Su Friedrich’s Life in Moving Images

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This article is part of Hyperallergics 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

“It’s so hard from this vantage point to really grasp how tiny things were back then,” filmmaker Su Friedrich told me over the phone. “Back in ’76 when you went to the Gay Pride march, it was a couple hundred people at most. Walking down the street, you’d really get the sense of feeling like a minority compared to now, when there’s half a million people participating.”

For the last 45 years, Friedrich has shirked labels and dodged categorization through her use of the moving image. Transitioning from photojournalism and art photography to experimental film production in the ’70s, Friedrich charted an incomparable cinematic path that is equal parts meticulous and organic, developing a structure to her storytelling while naturally weaving in elements of abstraction.

Friedrich’s cinematography has been celebrated internationally through dozens of retrospectives, awards, and film festivals, and even by the Library of Congress, which inducted her 1990 film “Sink or Swim” into the National Film Registry in 2015. Now enjoying her retirement from teaching after 25 years at Princeton University, the filmmaker spoke with me about the beginnings of her career and the community that was instrumental to her creative pursuits as a lesbian woman.

Hyperallergic: How was it for you growing up in the Midwest?

Su Friedrich: I grew up attending Catholic school in Chicago — a co-ed grade school and an all-girls high school. To me it was kind of great because we lived right across from Lake Michigan, so I swam all the time. But in terms of coming out … Later in high school, I started getting ideas and my friends and I all joked about things like “which nuns are couples?” and so on, but it was 1966 so it’s not even like these topics were openly talked about or lived out at the time. I wasn’t really sexually active in college, but I did feel more like something was going on. I remember getting Alix Dobkin’s album and playing it for my mother, being like, “Isn’t this cool?” as she sat in horror listening to the lyrics of “Every Woman Can Be a Lesbian.”

When I was living at home after college, I joined a group called the Women’s Graphics Collective, which made really great silkscreen posters about all kinds of feminist and lesbian issues at the intersection of other societal issues. And pretty much everybody in the group was a lesbian, so I found myself suddenly around all these women and I thought, “Oh, shit.” Then I did get involved with one member of the group — she was my first girlfriend.

H: You moved to New York in the 1970s during an explosion of queer media and publications in the wake of Stonewall. What was that like, and were there any mentors for you at the time?

SF: I moved to New York in 1976 and have spent all my time as an adult and practicing artist here. You say “explosion,” but it was more like a little firecracker at the time. It was a new kind of visibility that was really important for all of us, but in the scale of things it was still quite small and we really were way back in the corner there doing our thing.

In terms of influences and mentors, I was a part of the magazine Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics and did their paste-ups for free — this was before the time of the computer so we had to manually lay out page spreads to send to the printers. It was an amazing magazine led by the Heresies Collective that included some important older artists like Joan Snyder, Harmony Hammond, and Marty Pottenger. To be around very solid, highly respected and productive women artists of Heresies was really important because this was only a couple of years after Linda Nochlin had written her book Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971).

These women had succeeded in having a foothold in the art world, and to be 22 and see these artists in their 40s, who had been through a lot worse than I have, be able to say “we belong here” was huge for me.

H: How did filmmaking become central to your practice?

SF: I did photography during college as an independent study since there were no film or photography programs at the time. Before moving to New York, I traveled through West Africa for months and wanted to become a photojournalist, so I got published in various independent magazines. A friend of mine actually brought me to the Millennium Film Workshop, which was in the East Village at the time but has since moved to Bushwick, because she wanted to take a three-day film course in Super 8 filmmaking and I was immediately hooked.

I thought, “Wow, the images moved and I can add sound — I’m done with photography.” So I began to sell off my darkroom equipment and hang around Millennium for years since their editing facilities were so cheap, and it just became this vital place for me for at least a decade. I’m still very good friends with filmmakers Leslie Thornton and Peggy Ahwesh, who were a huge part of my life back then.

H: How have you infused the essence of Su into your own filmography?

SF: I think you have to answer that question because I don’t think we, the makers, can see what our essence is. In terms of style, I always had the feeling that there isn’t just a single thing to do; I enjoy mixing text and images, real life and invented scenarios. I’d enjoy a narrative film one day, and watch a documentary at the Millennium that blew my mind the next. It just seemed like everything was there to be worked with, so it’s hard for people to label me because I keep things so open.

My work usually stems from something that’s based on my extended personal life — a family member, a memory, a feeling. They’re very personal, but then at a little bit of a distance because there’s a lot of structure and editing. “Sink or Swim” (1990) is the film that everyone seems to favor over others because it was fierce and confrontational, and it examined fathers’ relationships with their children at a time when that wasn’t talked about at length. It hit people in the solar plexus, so to speak, and I’ve been asked time and time again if I’ll ever make another film like it, but I only have one father, you know?

H: You recently retired from teaching film at Princeton University for 25 years. Can you tell us about connecting with younger queer artists through teaching and in general?

SF: A majority of my students weren’t committed to the arts but took my courses as an elective, but each year I had some students who were super serious about filmmaking and worked really hard. In the last few years, things felt different with the evolution of social media — everything became sped up and everyone was distracted. I was strict about having phones turned off during class, and I was also a very intense editor so I would have my students create a copy of a video project that I could edit directly for hands-on feedback to show them real-time alterations rather than just discussing them.

Connecting with younger and upcoming talent hasn’t been easy because I’ve been busy with teaching, my own filmmaking, building and maintaining my life in New York with my partner, and there’s just an overwhelming influx of new filmmakers and media in general. It’s definitely a loss on my part, but I’m just happy that all that work is out there and being done.

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