Even Sue Steward, a writer who excelled in celebrating lives, might have struggled to write an obituary that unravelled the vibrant meshing of her own. She lived with ferocious energy and enthusiasm, and a genuine gift for friendship so innate that she never realised how unique it was. When Sue died recently from a brain haemorrhage, sustained in her beloved East Sussex garden, grief ricocheted through an extensive global network of friends and colleagues.
An overarching passion for music and visual culture ran seamlessly through Sue’s life, propelled by her boundless curiosity. She made her name as an authority on Latin and world music in the 1990s, and more recently in photography as a writer, curator, mentor, and broadcaster, but for her there was never a split between the two. One underpinned and enriched the other, and it would misrepresent the indefatigable, chaotic and brilliant way she lived to suggest a chronological division. Excellent obituaries cover Sue’s significant contribution to world and Latin music; here I will focus on some of her myriad photography activities.
Sue read sciences at Liverpool University. After a brief stint as a secondary school teacher she headed to London during the febrile political years of the late 1970s and early 80s, throwing herself into jobs that included picture research for a medical publishers, press officer for Richard Branson’s embryonic record label, office manager for Friends of the Earth, freelance DJ, freelance writer, co-editor of an eclectic music magazine, author of a pioneering book on women in pop, and co-founder of a club for jazz, African and Latin aficionados. She was warm, beautiful and exhilarated, and she established a formidable skill set that opened new possibilities she always grabbed.
The avant-garde, the abstruse and the marginalised always fascinated Sue but in the late 1980s she went mainstream, joining The Sunday Times Magazine picture desk. Picture editor Suzanne Hodgart soon recruited her as one of nine internationally-based picture researchers for an ambitious global publication inspired by Steichen’s Family of Man. Based in London and sourcing and selecting imagery under Suzanne’s guidance, Sue later cited Suzanne with teaching her all she knew. “Not so,” Suzanne says, “she learnt by osmosis, she was involved and engrossed.”
The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album was published in 1991, and the book’s theme chimed with Sue’s own sense of place and family. Her extended family and the notion of family were central for her. “I am almost part of the family,” she would say to describe friends she felt close to.
When The Daily Telegraph launched a Saturday Arts and Culture section in 1993, Sue became an enthusiastic member of the editorial team. As picture editor she brought in well-known names alongside young photographers and, with her considered commissioning and picture research, quickly established a contemporary look. She relished these years, only finally leaving to focus on her writing.
Sue’s indefatigable travel and research for a book on salsa were a consuming passion – and an endurance test. Looking back now on the widely-acclaimed Salsa: musical heartbeat of Latin America published by Thames and Hudson in 1999, design director Johanna Neurath, recalls: “Sue loved photography like she loved music, and this stands out in the book. She was very visual and really concerned about the imagery, bringing us rare unpublished family photos from the musicians’ families. She was so stylish, so spirited.”
Never competitive, her intention was to enthuse, inspire and draw people into subjects that thrilled her. She developed a style that was entirely her own, always opening with bravura, always knowledgeable, accessible and skilled. Her obituary for singer Kate McGarrigle in 2010 is a fine example on a surprising subject. As she stated, “I’m no folky.”
Sue continued to write articles and reviews for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, for magazines, including BJP, Next Level, Eye and PhotoMonitor, and essays for photo books. Her obsessions were always creative and her long-standing enthusiasm for Russian culture and modernist design and photography exemplified this.
She wrote a review of a Moscow exhibition Lili Brik: Femme Fatale for Eye magazine in 2007 and then, pushing to the brink of the 2007 Christmas holidays – deadlines and word lengths were Sue’s Achilles heel – followed the review with a compelling feature for The Observer. Creating a scenario that imagines Lili Brik’s first highly-charged meeting with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sue included a quote from the exhibition catalogue: “She was the fire around whom people put themselves. That is beyond being a lover or a beauty; it is a special quality pushing people to create something.” She was unwittingly describing herself.
This feature was republished in The Daily Telegraph the following month, but Sue was as equally intrigued by the elegant curator of the extensively-researched Lili Brik exhibition, Olga Sviblova as she had been by her subject. She wrote an article titled Hunger for the Visual for Eye magazine in 2008, applauding Olga’s role in recasting Russian history through photography.
In a sensitive, perfectly-pitched reflection on death prompted by Annie Leibovitz and Miyako Ishiuchi’s photographs, and the death of her own mother, she wrote All about my mother for The Observer in 2009, considering the relationship between death, photography and the role of objects in processing grief. It resonated for many. In both features sound plays a part. Sue describes voices and, from a recording buried deep on the internet, poetically evokes both Vladimir and Lili’s – his “booming”, hers following, “calm and expressive”. After a phone call with Miyako, Sue writes of her “dark and sharp voice punctuated with laughter” behind that of her translator.
