edit and provide negatives, LTI is making gelatin silver prints.

ASMP: What kind of contacts and relationships have you maintained with the people you met on this journey? Have you sent people prints?

SMT: Although I met many wonderful individuals on this journey, most will live in my memories of them as, hopefully, I live in theirs.

ASMP: Are there other areas of the US where you’d like to do a road trip to photograph in a similar manner?

SMT: Tennessee and Kentucky call out. Maybe, again, it’s the pull of music. The potential of what I might find in their visual and cultural landscapes intrigues me.

ASMP: Based on your Web site, it appears that you’ve had at least one exhibition of this work. When and where has the work been shown?

SMT: Two photographs were included in a group exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in May 2013.

ASMP: Are you planning any upcoming exhibitions of this work? How else do you plan to share these images going forward?

SMT: There are many expectations for this work, but first I have to finish editing it.

ASMP: In what ways will the results of this project help to further your career as an artist and photographer?

SMT: Artists make art because they can’t help themselves. Creating new work is always an adventure, exciting and challenging. This project continues the process started so many years ago, adding additional breadth and depth. Similar to the previous work, it shows my control over the frame’s formal elements; it communicates feeling but is not sentimental.

ASMP: Do you feel that you answered the questions that you had when you first set out on the journey through Appalachia and the Rust Belt?

SMT: My only question while I traveled was whether or not I would return home from the trip with photographs that I liked — and I did.

When shooting with film, I have to suspend disbelief, suspend judgment and operate on faith; that allows (and forces) me to just be where I am at that moment, which is good. Shooting with film also has built-in suspense; I don’t know, and can’t know, if I will actually like the photograph until after I see it printed.

ASMP: In retrospect, what would you have done differently? Why? What worked really well?

SMT: As I mentioned before, I like bluegrass music. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to experience “Pickin’ in the Park” in Elkins, West Virginia. “Pickin’ in the Park” is an informal bluegrass music session in a public park in the evening. In Elkins, people brought their instruments, found other musicians they wanted to play with, and made wonderful music. I’d have liked to find more of that during the trip.

ASMP: What advice can you give other photographers who are interested in pursuing personal projects?

SMT: Listen to your heart, follow your passions and trust yourself without doubt.

ASMP: Please fill us in on what you’re currently shooting. Do you have any new personal projects in the works? Any commercial assignments?

SMT: I never go anywhere without my camera, always photographing scenes that appeal to me. My current day-to-day shooting is really a continuation of Structured Moments, a portfolio that’s on my Web site. I’m excited to be editing 40 rolls of film, unrelated to the Appalachia journey, for this project. Plus I’m promoting two additional exhibitions, also on my Web site: A Requiem: Tribute to the Spiritual Space at Auschwitz and Real/Unreal: urban landscapes of the 1980’s.

Commercial work? I lost interest in doing commercial assignments a few years ago. If I accepted one it would have to align perfectly with my interests.

ASMP: Given your past work as a newspaper photographer, and based on recent events within that world (i.e: the situation at the Chicago Sun Times and recent sales of the Boston Globe and Washington Post), what is your opinion about the future of newspaper photojournalism?

SMT: A strong press is essential to democracy. As dire as any situation might be, I believe people want to know what’s going on in their community, their country and the world. Photographers who witness events and capture the truths on the ground play an essential role in disseminating important information. I would like to believe that newspapers such as the Chicago Sun Times will understand that their decisions were short-sighted and erroneous. The tide will turn. Already the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which cut back to three days a week in 2012, returned to publishing daily in June 2013, albeit with a tiny staff.

ASMP: If time and money were (almost) limitless, what would be your dream self-assignment?

SMT: I love this question! Travel the world with my Leica. But it’s not a dream. I’ve been saving my American Express points for years to do this!