Glasgow Film Festival 2020: Close Up – Susan Wood Exhibition


Susan Wood: Close Up shows exemplary work from an art and film icon

Review by Fionnuala Boyle

(Exhibition runs until 8th March, 2020 –The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, G1 3NU

Attending Susan Richardson Wood’s exhibition of work at The Lighthouse on February 24, 2020, I had no preconceptions. I wasn’t familiar with Susan’s work, but I always attend exhibitions in good faith. The experience of wandering somewhat aimlessly around a glossy wooden art gallery floor and drinking in the different images and aesthetics on show is definite escapism. It’s comforting to know that in a busy city – amidst noise, traffic, laughter, conversation, study and exchange – there is solace to be found in a silent room with white walls and a projected image overhead, or in a single sculpture that could be interpreted a million different ways.

On arrival, I grabbed a white wine and entered Gallery Two. I had not long started perusing the work before me when a woman with white bobbed hair and dressed in a flamboyant cardigan-and-culottes combo sidled up beside me. She’d caught me taking a picture of my wine and muttered something good-humouredly about how I was taking a picture of the picture. She had a kind face but wandered off to roam around the rest of the room before I could muster a reply. I later found out that that was Susan Wood.

close up photos from archives susan wood

From Jane Fonda to Monica Vitti, to indiscernible figures lending each other a light and laughing over a joke to which we’ll never know the punchline, Wood’s work is like sifting through a picture book of 1960s Hollywood elite. Film stars with shaggy fringes, Twiggy eye make-up and clunky pearl beads hanging loosely around their neck gaze off into the distance while their friends continue chattering at the side of the photo. Harry Walker Staff leans over a reclining Christine Kelly, giving her an upside down kiss as she lies on a beige chaise longue on the set of Scratch Harry. Billy Wilder and I.A.I Diamond stand poised on the set of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, keen to receive direction or wait to be delivered a line. John Wayne appears on the set of Hatari! hanging out with co-star Michele Girardon; dusty roads and sun beat faces and shadows falling on strained expressions. Caps and waistcoats and director chairs.

These famous faces, however, seem to portray such normalcy when captured by Wood. You know it’s John Wayne winding down after filming a scene from his newest Western; his brow burrowed, his eyes straining up at the beating sun. But it could also be a workie on London Road taking a coffee break, rickety scaffolding his backdrop as he looks up to inspect an afternoon’s work. You can’t edit human reaction, and it is as if Wood seeks to capture more absent-minded, candid moments to reflect this.

I was soon joined by another exhibition-goer – Allison Gardner, GFF Programme Co-Director. We observed a photograph of Monika Vitti on the set of Modesty Blaise in 1965. She looked quintessentially Brigitte Bardot, with a light tangerine-coloured dress hanging off her defined waist, cat eyes, full lips and a gathering of blonde hair on top of her head. In the photograph, Vitti’s hand leans against the cabinet beside her and she is locked in motion, as if pausing to gaze at someone beyond the camera, while we pause to gaze at her. Vitti represents her era so well, it is hard to imagine she existed in any other. I’m planning on looking like that by the start of the film festival, Allison said, but it starts in two days so I’m not sure what hope I have!

Even though her accolades suggest otherwise, Allison explained how underrated she believes Wood’s work to be. She has captured this incredible work and has been on the go for fifty years, Allison said, but it is as if she is finally being recognised in the UK mainstream now. It’s not hard to showcase women and female talent at festivals like the Glasgow Film Festival, she went on. The talent is there, it’s just harder for women to get their films commissioned.

susan wood

A few familiar faces featured as part of the exhibition, too. One of the most notable achievements of Wood’s career has been photographing John Lennon and Yoko Ono, having done so while they sat at a coffee table, drinking tea out of china cups. Many of these images feature in a slideshow shown on a small television in the corner of the gallery, playing on loop as Woods narrates the story behind them and how important they were in her career. Although you might think John and Yoko would be the main event, the photos framed around the gallery are just as captivating, even more so as you find yourself leaning in to distinguish the identity of the model.

As the launch came to a close and the gallery floor started to clear, I was re-joined by Susan Wood who spoke a while to a GFF representative and I. In her New York drawl, Wood spoke about her time at Paramount Pictures and how she came to work on such major film sets alongside mega stars. It is perhaps stereotypical to think of a bustling New York film office thick with cigarette smoke and even thicker with aspiration while big execs shout “ya gonna be ‘uge, kid!” down the phone to a naïve sixteen-year-old in a faraway state. But the way Wood spoke, that seemed to have been the reality. Indeed being in the presence of Susan Wood, albeit briefly, I felt like I was in the presence of old Hollywood.

Once the conversation came to a natural close and Susan again moved on to inspect another piece of her work, I came up beside her to ask if I could take a few shots of the exhibition. She smiled into my face and told me the pictures were going to be sold to people for a lot of money. I smiled back. I don’t think she heard me, but her openness and humility perhaps gave me the answer to the question before I had even asked it.

mitchell lane building susan wood exhibition

As I exited Gallery Two and made my way downstairs to exit on to Mitchell Lane, I thought about a 20-something Wood, cutting between West 43rd and 44th Street, the sun beating down on her back like it did on John Wayne’s, chasing pay cheques and chasing her dream. I watched her now as she made her way to Sugo next door, going for a bite to eat, having just showcased her work in The Lighthouse situated on a trendy, quiet lane in Glasgow City Centre.

Fionnuala Boyle, March, 2020

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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