“I create portraits of Black women that begin as figurative and turn into abstract,” says the photographer Tiff J Tiff Sutton. Her multiple exposure portraits are the perfect example of her approach to photography. They uplift the identity of black women, and Sutton creates them in a manner that leaves the curious mind asking questions. To help answer some of them, Sutton agreed to be interviewed by The Phoblographer. Check out what she had to say.
Phoblographer: Hey, Tiff! Let’s talk about the Kodak camera you got for Christmas back in the 90s. How did you feel when you opened it, and how do you feel about it now?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: Honestly, when I opened this particular gift, I was really excited; I remember jumping for joy. I then begged my Mom to take me to Walgreens to buy a package of the 35mm film so that I could take photos that evening. That camera didn’t leave my hand until years later when the photography teacher lent me the high school’s Pentax K1000. I found it a couple of years ago and started using it again. It was so much fun shooting with it as an adult and a (more) experienced photographer. Of course, the pictures had a distinct 90’s look, and it brought back happy memories from my childhood.
Phoblographer: At what point did you begin to think about photography as a career path, and how has that journey been for you?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I started plotting my rise as a well-renowned photographer when I was 15. I really fell hard in love with the camera, the quiet in the darkroom, and the thrill of seeing the print emerge in the developing tray. It has been a long journey, and I have thought about quitting, but I never stopped thinking about creating images or about the legacy I wanted to leave behind. Slowly, I began getting recognition as a portrait photographer in St.Louis. I was an In The City: Commonwealth Harvard Fellow in 2020, I was awarded my first grant in 2019, and I won other grants in 2020. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t give up. All I had to do was create, learn new techniques, work on my craft and be patient for the time for me to share my work with the world.
Phoblographer: How long did it take you to find your photographic voice?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: It took 15 years to find my photographic voice. I tried so many different types of photography; still life, landscape, commercial. Only recently have I listened to my heart and started shooting portraits. 2019 was the first year I began concentrating on photographing Black women and returned to shooting multiple exposures.
Phoblographer: We love your series Black Landscape. Please tell us how the idea materialized.
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I looked at Édouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh paintings and wanted to follow that tradition. My next set of images will include more figures, very similar to my early work but executed better.
Phoblographer: We love the double exposures. Why did you choose that technique for this series?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I’ve been working with double and multiple exposures since I discovered the technique in college. I created a double exposure portrait, titled “The Twin I Wish I Had .”It is a black and white image where I am looking at the viewer and my twin is looking at me. That image was a part of a previous series about my family. I continue to use it because I feel it is the best way to adequately depict Black women.
Phoblographer: We know you shoot film, digital and instant. What was Black Landscape shot with, and why was this your camera of choice?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I used my Mamyia C330, Pentax ME, Polaroid plus, and Sx-70 cameras all the time. I love the lens in these cameras, the heaviness of the camera, and knowing that it will never stop on me.
Phoblographer: What are you currently focusing on at the moment in photography?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I’m always focusing on my craft.
Phoblographer: You shoot exclusively with black women. Can you tell us more about what led you to make that decision?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I moved to shoot exclusively Black women because I am committed to creating artwork with Black bodies. I want girls who go to Art Museums to see a variety of women on the walls. Women that look like them, women that look different, and women who aren’t all nude. It’s about being culturally diverse, and I want to contribute to making that happen.
Phoblographer: Do you consume much photography? If so, where and who gives you your photography fix?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I think about photography all the time. I’m reading essays and books about Black photographers in the early 1900s. Currently, I’m reading Tina Campt’s book Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe because I’m traveling to Iceland, and I hope to travel to other European countries to explore the African culture.
Phoblographer: Finally, what do you enjoy doing when you’re not taking photos?
Tiff J Tiff Sutton: I love watching Star Trek and fashion vlogs on Youtube; because watching those shows/vlogs together make sense only to me!
All images Tiff J Tiff Sutton. Used with permission.