We’ve all seen photos of the iconic women that changed the course of history, but rarely do we see them in their day-to-day lives, still on the cusp of fame. That’s exactly what Susan Wood accomplished through her work.
The 86-year-old photographer, who worked for magazines such as Look, Life, People, and New York during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, captured the faces of many then-fresh, now iconic women who broke ceilings and barriers, and thus changed the world.
Her colourful body of work recently culminated in a book titled “Women Portraits: 1960-2000.”
Keep scrolling to see some of her most powerful pieces.
Wood first became interested in photography when she was 16, and started taking photos on a family trip to Europe after her high school graduation.
Wood told INSIDER, “I decided to buy a camera in Germany, a 35 millimetre Leica, because I preferred something more immediate with what your eye is actually seeing. It put me on a direction of encouragement in a career that has to do with using your eyes to make art.”
She began forging her career path early on, taking over her college yearbook as a means to practice photography when her school offered no courses on the subject.
At Sarah Lawrence, Wood said, “There wasn’t any photography course, but there was a dark room and a projector, and a yearbook that nobody cared about. So we, this girl and I, took it over and raised money to make it a magazine, with a yearbook element.”
After graduating with a masters in art from Yale, she became a freelance photographer, taking photos on movie sets and selling them to magazines.
“It was all about forming relationships with the subjects,” she explained.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, her work appeared in major publications such as Vogue, Look, Life, People, and New York Magazine.
“It’s a long career. I’m still photographing,” Wood said.
The industry was male-dominated at the time, so Wood was never assigned hard news or sports stories.
“Women were treated differently then, so instead of hard news I was given ‘soft news,’ which included anything about Martha Stewart and Yoko Ono and so on, because at the time it was something that was considered ‘less valuable,’ or something,” she said.
She began asking the magazines she worked for to photograph subjects she was interested in, such as Barbara Kafka and Martha Stewart.
“I made suggestions of who I would like to photograph,” she said. “Now I have this book about women and they were all ceiling-breakers or originals.”
Only looking back at her archives now does she realise she had a beat: powerful women.
In an interview with CNN, she said, “I realised I was doing terrific work about women. I hadn’t thought about it or deliberately gone out to do it.”
She told INSIDER, “There’s some point in a long career where you’re starting over, but I realised just how lucky I was to have a beat.”
“There’s something in what I do that has to do with recognising the inner person in my subjects,” she said.
“I sort of recognise this as a true moment, whether it’s up or down, just an angle, with a body that seems to be their own. They’re not posing. I like to have that moment happen,” she added.”I try to find something about who they are beneath their mask.”
Of her subjects, Wood shared, “I tried to capture different sides, and I preferred to be around and get a sense of what they’re doing, even if they’re on the phone a lot. They forget about posing and are still living in these moments.”
“Until they have a reaction to someone or something, it doesn’t look real,” she said.
She garnered a lot of attention for the sense of reality she brought to all of her photos, regardless of the magazine.
“Even when I did House and Garden magazine, there was a certain sense of reality. They may have been fancy homes, but I brought real people into the pictures,” she said. “I had them looking comfortable in their homes, so I was innovative in that way.”
Through her work, she’s been able to meet and photograph remarkable women, like Barbara Chase-Riboud, who was one of her favourite subjects.
In her book, Wood says that Chase-Riboud “literally brought Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings out of the closet.”
She also worked with fashion designer Hanae Mori, one of only two Japanese women to have ever presented her clothing lines on runways in Paris and New York.
She’s explains that she’s photographed powerful women with all sorts of careers and paths, “it’s not just ceiling-breakers or actresses.”
While ceiling-shattering women were her main focus, they’re not all she photographed.
Wood also spent 40 years photographing in Ireland, compiling her work into a book called “Ireland: A Portrait.”
For example, she photographed iconic couple John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Look magazine.
She’s also photographed and interviewed famous 20th century males such as John Wayne, Normal Mailer, and John Updike.
Her favourite part about the job is “when I feel like I caught the essence of something.”
“It’s when I met a challenge and managed it,” she said.
“There were so many wonderful people I met and sights I saw where there was a challenge to make something work out of everything,” she said.
“It was exciting and wonderful,” she said.
“When I look back at it, I’m amazed,” she said.
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