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Peter Sutherland, photos from “Sightings” series

Peter Sutherland is a New York based artist who moved to the city from Colorado in 1998. After arriving and working at a vegan restaurant toget by, his “big idea” of what to really do here wasn’t at firstevident to him but after experimenting with a video camera while documenting skate boarders it quickly became apparent. Peter has since embarked on countless “personal projects” involving both photography and documentary film making which have recently been gaining steady momentum for him.

Peter Sutherland, photos from “Sightings” series

His very first project, entitled “Pedal”, a documentary film that Peter embarked upon not long after arriving to NYC, is a compelling portrait of NYC’s cycle messengers and the fascinating culture that exists within this dangerous line of work. It premiered in 2001 at the South by Southwest Film Festival and in New York at the Bicycle Film Festival, and was later acquired by the Sundance channel, where it aired until 2004. Peter explains to me that he approached something like two hundred messengers during the making of the film, and featured those that illustrated best this slice of life that most New Yorkers regularly see but rarely understand or know anything about. Having no formal training in film & video Peter went out with his camera and shot something close to eighty hours of footage, a lot of it on his skateboard in hot pursuit of the riders as they went about their business.

Stills from ‘Pedal’. Photographs and Film Directed by Peter Sutherland, Film Produced by Ana Lombardo. Published by powerHouse Books. Distributed in Japan by Shimada.

It’s clear that the sheer amount of footage that Peter got paid off as the stories and lives these messengers unfold in front of the camera. A lot of moments that Peter’s camera captured simply can’t be planned for. Like the one where a young female messenger gets hit full force by a car at a busy intersection as she tries to beat the traffic, only to get up unscathed and take stock of her mangled bike.

It’s undoubtedly the characters with all their eccentricities that make Pedal a highly compelling film to watch, giving viewers a snapshot of a subculture that would otherwise be hidden to most people. Peter seems to have a knack of capturing people from all walks of life that he feels drawn to and has shown this with numerous projects. “Autograf” is one of them and is the title of his photographic book in which Peter captures some of New York’s most notorious graffiti artists. Each one of the fifty-seven portraits is shot in different locations, with New York City serving as a backdrop. In addition, each image is authentically tagged by the individual artist. This collaboration between Peter and his subjects allows for what would ordinarily be “off limits” to most. Peter shot many of the graffiti artists in such a way that concealed their identities due to the delicate balance of what many see as art, but others would call illegal vandalism. New York has seen a shift in it’s tolerance for street artists like these since 9/11 mostly due tof New York’s attempts to “clean-up”. Despite hiding identities of these street artists , the book is able to do what Pedal did with film by giving viewers a revealing and fascinating glimpse at something you know exists but rarely get to experience first-hand.

Photos from the book ‘Autograf’. Published by powerHouse Books

Another documentary called “The Mother Project” which Peter’s been involved with over the past three years gets its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. When I called Peter to arrange an interview he was busy preparing press kits for the event. Shot over the course of three years, this evocative and revealing documentary follows the controversial and intensely personal art photographer Tierney Gearon as she completes a new body of work that examines her very personal relationships with her schizophrenic mother. Gearon is best known for an image that caused great controversy in England, of Emilee and Michael, her two children who were then 6 and 4, facing the camera head-on and completely naked except for the animal masks they were wearing. The film is yet another example of Peter’s ability to access an otherwise delicate situation and capture it with great understanding and respect for his subjects in order to expose the intimate and compelling stories behind them.

Peter Sutherland, photos from “Deer” series

Speaking about his photography, Peter refers to it as more of a “Personal Art form” that he is able to enjoy without concerns that come with shooting video such as bulky equipment and audio. Being more in control and having this ability to move around freely he says, makes photography somewhat “easier” and “more enjoyable”.

Peter Sutherland, photos from “Deer” series

The subjects he chooses to shoot are things that he’s constantly getting ideas to document and there might be several ideas on the go that he’s simultaneously “chipping away on”. The latest venture, a book about Deer called “Buckshots” is something that stems from his upbringing in Colorado where he had direct access to natural habitat of deer and also people who hunted them. “I’ve always had this thing about owning animals”, referring to the fact that we own cats and dogs, “I like deer because they’re in a domestic setting but you can’t own a deer like cat or a dog”. The fascination for animal world is a constant theme that often crops up in Peter’s work. His first images ever taken with a camera shows a dark night sky lit up with the reflection of his flash hitting a swarm of moths that appear almost like stars. Another shot, which he took from the back garden of a friend’s wedding party, show’s a chance encounter with a wild fox who was momentarily frozen and staring straight into Peter’s lens from afar. The image is just one example of “an awkward moment” between fox and a person that he was able to capture by being in the right place at the right time.

When I ask Peter about his current work and things in the pipeline he tells me about a couple of projects: a film about an eccentric guy he met in Chinatown that lived in a van that was also home to dozens of his pet cats, a way less commercial venture Peter admits but “it’s gonna be weird!”. There’s also a book in the works, a portrait of one of Peter’s favorite hip-hop artists who is a Brooklyn based rapper that Peter approached after a performance to ask whether he’s be interested in collaborating. These personal ventures are what drive Peter to be a self-declared workaholic, although he has to set aside time to do the occasional commercial job. Peter’s time is currently divided between occasional freelance gigs, sometimes working as an assistant on documentaries and at other times on photo shoots for magazines. The ratio, he tells me it’s currently at about 70:30, seventy percent being personal work and the remaining thirty being commercial, and I can’t help feeling a bit envious as I quickly tell him that’s a healthy ratio to have!

Text: Garry Waller

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