Thursday, November 12, 2009

Susan Sexton by Terri Miller

One of my oldest, dearest friends died last night.

We first met, of course, at a horse show.

It was 1981, at Knoll Farm on Long Island, and I felt like the circus had come to town. Susan Sexton and her three teenage kids had arrived in their motor home to photograph the dressage show. I was a budding equine photographer myself at the time, and I’d just graduated from the School of Visual Arts in NY. Susan was photographing, Ted was juggling, Meg was turning cartwheels, Stephanie was manning the photo stand…. I didn’t know what planet these travelers had arrived from, but I thought it must be a pretty cool place. It turns out it was Arizona, and Susan had packed up the family, outfitted her motor home as a darkroom and taken off across the country to photograph dressage.

For those of you who don’t remember such things, “mobile darkroom” in those days meant a huge processor full of chemicals and actual darkness in which to turn silver halide into images on celluloid film. It was not just a computer and an ink jet printer! A mobile darkroom was a major undertaking, and in Susan’s case meant photographing all day, then processing pictures all night in order to have photos to sell the next morning. That she was doing this, at a different location each week, with three teens in tow, and that the kids seemed pretty happy about the whole thing…. I was impressed, to say the least.

So began a friendship of nearly three decades. Susan eventually settled in Massachusetts, installed the color processor in the basement. Sometimes we covered the larger shows together as competing photographers, but when the show was over for the day we’d have dinner together. We shared creativity, business tips, and many, many drinks.

Over the years we met up at shows all over the country: we survived Dressage at Devon when it took place in the heat of July, and outlasted it when it became a six-day behemoth in September; Lexington, KY for Pony Club Festival; Chesterland, Radnor, Groton House, Fair Hill events; Florida since the dressage circuit first started down there, and Los Angeles and Las Vegas for World Cups. We bunked at each others’ apartments if there was a show nearby, or just for the fun of touristing in our respective cities: Susan near Boston and then outside Washington DC; me in New York City and later San Diego.

We adventured in cool places; Sedona, Santa Fe, Shenandoah. We trekked through the paradigm shift of transitioning from film to digital. Susan journeyed on from Warrenton to Chicago, and from Chicago to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she insisted that she was retiring…. but artists don’t retire. And then she returned, full circle, to Phoenix.

We discussed everything under the sun. Art. Photography. Science. Books, movies and politics. And men. And, of course, horses. Always horses.

In all my years as a photographer, the mere existence of Susan, and her considerable talent and artistry, spurred me on to improve my own craft. I knew she would always come up with a great shot, so I’d better have my “A” game on whenever I picked up the camera.

So Susan, thank you.

Thank you for tequila, and for chili with chocolate in it.

Thank you for wearing silly, vision-distorting glasses on the streets of New York with me. And country dancing with the cowboys of suburban DC.

Thank you for years and years of dressage, and eventing and baby horses and shared friends.

Thank you for being my role model of a bold, adventurous woman and artist.

Thank you for being outspoken and forthright … and having the wisdom to be kind, too.

Thank you for being there to console me when I dated the wrong men, and thank you for being there the day I married the right one.

Thank you for being my toughest competitor and my staunchest friend, both at the same time. I am a better photographer and a better person because of you.

And I already miss you.

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