Peter Sutherland’s photographs offer candid glimpses inside lives and subcultures that fascinate and intrigue us. Whether shadowing New York City graffiti artists for his book Autograf, or capturing the trials and tribulations of New York City bicycle messengers for the documentary film "Pedal," Sutherland always has his ear to the street and his heart in the game. We took a moment to chat with a jet-lagged Mr. Sutherland earlier this year, after his return from a trip that took him to Australia and New Zealand.
Please introduce yourself and tell the folks at home what it is that you do.
Hi, I’m Peter Sutherland, I shoot photos and make films.
What initially attracted you to photography?
I always thought photography was useless as a kid, but I really liked motion pictures — movies are what really attracted me to photography. I grew up watching skate and snowboarding tapes, and movies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off." I would watch the VHS tapes until they started to turn funny colors. As I got older, I started to make my own videos — that inspired me to do photos. The first thing I ever tried to photograph was a swarm of gnats in my mother’s front yard in Colorado, I got some alright shots back and that was enough for me to get really into it. I was about 22 years old then.
You just got back from Australia. What was it like and what took you there?
Australia was amazing. I was there to do an exhibition of the Autograf book at Someday Gallery in Melbourne. Someday is owned by Perks and Mini, or PAM, a super talented creative duo. Check them out, they make amazing clothing, books, fine art, and toys. The people there were very cool because they had an enthusiasm that made me feel welcome. Melbourne feels like a very young town, lots of universities and creative people. I also got to do a little road trip around New Zealand with my girlfriend Diana. It’s funny, many of the tourist maps are based on Lord of the Rings—watch out for the Orcs or whatever.
Your photography is very people-based. What attracts you to a particular subject?
When I originally started shooting I didn’t often use people as subjects, I was more into depressing landscapes and situations. As I’ve gone on shooting for the last few years I notice myself shooting people all the time. I’ve realized that one thing I really like about photography is access to a subject; it’s the personal, documentary, and voyeuristic stuff that I get really into. I tend to do projects about youth culture stuff; I think the individuals within a group are the most fascinating part of the group. There are always people that shine and become influential. I guess I find them the most interesting and inspiring to photograph. I like the challenge of photographing people in a way that compliments them or what they do.
Last year, you released the book Autograf — a collection of portraits of New York City graffiti artists. Can you tell us about the book and the experiences you had while putting it together?
I had many unforgettable experiences. I met over 50 active graffiti artists. I went out one night with a [graffiti] crew to photograph them painting and we were arrested as a group and [spent the night] in holding cells in Brooklyn. I ended up getting three days of community service after being found guilty of criminal mischief. Being locked up for 18 hours opened my eyes to how much freedom I have and how lucky we all are. It also gave me insight into what graf artists deal with. Now I appreciate graf that much more and I know how risky it really is.
Are you planning a follow-up to Autograf?
I have several projects planned or in-progress — some I'll finish, some will get shelved. The next thing to come out will be a book/DVD package called "Road Work." It is a documentary project about bicycle messengers. The photos were taken at the 2005 World Cycle Courier Championships here in NYC and the DVD is a film I made called "Pedal." "Pedal" is a documentary I made about NYC bike messengers; it came out in 2002, played at some nice festivals, and aired on the Sundance Channel from 2002-2004. This will be the first time it will be released on DVD, so I’m excited.
What has caused you to gravitate toward documenting subject matter like graffiti and outsider art?
I look at what I’m interested in naturally. I like heavy metal, rap, soccer, cycling, graf, and so on. I feel like I could take any of those interests and make some sort of visual project from them. For me it’s a way to get deeper into something I am already fascinated with. I grew up with very specialized interests—I got really into stuff, I think this is genetic. Both of my parents seem to have addictive personalities and I think they passed that on to me. My mom once told me about how she started smoking cigarettes — she no longer smokes. She bought a pack of cigs, sat down in a diner with some friends to eat, she smoked one cigarette, then she smoked 19 more in the same sitting and then she was a smoker for the next ten years. My brother is pretty focused also. I can see the addictive qualities in him. I think a lot of the youth culture and outsider art stuff is created by people with special interests and refined sensibilities about what they are doing and that is forever interesting.
I know you also work in film — specifically documentary-style projects. When did you become involved with filmmaking?
I moved to NYC in 1998. I didn’t know anyone. I was bored and lonely, girlfriendless, and working at a sucky restaurant. I really needed something to put my energy into. Mini DV was a big craze then and everyone was talking about how you could make your own films with these new cameras. I bought a Sony VX 1000 and started shooting skateboarders downtown. I did that for about six months and then started becoming interested in filming other things, which led to me shooting docs.
Before we finish, do you have any closing words or sage advice for our readers?
If you want to do something, it’s up to you to do it.