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Susan Nam’s Philadelphia street photography

Evan Laudenslager zeroes in on a growth opportunity in Susan Nam's work, or perhaps its curation. -- Artblog editor


Susan Nam is a street photographer fascinated by the ethereal light her human subjects emit—a type of light much harder to capture in a photograph than that of the sun.

Susan Nam, “Strawberry Mansion” (2014)

Nam’s black-and-white street photographs, on view in Freestyle at Asian Arts Initiative, are the products of a photographer working and shooting frequently, juggling life as a mother, active community member, and artist. Her statement says her photography is meant to “capture and create moments of hope in our city.”

The photographs are taken in community centers, family homes, and the backs of pickup trucks. The subjects are shot from low angles, often centrally placed and in a familiar environment. Her aesthetic is consistent, maybe to a fault, resulting in images that seem obvious and curiously distant from the subjects.

Susan Nam, “Eyes” (2015)

To place the work in context, it’s useful to look at a few other Philadelphia-based street photographers such as Zoe Strauss or Jeffrey Stockbridge. The heat of Strauss’ connection with her subjects is palpable, an extremely empathetic and focused vision that travels with the work. Stockbridge’s photographs in Kensington are equally smart and earnest.

Room for growth

Susan Nam, “Wheels” (2014)

Perhaps what would really help this exhibition is a more thorough editing of what gets shown and a more clarified, individual aesthetic.

Susan Nam, “Freestyle” (2015)

This became clear to me when I saw her image of a crowd of boys, successful and affecting. Surrounded by a group of children gesturing and making faces in the throes of activity, the photographer, and hence the viewer, is right in there with the rest of the group. It’s truly difficult to take a photograph of a crowd that is both ordered and unexpected, vibrant and still contained. This photograph does that, and I want more of this unself-conscious immersion in the moment from Nam rather than the cool and distanced views she mostly shows here.

The quality and potential for Nam’s work is evidenced in that image. As Nam’s presence and involvement in the community grows, her work has the potential to do the same.

Freestyle by Susan Nam is up at Asian Arts Initiative until January 22, 2016.