Susan Wides on Top of the Rock

By Peggy Roalf   Tuesday November 26, 2013

Susan Wides, widely known for large-format color landscape photograph in which she plays with a spectrum of visual ambiguities, was recently commissioned by Banana Republic to create an installation for their flagship store at Rockefeller Center, in New York. Her backlighted views from the “Top of the Rock” create an immersive environment in a place crowded with fashionable shoppers who become part of this new cityscape. I asked Susan about the project, and this is what she wrote:

Q: How did the commission for this permanent installation at Banana Republic come about, and how did you arrive at the idea for this “Top of the Rock” panorama?

A: Banana Republic (BR) had acquired a photograph of mine for another store a few years ago thanks to the efforts of Jayne Baum [JHB Gallery]. I had made that photograph in 2005 at the Top of the Rock, and had also photographed atop the Empire State building and elsewhere for New York Magazine; my assignment had been to photograph classic viewpoints in Manhattan and to “see it anew.”

When BR decided they wanted photography in the atrium of their flagship store, they loved that 2005 photograph of mine. They asked me to propose some ideas for a photography installation about the unique sense of place around Rockefeller Center.


We agreed on my proposal of nine images made above the store from the Top of the Rock, expanding on the idea of that original photograph, and with a continuous horizon line connecting each image. Photographing at the magic hour of dusk draws attention to the horizon line—where earth meets sky. Dusk fuses the buildings’ lights with the landscape; this is heightened by the use of light boxes to illuminate the images.

Since the architecture of the atrium completely surrounds the spectators, the panels are ideally suited to a panorama vista—an illusory expansion on the ground floor with views from 70 stories up. The imagery merges with the architecture and immerses the body in space. The installation layers one’s sense of place and space.

Why did you decide to shoot in black and white?

Black and white really sets the photographs apart from all the colors, shapes, and stuff in the store. It gives a great sense of unity to the installation imagery and envelops the viewer in the clean, white light of the light boxes. Culturally, it references earlier black and white photographs and films of New York; and black & white attracted me to photography early in my art practice. In all my photography I seek to abstract and transform, which black and white does very well.

Did you shoot the entire 360o panorama in one setting or were there several different shoots? If so, were the conditions of the night sky a problem from one instance to the next?

BR negotiated with Tishman Speyer to allow me two three-hour sessions at dusk—essentially renting us access to the view on their property. The problem is dusk really  only lasts 15 minutes. So I photographed as soon as the lights came up and into the evening. Luckily the sky stays bright with the city lights reflecting into the clouds. But Photoshop was my friend here, easily allowing me to lighten the darkened sky. The lightened sky with the full nighttime lights give a kind of heightened, slightly surreal sense.

We did have different lighting conditions for each shooting session. The first night it rained three times! Assistants held umbrellas over the cameras and we put vinyl tarps over the computers tethered to the cameras. One view was so socked in with atmosphere that we had to reshoot it the next night; Photoshop helped lessen the foggy rainy mist in another photo, essentially bringing up the lights, which were partially covered in mist.

Is the panorama “New York as it is” or did you rearrange some of the towers for a more fictional view of the city?

I did photograph in the correct order, though some buildings were left out—it depended on the composition so that each panel works well as a separate image. I used three different focal length lenses, which brings some building groupings closer than others—it gives a subtle sense of zooming in and out. I didn’t rearrange towers. We had to do a bit of monkey business like shrinking the Empire State building in order to fit its top into the photograph—that was BR’s wish and it turned out well.

When I tilt the lens while composing on the ground glass, the out-of-focus lights turn into these wonderful abstract disc shapes. I used Photoshop to move some disc shapes around to energize and abstract the images further.

At the opening I heard you say that you worked with two large format cameras and had special assistants on the job. Could you describe the process and how it differed from your usual methods?

My methodology uses the swings and tilts of my large format camera to get certain areas sharp and others blurred. Because we had to work faster than film and Polaroid would allow, I rented a Sinar 4x5 with a digital back tethered to a computer to check lighting, composition, exposure. Fotocare gave us a crash course on the equipment. Because the light changes so quickly and we only had a limited amount of time, I used two cameras with a digital tech on each camera and one on each computer. I was the auteur, constantly going back and forth between cameras working on each setup. There were several assistants altogether for equipment, monitoring conditions, and crowd control. Ordinarily I work solo or with one assistant to help carry equipment.

With my own artwork, I only have to please myself. Here, I was lucky to have Jayne Baum supporting my artistic decisions with the client. She’s a great advocate for the artist’s vision in a commission where some collaboration with the client is necessary.

Can you describe the kind of spillover a large and involving commission such as this one has for your artistic practice?

I really came to love the medium of the light box that Duggal has developed. Unlike the shiny Plexiglas-covered light box of yore, these digital images are printed on a semi-matte translucent fabric, which is backlit with many LED lights. I am eager to use this glowing medium for new photographs that I am working on now. It would also be great to work again on a large scale with the light box, which is so immersive. This project also inspired me to do more black and white work, which I haven’t done seriously since college.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a book project, I, Mannahatta, of my urban landscapes made during the past 15 years. Also I’m developing new images about an abstract fusion of light with landscape; it’s an expansion of my Bubble series. And something completely different—I’m making photographs about the botanical landscape at conservatories in these cold months.
Photos: Peggy Roalf 

Susan Wides' work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and Europe. The artist's solo exhibitions include The Center for Creative Photography, AZ; The Hudson River Museum; The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art; and Urbi et Orbi Galerie, Paris. Group exhibitions include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The High Museum of Art; and The Municipal Art Society, NY. Work by the artist is held in many public collections, including The International Center of Photography, NY; The Brooklyn Museum, NY; The Art Museum of Princeton University, NJ; La Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, FR; The Norton Museum of Art, FL; Frances Lehman Loeb Art Museum, NY and the Museum of The City of New York. Her recent publications include a 100-page survey of her work by The Hudson River Museum and the anthologies New York in Color (Abrams) by Bob Shamis and A Photographer's City (Rizzoli) by Marla Hamburg Kennedy. Wides' work has been featured in Artforum, Art in America, Art News, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Le Monde, Harper's and New York.  Her exhibition catalogues, including All the Worlds, Fresh Kills, and The Name of the Rose, are available through Kim Foster Gallery, which has represented the artist for over a decade. Wides collaborates with Jayne Baum on special projects.


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