Excited by other creative possibilities to explore with photography, Sue announced: “I want to curate”. In 2008 Sony’s World Photography Organisation offered her responsibility for the photojournalism section of their inaugural awards exhibition in Cannes. Under the aegis of the awards curator and experienced gallerist Zelda Cheatle, she absorbed all she could, adding installation to her design and colour acuity. Sue’s relationship with the organisation continued. She wrote a newsletter, sat several time on the awards jury and was a member of the WPO Academy. She enjoyed and unreservedly nurtured the international network this opened up for her.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” Sue emailed to friends, elated when the London Art Fair asked her to guest-curate the 2012 Photo50, its annual exhibition of contemporary photography. The New Alchemists was an important and rigorously-conceived and curated exhibition. Sue articulated a shift she had been watching for some time as photographers responded to the impact of digital imagery pushing analogue into the margins.
She introduced twelve photographers whose work transformed the paper print “into something beautiful”, each in a different way, from surface changes to digital and hand manipulation, partial destruction, cutting, defacing and through objects and installations. Typically she set up an event at the Fair to contextualise this seismic shift in art photography with a lively discussion that brought together Tate Modern’s curator Simon Baker with some of artists.
In 2014 Sue heralded the first dedicated photography exhibition at the Latin American art fair Pinta. As curator she promised a photography Tertulia, “an eclectic and electric mix, a linking visual conversation”. For this personal overview of contemporary Latin American photography she selected eleven photographers to “stir ideas and explore subject matter”, describing composer Michael Nyman as a surprise contributor. “They enjoyed the same visual language,” a mutual friend observed. The work shown included the abstract and the realistic and was installed in salon style, honouring a culture she loved.
As Sue’s activities increased she became a high profile and well-informed advisor. She joined the board of PhotoVoice in 2008, bringing redoubtable skills from her PR days to the charity’s annual fund-raising auction, which she also curated. At Format, the UK’s largest biennale of contemporary photography, she was welcomed onto the Steering Group in 2009. Louise Clements, Format’s founder and creative director cites Sue’s “wonderful ability to understand the challenges and ambitions of our work…alongside giving us moral support and encouragement. She was always positive. Her own projects kept her engaged with cultural activity that was in tune with our trans disciplinary approach… at our festival openings she was an excellent mambo DJ.”
Sue loved to mentor. As a portfolio reviewer at universities and festivals she was a disarming, generous and inspiring, and continued to support many of the photographers she met, enthusiastically sharing their work with others. In 2010 during several trips to Oman she introduced young, untrained students into street photography and portraiture, later helping them edit their works and create their own gallery with Muscat Youth Summit. In 2012, as a new member of Tripod, founders Miranda Gavin and Wendy Pye observed her kind approach. “She never allowed her ego never to take over. She truly loved the act of creating not just the work, but the person creating it.’”
Her exacting preparation alongside her natural warmth and incisive thinking made Sue an articulate, fluent and engaging broadcaster. Her many radio contributions included a regular slot on photography for Claudia Winkelman’s Arts Show, and more recently Monocle 24. With her genuine interest in people and ideas she was a sought-after chair and speaker for discussions and conferences. She instinctively made people feel at ease. It was always fun to be around Sue. “We’re just doing what we wanted to do, live a maverick life following our passions,” she said to Cherry Smyth.
“We ignored life’s precarity. We never celebrated the pennilessness,” Cherry notes. But precarious lives are not easy, and Sue’s had an undertow however brilliant it appeared. A celebrated track record, and many close friends, could never prevent self-doubt and anxiety, or the financial pressures of working in an industry that couldn’t sustain her. John L Walters, the editor of Eye magazine who published Sue’s last written feature this summer, acknowledged the difficulties adding: “Sue was fragile, but robust in dealing with her fragility.”
After the end of her last long-term relationship Sue moved to Brighton, but the pull of London was strong and she never felt settled there. In 2015 she left for St Leonards-on-Sea, where a smaller, easier community of creatives, vintage dealers and traders of all kinds welcomed her in. She sold her massive collection of vinyl, CDs and cassettes and set about organising her books for a sale. Overlooking her vivid planting in the courtyard garden she sat in her kitchen to write, with her laptop on her mother’s Formica table.
Sue was brimful with ideas and projects, darting from one to the next, and flourishing above all in company and intense conversations. She wasn’t able to begin all of the numerous projects she planned – a book on the 1980s New York scene she revelled in, on Edmundo Ros, on the cities she had travelled to, on music photographer Val Wilmer, her autobiography, her short stories, and on Stathern, in Leicestershire where she grew up in. Books on the village are piled high on a chair in her home.
The final words must go to Sue, summing up her own contribution to photography in a blog biography: “My involvement in photography is mobile and eclectic. I’m a traveller, out to explore and discover subjects, themes, new processes, productions and ideas. And historical surprises. Roaming is important.”
The memorial to Sue Steward takes place from 6.30pm-10.30pm on 16 November at The Tabernacle, 34-35 Powis Square, London, W11 2AY, and will feature live music from Fred Frith, David Toop, Steve Beresford, Frank Chickens, Veronica Doubleday and the Lucumi Choir, video clips and radio excerpts of Sue talking about her work in photography, and tributes to her. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/memorial-event-for-sue-steward-tickets-38456050081
To read more on Sue Steward’s ground-breaking career in music, visit The Guardian’s obituary.