Susanne Otterberg Captures Domestic Scenes With Emotional Depth and Technical Brilliance

Photographers often write to me to share their portfolios and websites. I am not often impressed. Today's photography is repetitive and derivative in a way that I find immensely underwhelming. Yet, every so often, I am surprised. Susanne Otterberg is one such surprise. 

Susanne Otterberg was born in 1962 and lives and works in Gothenburg, Sweden. She has an impressive resume, which includes many solo exhibitions, books, grants, and residencies. She is a true working artist. Susanne claims that she never leaves home without her camera, that it is like a friend. Indeed, this close relationship with her camera is on full view in her highly intimate photographs. Her work is entirely monochrome and always richly engaging. Let's take a closer look at some of her work. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

In this first photograph, we are immediately drawn in by the subject and the uncertainty that is present. Is she alive? If so, what is happening? If not, what is the relationship that allows the photographer to be so intimate with the dead and yet be able to photograph them so objectively? The image is rife with questions. We are asked to think about what we are seeing and to consider all the possibilities. This is always a rewarding experience. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

This photograph immediately brings Daido Moriyama to mind. Or, perhaps a little closer to home for Otterberg, Anders Petersen. What more could a photographer wish for than to have their work evoke such comparisons? How did she achieve such a perfectly black background? Was it shot in a studio or in the wild? There is a great abstract quality to this image, even though we also know what we are looking at. The photograph, like so much of Otterberg's work, stirs our emotions as we view it. The rich blackness is like a hole into which we are drawn against our will. The tones are harsh and binary, and it works beautifully. This is one of my favorite images from this selection of work. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

Otterberg is also able to brilliantly capture the more domesticated of our wildlife too. This image of a cat is seductive in that the haphazard focus is unsettling. This house cat becomes a wild and terrifying animal thanks to Otterberg's ability to disrupt and enrapture through non-conventional technical acumen. Imagine the image in sharp focus and you will see how the cat becomes docile to the point of almost becoming uninteresting. The lack of focus here is the gold. Otterberg has an uncanny ability to perceive a scene and translate it to an image. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

Here, we have a weird image that evokes oddness and even freakishness. What is this thing? Is this a person? The anatomy is a little off — look at the bends in the fingers. Also, the skin is oddly thick and wrinkled. Again, Otterberg drags us into the realm of questions. The more we look, the more we want to know, which is exactly how it should be with good photography. This is hard to achieve today, as many photographs are so derivative that as soon as we see the photo, we "know" what we are seeing because we have seen it so often before. No so here. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

In this image, there are so many little things that converge to make this a great photograph. The cropped body, the motion blur, the cigarette, the dramatic fold in the cloth of the dress, the bend of the arm, the broken line of applique on the dress — it all combines to engage the viewer in just the right way. When I saw this image, I stopped and continued to look for several minutes. What a feat for a photographer! 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

When I first saw this tire photograph, I immediately thought about abstract painting. Not so much because the image is abstract, it isn't, but because of the flatness of the tire and how the rubber ripples and folds. In abstract painting, there is a misconception that anyone can draw a line or a box. Likely this is true. But that line better be just so and in just the right place on the canvas. This is what separates real abstract art from the stuff we see people making in so many "how-to" videos. The tire here is just so. The fold in the rubber is just right to make the image work. Don't believe me? Go out and try to photograph a flat tire. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

Nudes are another notoriously difficult thing to do well. Again, so much depends on the right lines and shadows. Here, we have a butt crack that is just a little peculiar and also just so in length. The butt crack makes the image for me. It is almost a caricature of a butt crack. This lightens the mood, the intent of the photograph. The negative space in the foreground, the wrinkles in the sheets, and the shadow on the wall all contribute to the image's effectiveness. This image is as good as anything from Nan Goldin. 

(c) Susanne Otterberg

Here we have a photograph that is most likely the product of Otterberg's dedication to carrying her camera. This is a chance image. Here the skill is in the timing; being in the right place at the right time camera in hand. What happened here? Did someone stay under the hairdryer too long? Something ominous is unfolding. The nonplussed man on the roof and the ladder peeking up from the bottom of the frame both add additional layers of oddness. Why is the man so calm? Why is no one on the ladder? 

In all of Otterberg's photographs, there are small elements that are askew. These are the things that make her work so rich. Her ability to master high-contrast black and white photos is also a reason for her success. Getting contrast right is not an easy feat — too little and the work drains of emotion and energy, too much and the photos become too gimmicky. Otterberg strikes a perfect balance again and again. 

Yes, sometimes a photographer still comes along who can capture our attention even in this world where we have seen every photograph before. Susanne Otterberg is one such photographer. I invite you to follow her and check out more of her work on her website

Images used with permission of Susanne Otterberg.

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Jan Holler's picture

In a word: fantastic! Michael, thank you very much, especially for the good text that accompanies these impressive pictures. I have to look at them again (and again) and take my time - just them on nothing else on the screen.

Albert Whitcombe's picture

What very awesome photographs thank you, thank you for this photographers insight. As an older myself the simplicity of black and white, clarity make the challenges of my age all the more poignant.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Jan & Albert, thanks for taking the time to make positive comments!