Progress and pain: Robert Henshaw-Suder addresses life and cancer in his exhibit
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, then you know why they call dealing with the disease a “battle.” And, for cancer survivor Robert Henshaw-Suder, that battle has changed his outlook, not just on life, but on many things.
“The physical and mental changes caused by cancer made me look at things differently, in a sort of haunting way often, while embracing the fact I have been able to survive,” says the 55-year-old photographer. “In addition to embracing a new lease on life, cancer also forced me to embrace new digital photography technology.”
That gives a bit more insight on the photographs in his exhibit “Infrared and Radiation,” on display at Photo Forum in the upper lobby of the US Steel Tower, Downtown.
Henshaw-Suder says the exhibit is “actually a show in progress, since I am still dealing with many issues related to surviving head-and-neck cancer.”
He originally envisioned this effort as a one-year project, beginning May 3, 2012. The start date is symbolic in that it was the date Henshaw-Suder outlived his mother, who also battled cancer, but lost the fight when she was 54 years old.
Henshaw-Suder has lived in Midlothian, Va., for the past 10 years, after leaving a commercial-photography career in Pittsburgh, where he lived from 1975 to 2002. He moved from New Philadelphia, Ohio, to Pittsburgh in 1975 to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for visual communications and then went to night school for photography while working at Penn Camera. He later opened his own studio.
“I had my studio in Pittsburgh from 1985 to 2002, when my wife and I took advantage of an opportunity to move our family to the Richmond area, where I could devote more time to my fine-art photography and, more importantly, devote more time to my family,” he says.
Since then, new digital technology has allowed Henshaw-Suder the flexibility to create images that would have been almost impossible with traditional methods.
“The goal of this ongoing series is to tie in the images from my treatment (not a part of this show) shot on a cell phone originally to show dramatic life-changing images,” Henshaw-Suder says.
Those images and that experience coupled with the many months of recovery from treatment led Henshaw-Suder to capture the images on display, and many of them are just as haunting as he describes them.
For example, the image “My Hometown” took him back to New Philadelphia to photograph the start of the series.
“I shot the photo on the date that my mom had passed on, May 3, trying to look through the camera the same way as my mom might have,” Henshaw-Suder says.
Though the morning was cloudy, Henshaw-Suder wanted something to represent “time” so he went to a clock tower at the courthouse.
“Once there, the skies opened up and became clear on the courthouse,” he says. “This started the series as I re-considered the path my mom took with her experience dealing with cancer as I now was living but had outlived her ... always a major mile marker of life for me. This also set the stage for a continual lighting effect that seemed to occur as I saw images to capture.”
“Barnsville” is another interesting image on display, since it also was shot near Henshaw-Suder's hometown.
“I often passed this barn with my first camera. When I took this image, I was surprised to see the barn still standing,” he says.
Two weeks after this image was captured the barn was torn down. It was as if, Henshaw-Suder says, “it was standing up till I photographed it.”
Going back to his start in photography took Henshaw-Suder to a parking lot of the store where he bought his first camera, Schlabach's, which, at the time, was also the closest Nikon dealer to his hometown. That is where he photographed “The Horse and Buggy, Sugar Creek.”
“This is the heart of Amish country,” he says. “I remembered pulling up to the store to buy a Nikormat FT2. I thought the irony here was incredible —buy a camera where people do not want to be photographed.”
Henshaw-Suder says that purchasing the camera there and revisiting the location so many years later was “very emotional.”
“The image I saw was a ghostly image of three Amish girls as I tried to hide my camera to not upset them,” he recalls of when he shot the image. “I expected them to shield themselves from the camera but instead it was almost like I was a ghost and they didn't see me — which is very close to what I actually felt. But, again, the lighting that day was great, even though, when I arrived the sky was gray. But suddenly, the skies parted and the light started and the girls were highlighted and glimmering by the unique light.”
Not all of the images are as personally nostalgic. “Woodlake” for example, was shot in Midlothian, Va.
“This area of Virginia is full of Civil War history, to the point where you can feel it in your bones,” Henshaw-Suder says. “As I walk the path in this area, I can easily envision the war and the injured and beat-down soldiers within the trees. Soldier's limbs showed themselves to me as tree roots — a very ghostly feel from a tragic time in our nation's history.”
Pittsburgh, where Henshaw-Suder still maintains a small studio, is addressed, too, in a few of the images, even if not directly. “Wormsloe” was inspired by a photograph by the late Aaronel deRoy Gruber, one of Henshaw-Suder's favorite Pittsburgh photographers.
“I was inspired by her photo ‘Lonely Road,' which hangs on our wall,” Henshaw-Suder says. “I wanted to show the overwhelming feeling of the live oak trees with the moss hanging and then taking advantage of a fish-eye lens to highlight the live oaks and the moss.”
Eventually, Henshaw-Suder wants to have a final exhibit from an artist's point of view of “during, after and surviving cancer” and to bring an awareness that will inspire other cancer patients. “I'd also like to bring more awareness to the head-and-neck cancer that I experienced,” he says. “All cancer is bad, of course, but this cancer doesn't get too much press. The treatment, I'm told, is the worst, and I can verify this — it's very tough.
“The cancer monkey I still have on my back is captured in these images by the starkness and haunting feel,” he says.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.