Friday Photo Feature: Susan Barnson-Hayward
In high school I took a graphic design class that included a unit of photography. I thought it was magical how a little black box, a bit of light, a lens, and a shutter could record on paper what my eyes saw before me. After a year of working on the school newspaper I decided to major in photography at Brigham Young University. When I told my mother, she asked me, “Why don’t you choose a real major?” She had a look of exasperation on her face. It’s possible she was adding up the cost of college in comparison to what an artist might earn. Obviously, I was headed to life in a garret. But I refused to change the course of my studies. “You just march to the beat of your own drum,” my mother said with resignation as she closed the BYU catalog. Though she did not mean it as a compliment, I was pleased. I enjoyed the image of me out on the prairie dancing wildly, beating on a drum with the palm of my hand. It seemed so Bohemian, so artsy.
And I wanted to be an artist so badly it was physically painful even thinking about it. I was determined to live a creative life. During my senior year I wrote melancholy memoirs and spent hours in the darkroom printing photographs, then even more hours writing stories and carefully cutting and pasting the text to layouts on big light tables. I loved it all. I was sure that if I could spend the rest of my life working in the visual arts, things would always be good. Things were good.
I went to BYU and studied photography, eventually earning a BFA. Frequently I spent the entire night in the darkroom or studio, happily working away at pictures of vegetables and flowers. I was a hippy of the Eighties, a free spirited artist. I was marching to the beat of my own drum. And it sounded wonderful.
Then I went on a mission. It was during the last bit of those eighteen months that I realized there was no tangible job at the end of my degree. I had no idea how to get work, and unlike business or engineering majors, there weren’t any companies lining up at the photography studio to offer me a job. When I tried to imagine life after college, for some reason all I could think of was the planetarium. I thought of sitting in a dark theatre with a domed ceiling, staring at blackness so complete it felt like my eyes must be closed and I was asleep. It was a strange sensation, like your mind telling you you’re awake, but your eyes showing you differently. “Please, Heavenly Father,” I would pray by my bedside every night, “tell me what you want me to do.” Then I’d get into bed and wait for an answer. But all I ever felt was the chilly blackness of that planetarium theatre.
Fast forward. It was no surprise to me that I didn’t find a job in photography. Instead, I got married and went back to school (this time at the University of Utah) for a degree in teaching English Literature. I had a baby. Then another. As our family expanded and our budget contracted, photography became a financially unfeasible hobby. But writing was free. So write I did, publishing a few stories here and there. Then I was pregnant again and the only beating I could hear was that of my child’s heart when my midwife stroked my belly with a fetal Doppler. When the baby came the drum disappeared completely. It’s the usual story: I couldn’t get enough sleep, the other kids needed more attention than I could give them, the house was always a mess, the laundry never ever got done completely, and the thought of making dinner with everyone screaming at my feet nearly sent me over the edge. (Ok, it did send me over the edge for a while.) In all the tumult I could barely remember my name, let alone write it on a byline. Ironically, it looked like motherhood, the most physically creative of all womanly acts, would prove to be the end of my intellectual and spiritual creativity.
But then a miracle happened. My youngest went to first grade and suddenly I had six hours all to myself. Whereas before I had only sipped little shot glasses of solitude when the youngest was in kindergarten, now I had whole days to do exactly as I pleased. With all that time to think and create, I could become anything I wanted to be. The drumbeat woke me one morning with a steady thump. And I was ready for it.
First I returned to taking pictures, learning digital photography one baby step at a time. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make my work look like everyone else’s. But trying to fit into my own skin is work enough, never mind trying to squeeze into someone else’s. So I’m allowing my style to evolve as I and my life evolve. The most important thing is to relax enough to create without self-imposed barriers, like an abiding fear that my attempts will be laughed at or pitied.
The next step was writing. A few months ago I remembered something an English professor said to me at BYU. When I told my professor that I dreamed of going to graduate school to learn how to mix pictures and words, he said, “You don’t need a degree to do that.” He stopped shuffling the papers in his hands and looked at me earnestly. “You could do that right now if you wanted to,” he said. That was some fifteen years ago. I took it as a sign that this conversation resurfaced when I finally had time to do something about it. And that’s how the blog idea was born. I decided to create this kind of “blogazine” where I could get all of this stuff out of my head and out there to be read. After being silent for so many years, it’s like my brain is volcanic and I can’t stop the lava from flowing.
For me, creativity is a lot of work, but work I love. I have to look at and analyze photographs every day for inspiration. I pour through magazines and books. I go art museums. I look at blogs and websites of other photographers. This is how I’m re-training myself to see as an artist, to notice how different light illuminates people and things. If I’ve studied enough, I can see pictures in my head and everywhere I look, sometimes to the point that I can hear the click of the camera as it records the photograph in my mind’s eye.
The same goes for writing. I have to be reading or listening to a book on cd to have my own narrative running through my head. My brain has been silent for many years because I was only reading self-help or diet books. Those books didn’t help me to hear language like memoirs and fiction do. When I’m reading enough, my brain starts talking to me. I notice things. I listen to myself. I ask questions. I look for meaning. You could say that I’m really writing letters to myself. Sometimes the writing makes it to the blog and sometimes it stays in my head. Before blogging, my essays and photographs would have lived in boxes and file cabinets along with all of my other projects. But now I have a public place to display my work and share the things that I’ve learned through the years. And to a woman starved for positive feedback, the comments have been wonderful.
Soon I will start selling photographs from my blog on Etsy. I’m developing contemporary family picture collages and shooting senior pictures inspired by Richard Avedon’s work. And of course, I have endless ideas for blogazine topics and photographs to come. Now my mother calls and tells me how much she is enjoying my work. “Just call me “Dances to Her Own Beat,” I want to say. Because I do. And always will.