More concerned with reality than art world dynamics, Peter Sutherland makes largely autobiographical work around his life, family, peers, and travel. After twenty years in New York, during lockdown he decided to leave the city and move back to his native Colorado—resulting in a body of work brimming with nature, punctuated by hikes, camping, bike rides, and goat searching.
Interview by KATJA HORVAT
Katja Horvat: Nature is the most consistent and prevailing motive throughout your practice. Why is that?
Peter Sutherland: A lot of my work is autobiographical: I’ve used photography to document my own experiences—and being from Colorado, nature was always part of those experiences. I don’t want my work to be perceived as a form of activism, but I am aware how certain themes can convey an environmental, political attitude. In 2006, I did a whole photobook of deer; as funny as it may sound, there was so much allegory through it all. One photo that really struck a chord with me was of a deer in a parking lot. To me, that frame spoke to the way animals have morphed and adapted to mankind’s industrialization of everything.
KH: If you thought Colorado was becoming industrialized, how did you feel when you first moved to NYC?
PS: Weird! I lived in New York from 1998 to mid-2020—twenty-two years of my life. I came there with Colorado goggles on and left with NYC ones. Many New Yorkers see nature as a vacation space, but even after all those years there, I’ve never lost the sense of the city being the vacation spot, and nature being home.
KH: I remember you talking about leaving New York for some time, but after over two decades, it was COVID-19 that finally sparked your move back to Colorado. How did this whole ordeal change your perception of space and where you want to be?
PS: Actually, prior all of this started, we had arranged to move to LA. In March, before the lockdown, we headed to the West Coast for a month, and then everything just crashed. At the very beginning, New York got hit the hardest, and it just got me thinking about what would that mean for my business, how would that affect my day-to-day life, how would that affect my family. So, at first, we came to Colorado just to regroup, as my parents’ house was empty—they were in Florida, typical old America thing (laughs). But then we just stayed, got our own place, and started a life here. I want for my son Nima to have more than just a city experience. It was kind of exciting to have this forced change. We still might move to LA in a year or so, but for now, this is it. I don’t believe in numerology per se, but still—I am fourty-four and, as said, I was in NYC for twenty-two years, so that is half of my life. It was time for change.
KH: Outside of the obvious, what is the main difference between your life in the city and how you live now in Colorado.
PS: Daily habits have changed. In NYC, I would be eating in restaurants every day, but since we got here, I started to work on my health: I’ve been plant-based for six months now and I exercise more. As far as work goes, in the city you know about 2,000 people, but peripherally—which is cool, but it adds to the chaos, mentally. So here I pulled back. We live in a mountain town with approximately 7,000 people, so I don’t really get distracted, and I don’t have to hustle nearly as much as I did in the city.
KH: Nature can be perceived as therapeutic—a place to recover from whatever we are escaping or struggling with. All the outdoors activities you’ve been engaging in, like biking, hiking, and camping—what impact have they had on you?
PS: You do wonder whether it’s escapism, just plain sports, or if it’s a spiritual thing. For me, in some way, it has been a transformative experience. Today, for example, I went on a fourteen-mile ride with a friend. By bike, within an hour, you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, really far out in the woods, literally away from everything. You see the changes of season, of lighting. You disconnect from the world, but reconnect on a personal level. Everything just becomes more real and accessible here—all the things I dreamed of doing when I was in New York. This winter I will go snowboarding. I won’t…
KH: You won’t just watch it on YouTube.
PS: (laughs) Exactly! The actual experience is what charges me.
KH: You’ve traveled all around for your work—the Amazon, Greenland, Africa, Russia. When you’re out there working, do you react to nature in the same way you do at home?
PS: It sounds so cliché, but I try to keep childish enthusiasm and curiosity about the world at all times.
KH: I’ve been struggling a lot with that—I often take home for granted and overlook things closer to me. My friends always make fun of me, saying I’m one of those people that only posts pics of nature when I travel, but when I’m at home, nothing.
PS: That is really real for a lot of people. I try to break that by always putting myself in situations where things feel new. For example, these goats I recently shot—I first saw them when a friend posted them. It was an instant trigger. I asked her where these gnarly goats were, and I went on a mission to find them myself. It took a three-hour car ride, including this insane steep hill, just to get to them. But along the way, I shot photos of people hiking. I was really inspired.
Of course, there are times when I’m home and I’ll go weeks without taking a single shot, so I get it. But then I just push through and make work to break that cycle. I think the same discipline that goes into sitting with the work should go into making it. Working at Vice, sitting continuously with so many hours of material, editing non-stop, instilled me with a sense of discipline, I guess. But even before that, years ago, I shot a messenger bike film (Pedal, 2001), and that film was so much work that it made everything else that followed seem easier.
KH: Did that make the Richard Prince documentary look easy too? (laughs)
PS: No. (laughs) But let me first say that he resonated really hard with me at one point, even if just for his use of of sampling. I grew up with rap and hip-hop, which was built from sampling older jazz music, so seeing someone trying to bring that into art had my head spinning for a long time.
KH: So you went from being inspired by someone to spending years directing his documentary—only for the project not to be released. What can you tell us about that experience?
PS: Long story short, I wanted to make a short film about him, so I asked Vice if I could do it, and they set it up. When I met him, the first thing he said to me was, “If you want to keep filming after this, we can”—which I found totally bizarre, because at that point, he hadn’t even met me yet. Honestly, I think he liked my beard! I looked like Werner Herzog’s sound guy, or just something from the ’70s, and he was into it. From that first visit on, he gave me access to him like no other. I just kept filming, for months, years. I got emotionally attached to the project, and I was devastated when it ended, but I learned the hard way that everything happens for a reason. I just have to look at the positives, and how I had front row access to the biggest living artists in the world. I had the privilege to see how they do it, and how much it takes to be perceived as one of the best.
KH: I recently watched this amazing interview with the Pictures Generation artist Sarah Charlesworth, where she talked about how it took her years to finally be able to show alongside peers she identified herself with. Do you feel you’ve arrived at that point?
PS: I don’t, but I also have my own free way of doing things. Some people are very specific, and will only show work at the right place at the right time. But at this point, I’ve probably been in more than 200 group shows. This will sound funny, but I read this book by RZA not that long ago, and he writes how we should be generous with our creativity—the way he said that did something for me.
At the same time, I find that trying to work alongside your peers, comparing yourself or trying to keep pace with others, is problematic in itself. If you get too caught up in that whole ordeal, it can be counterproductive. I would say I got a good taste of the “real” art world at one point, and coming out of that experience, I felt kind of silly for having been so obsessed with it. It was really special, I wanted it, but once it happened, I realized it wasn’t everything.
KH: Have you ever thought about art as a means of giving back to the world?
PS: The most direct way I can see that happening is when I see someone younger being influenced by what I do. I don’t know if that would be considered “giving back,” but it fulfills this self-perpetuating circle. On a practical level, with everything we’ve witnessed this year alone, art has been able to have a minute/hour/day turnover to raise significant amounts of money for causes we’re fighting for. Art has the power to get us on the streets when needed, but also off. NYC alone was, and still is, so vocal during the BLM movement and helping communities in need during COVID-19. It’s so inspiring to see all of that. Just look at the ride-outs, the community fridges, the food distribution. Aaron Wiggs’ yard sale single-handedly raising $260K. When you bring it back around, that is the real tangible truth.
Peter Sutherland (American, b. 1976) is an artist working across fine art and commissioned photography. His work has been exhibited in institutions and galleries worldwide, including the Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis; Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels; White Cube, London; Zabludowicz Collection, London.