Iconic Photographer Susan Wood Shows in East Hampton

Susan Wood's photograph of Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider"
Susan Wood's photograph of Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider"

In calling her exhibit of movie stills from the 1960s “Close Up,” internationally acclaimed photographer and journalist Susan Wood, a hip pro in her mature years, wryly plays on viewer expectations.

The photos, which will be on exhibit at East Hampton’s Mulford Farm Museum in conjunction with the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), are decidedly not portrait “close-ups” but intimate, unrehearsed shots of movie stars and directors caught in relaxed moments—among them Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Monica Vitti, Marcello Mastroianni, Billy Wilder, Joseph Losey, Terence Stamp, John Wayne and Billie Whitelaw. Wood went after the insider shot, creating the impression that the viewer is seeing the stars behind the scenes.

As Close Up curator Deidre Brennan—herself a noted photojournalist and documentary photographer—suggests, Wood’s 30 iconic images are ideally suited to a film festival because they come with context. A celebrity has been captured against a backdrop, giving the viewer a feeling of being on the set, of waiting for a scene to be enacted. Some images were shot from above rather than head-on, as though Wood had been the director of the scene, which, of course, she was. The shots prompt speculation—what’s the backstory?

The irony of the photographs is that while they capture moments, they imply, with their unusual compositions, odd juxtapositions of people and objects and narrative implications  more than moments. There’s Fonda in Easy Rider, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a bit spaced, looking toward the photographer. Others in the shot are indifferent to or ignoring him, absorbed in their own thoughts. Here, and elsewhere, a group is not really a group.

Wood, a resident of Amagansett, New York City and Greenport, nails a central feature of the ’60s—that major egoistic players were aware of their personae, many of them slightly uneasy riders on the alternative culture wave of the time. She laughs as she recalls Marcello Mastroianni, cavorting in an orgy scene and inviting her to jump into the pool (she was shooting from a level upstairs, intent on showing how a moment of wild abandon could also generate a sense of melancholy or decadence). She got Monica Vitti to relax, not easy, and then in the shots caught the actress’s disquiet or vulnerability. The more you look at a Wood photo, the more it takes on ambiguity.

The distinctive features of Wood’s photography are hardly surprising, given her extensive experience as a contract photographer to Paramount Pictures, United Arts and 20th Century Fox. Wood has also enjoyed decades as a regular contributor of art and articles to some of the world’s most prominent periodicals, among them Vogue, The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Look, Life, People and New York. She made it into Sports Illustrated, with unusual shots of fans as well as players, and that led to more assignments.

A child of parents who fostered her love of art, a graduate of the High School of Music and Art, Wood attended Sarah Lawrence and the Yale School of Art (a pioneering feminist, she was named one of Mademoiselle’s 10 Women of the Year in 1961). Many of her pictures wound up being “double truck”—extended over two pages, and her reputation took off. She never did puff pieces, and she remains proud of her film work even if the movie turned out to be “a dog.”

Wood is also proud of intuiting necessity as the mother of invention. Working for British Vogue she quickly saw how strobe lights would enhance images shot in a country with relatively little light. She was also one of the first people to work in color, experimenting with blurry effects. And, of course, she is delighted that she was able to make a living as a professional photographer at a time when few women were in the field.

“Close Up” can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays, October 4 –26, at Mulford Farm Museum at 10 James Lane in East Hampton For more information, visit easthamptonhistory.org.

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