Brea Souders challenges what we expect a photograph to be

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In her debut monograph, Souders plays with the elasticity of photography to conjure vibrant new energy in a medium often restrained by tradition

“There is always absence. We have gaps in our understanding and perception. That lack propels me forward,” says Brea Souders, a Brooklyn-based artist known for disrupting our assumptions of what photography is through a multifaceted practice that defies categorisation. Souders constantly experiments with tools, processes and strategies, creating images that are unfamiliar and unfixed. In Eleven Years, the artist’s first monograph published by Saint Lucy Books, six bodies of work spanning 2010 to 2021 evoke a sense of wonder while grappling with the enduring challenges of climate change, technology, trauma and belonging.

At first glance, it’s not apparent how deeply personal Souders’ inimitable work is. But, her multivalent way of seeing is rooted in survival, self-actualisation and awakening. Rich histories imbue her images, many of which speak to her deepest memories and, over time, reflect an archive of existence. The tension between art and science that manifests in her practice is attributed to her childhood and growing up with creative parents. Her mother was an artist and her father a physicist who “tinkered with sculpture on the side”. “Physics informs how I think about movement, optics, perception and experimentation,” Souders explains. “I [also] inherited a sensitivity to colour from my mother and always loved how she created vertical assemblies of anything she found interesting.”

Sunburn in Naples. From Counterforms © Brea Souders.
Mille Fleurs. From Counterforms © Brea Souders.

The book’s first autobiographical trace is Counterforms (2010-2012), an exploration of memory, archiving, and ancestry undertaken by Souders to understand her lineage. The photographic sculptures and collages combine familiar objects recontextualised to create fragmentary works that tease out a sense of rootlessness and being composed of different parts. Here we experience approaches that underlie her distinct visual language from fleeting materiality, a seductive use of colour, to how she allows chance to infiltrate her rigorous process.

One of the most remarkable things about Souders is how she reasserts the liveliness of ordinary things. The second body of work in the publication, Film Electric (2012 – 2018), developed from a decluttering exercise during which the artist destroyed a decade’s worth of unwanted negatives. As she cut into the frames, static electricity charged the fragments, creating temporary sculptures against the plastic film sleeves. The kaleidoscopic movements create a mesmerising and tender metaphor for lived and living memory. “That was the first time I was especially receptive to chance,” shares Souders. “Both my parents had passed away within a year. It became a time of life when I was slowing down and looking at things very closely. That rearrangement and its effect on my life through film fragments were powerful to witness.” 

Hand. From Film Electric © Brea Souders.

The idea of materials performing and how the artist is both spectator and director is also present in Hole in the Curtain (2015). Here Souders paints with bleach, watercolours and photo developer on sheet film copying family snapshots and drawing from memory. The work is heavy and disturbing. There is a sense of revelation as though Souders is inviting us into her interior world, asking us to surrender to the messiness of being human. “I photograph them while they are still wet, swirling and active,” she explains. It’s akin to street photography in that I’m after that decisive moment. I gravitate towards processes that mimic real life. Things change second to second, and I enjoy honouring that.” Souders animates the idea that equipment and process are not just methodologies but also meaning-makers throughout the book.

Max. From Hole in the Curtain © Brea Souders.
Hand. From Hole in the Curtain © Brea Souders.

Anxiety around the climate crisis is a throughline in her latest work, Vistas (2019-2021), a series of hand-painted images from Google Photo Sphere. The software is distinct from the roving car-mounted cameras used to create Google Street View. Instead, it collates user-generated photos stitched together by artificial intelligence to render landscapes where roads don’t exist. While in a state of virtual wanderlust exploring national parks, Souders began to notice that AI removes all human presence apart from their shadows. Reminiscent of the shadow selfie, she became fascinated by the ‘traces of humans’ — the idea of ‘being there but not there’ and turning the virtual experience into something physical. The addition of pale hues reminiscent of late 19th-century picture postcards reinforces the idea of time passing, and how we have and continue to mythologise the American West. “With Vistas, I’ve been interested in how the images seem to foreshadow our impact on the environment,” says Souders. “The project also touches on how technology affects our lives and how both forces are intertwined.”

Exploring Eleven Years is a moving experience. Souders’ playing with the elasticity of photography conjures vibrant new energy in a medium often restrained by tradition. The work does not just offer a new potentiality for what photography can be. It also sets the stage for an intimate encounter that situates the viewer’s relationship to the world and ourselves front and centre.

From Vistas © Brea Souders.
From Vistas © Brea Souders.
From Vistas © Brea Souders.

Brea Souders: eleven years is published by Saint Lucy Books.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.