Susan Morelock: Artist-Educator
(photograph by Anthony Maitoza)
Susan Morelock joined the faculty of Moravian College’s Art Department this fall as assistant professor of photography and new media. Morelock discovered her love for photography in high school in her hometown of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, when the enthusiastic art student was encouraged to find a medium other than painting. “My dad gave me a camera that we had around the house, so I started working in black and white in the darkroom and knew right away that photography was what I wanted to do,” says Morelock. “I’ve been taking photographs ever since.”
Morelock studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in the hometown of Eastman Kodak. Upon graduation, she worked a year in Rochester, piecing together an income from wedding photography, photo retouching, and a coffee shop gig before heading to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to earn her master’s. “I wanted to be a photo historian and was on my way to getting a doctorate when my mentor there asked, ‘Can you imagine a life where you are just talking about other people’s work and not making your own?’
“Zombies need a lot of post-production work.”
Morelock finished her thesis, got her MA, and moved back east to Columbia University for her MFA. She stayed eight years in New York City, where she worked on her art while also teaching at SUNY Purchase and Manhattanville College, and then took a position with AMC Network as a photo editor, hiring photographers from around the world and retouching images, including for The Walking Dead. “Zombies need a lot of post-production work,” she says. But after a year, Morelock missed teaching and took a one-year faculty position at the University of Southern Indiana before coming to Moravian.
“I’m home again,” she says with a warm smile.
Inside Moravian sat down with Morelock In October in her office around the corner from Payne Gallery, to talk about her art, her teaching philosophies, and why Moravian College is the right fit.
Inside Moravian: Would you please define new media and what your approach to teaching it will be?
Susan Morelock: Currently, I am teaching a seminar titled “Digital Explorations.” In the first week I invited students to think about these questions: What is photography? What is video? Can we corral them? What can they both do well? What can they not do? And since that first week, we’ve been provoking our definitions.
We started by looking at found material and exploring what we can do with it: how can we curate, arrange, and renew photos based on what we understand they’ve already done in history? So I had students collect images from different sources—the library, the internet—and consider all the manifestations of how they could use these images to create something new. One student took historic landscape photographs and combined them in photoshop to make new landscapes; then he made negatives from those digital composites and printed them in the darkroom.
Next we explored how to make a photograph a sculptural object, asking how can a photo occupy space so that the viewer must walk around it? From there we progressed to grappling with how to make a photograph move, and what does that mean?
"All my courses emphasize the critical union of art, technology, and skill building."
I’m trying to loosen the reins on what it means to make a photograph or a video with the intent that this experience will inform further iterations of what that term “media” means.
I teach the professional skills of imaging technology, but I am first and foremost an art maker, so projects in my classes always marry technical concerns with creative concerns.
All my courses emphasize the critical union of art, technology, and skill building. These elements of photography are always one. In addition to having a pretty robust software and hardware tool kit, I want students to know why they are doing what they are doing and to be about to talk eloquently about their work in both historical and contextual terms.
IM: And does Moravian College seem the right fit for your philosophies and your vision?
SM: Yes! Compared with previous institutions where I’ve worked, there is a visible investment in technology here, which is very exciting to someone who is charged with teaching technology. It is evident that I’m going to be able to continue to introduce new pieces of technology to students. Without that, the department becomes stunted in that you can’t teach what’s happening in the industry.
"There is a visible investment in technology here."
And the introduction of the BFA is an exciting move for students. Now they can get a rich liberal arts education but also have the choice to prepare more strategically through the BFA program.
IM: Tell us about your own art.
SM: My work happens organically in response to place, and I tend to work with sumptuous color. I am really interested in thinking about ways I can explore and change light and embrace distortion, refraction, and illusion in photographs. I’m interested in creating magical experiences for the viewer and creating images that make a viewer ask, ‘Did that happen in front of the camera or did that happen in post-production?’ More often than not, I work to transform my subject in front of the lens. Those are the driving forces in my art
The subject of my photographs is always contingent on where I am. So in Indiana I was working on a lyrical documentary project—thinking about what it meant to be living in this very red, right-of-center place after living on the east coast, and the pictures reflect that sentiment rather overtly. I am just now starting to process and sequence that work, still paying attention to those elements of beauty and color and light but focusing on the specifics of Evansville, which lies 25 miles from Illinois and across the river from Kentucky.
"I work in sumptuous color."
While I was in New York, I lived in Queens and worked on a project called “Rosarium.” I lived in Astoria, a neighborhood of private homes with magnificent rose bushes. I wanted to catalog all those roses. I took the photos and then went back to figure out the taxonomy—not the most efficient approach. They have wonderful names like Lincoln’s Hat and my favorite, Joseph’s Coat.
I’ve been fortunate in that the work always presents itself. My husband and I bought a home in Allentown, and before we moved in we did a lot of renovation, revealing old wall paper and other pieces of its history. I began thinking about who had lived in the house previously and started doing some research, which is informing a new project. The work is starting to become more about Allentown in general, but the house is the focal point.
My work always returns to place—some relationship to where I’m living is always in the piece. And now I’ve come full circle. I'm back home in Pennsylvania.
Susan Morelock really enjoys the act of photographing and being out in the world with the camera, so she always makes time for it. She loves to cook and host gatherings of friends and, now, family. She swims, runs, and enjoys going to a baseball game (“though I think I’ve been to only one this past year,” she says). Here are some other favorites.
Vacation spot: Cape Cod. “I go almost every year and stay in a cottage on the bay side. The light is magical, like no where else I've ever been.
Photographers: Luigi Ghirri, an Italian photographer and writer. Henry Wessel, who was, in her opinion, the kinkiest of the New Topographic photographers. Moyra Davey, a filmmaker, photographer, and writer.
Filmmaker: Hertzog. “I love the way he talks and thinks about the world.”
New adventure: Her motorcycle. “My husband and I started together. I am still learning; it’s scary but thrilling. I wear all the gear all the time.”