In this interview with artist Susan Mara Bregman, we discover when and why she coined the unique name “Red Nickel,” how her photography has evolved over time, and why a “toy” camera remains her favorite to take photos with.
Read on to learn more, and be sure to visit Susan at the 2023 Open Studios event happening April 29 & 30. You can find her at Artists at New Art Center at Trio, 245 Walnut Street, 2nd Floor.
Tell us about your work and your process. What do you make and how do you make it?
I got my first SLR camera when I was in high school, although I can remember using a Kodak Instamatic and a Polaroid Swinger even before that.
I walked into my first darkroom when I was in college, shot black-and-white 35mm film for years, and did my own developing and printing. Then I took a class in night photography at the New England School of Photography and began to play with color film. Soon I booked my first trip to Las Vegas and began photographing the nighttime explosion of color along the Strip and the flashing lights inside the casinos. That’s how I got my business name Red Nickel – from a photo I took that showed a bank of five-cent slot machines against a crimson background. That trip got me started on my current creative path. Some 30 years later, I am still shooting neon signs, but now mostly in New England.
I have a BA in linguistics and a master’s degree in city and regional planning. I completed coursework in photography and related arts at Lesley University’s Photography Atelier, New England School of Photography, DeCordova Museum, Maine Photographic Workshops, and New Art Center. I have worked as an editor, public official, and transportation consultant over the years but always found time to pursue writing and photography.
Tell us about how your journey as an artist started. What is your background and what inspired you to commit yourself to a creative practice?
I am a photographer and a writer. My words and images focus on the everyday and overlooked aspects of the built environment, from neon signs and old diners to trains and bridges. I use digital and film cameras – everything from an iPhone to a vintage Polaroid – but my favorite camera is a Holga plastic camera that shoots medium-format film with delightfully imperfect results. I used the Holga to capture a series of images of trains and bridges, often moving the camera or shooting multiple exposures. Another body of work focuses on old neon signs — the more banged up the better — and I highlighted the region’s neon landscape in my first book, New England Neon.
Recently, I explored the game (and culture) of candlepin bowling, which has deep New England roots. That research resulted in a photo series and my second book, New England Candlepin Bowling. I’m currently wrapping up a photo project and book about roadside attractions along Route 1 from Maine to Massachusetts. But regardless of the subject, I love when my work evokes memories, whether a family dinner at the old South Pacific restaurant or a birthday party at a now-shuttered bowling center.
Tell us more about how your practice has evolved. What are some creative accomplishments you are proud of or milestones you have reached along your way?
My work has evolved from traditional black-and-white darkroom prints to digital color images. I am especially proud of a series of photos of bridges and trains that I shot with my Holga camera. The first time I picked up a Holga was for an assignment in a photo class. Considered a toy camera, a Holga has a plastic body and lens. The camera uses medium-format film, the negatives are square, and there are only 12 frames per roll. Images are soft and often display vignetting. The controls are minimal (and don’t really work), and shooting a successful photo requires a lot of trial and error and a little bit of luck. Naturally I fell in love.
Lately I have been using digital cameras to capture New England’s neon signs and roadside attractions before they disappear. The enterprises used to line main streets and back roads – diners, motels, bowling alleys, theaters, and the like – but many have fallen victim to time, weather, changing public taste in entertainment, and rising real estate values. But my photos do more than document a changing commercial landscape; they also evoke special memories.
Tell us about your creative community. Are there any friends, collaborators, teachers, patrons, or organizations who have supported you along the way?
Participating in live events like Newton Open Studios energizes and inspires me. Not only do I have an opportunity to talk with fellow artists about their work, but I love talking with visitors about the stories behind my work. Often, they share a recollection about a special time at a place depicted in my photos; people have reminisced about everything from a first date at the Rosebud Diner in Somerville to late-night beer runs to Blanchard’s in Allston.
I also take inspiration from online communities devoted to neon signs, road tripping, candlepin bowling, and similar interests. I can’t forget my road trip buddies – the friends who can navigate back roads without the help of Google Maps, zip through rotaries, bang U-turns, and park in barely legal spaces and dicey neighborhoods so I can jump out of the car and grab the photo.
Describe a particularly significant artwork you have created. Why was that piece significant to you and how did it impact your art making practice?
Twin Donuts is my favorite sign in Boston. The scaffold neon sign in the city’s Allston neighborhood dates from the 1950s. It is a simple sign. No arrows, no flashing lights, just the name of the business. I find the lower-case cursive pink neon letters absolutely charming, and the dot over the “I” adds the perfect note. I have photographed this sign in daylight and at nighttime, from the street and from a bus window, and I always see something new. This photograph of Twin Donuts, captured at dusk, is called “Donut Dreams.” For me it is the quintessential neon sign, representing the intersection of art, commerce, and science .
What’s next for you and your artwork? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
There’s always another sign to photograph, another candlepin house to check out, and (hopefully) another book on the horizon. But I’ve also been thinking about diving back into film photography. In addition to my toy camera, I recently bought a vintage Polaroid; lots of possibilities there. That said, six years ago I didn’t expect to be a published author with three books to my name. So, I will continue to be open to new adventures and new creative challenges and see where the road takes me.
Casey Curry is a writer and curator guided by the belief that the transformation our world so desperately needs can only come from deep cultural shifts sparked by visionary artists who make fundamental change irresistible. Her research is rooted in thinking creatively about arts administration to uncover what is possible when visionary artists are not just supported by administrative allies, but truly understood and valued by co-creators with complimentary skills that level bureaucratic barriers to societal impact through art.