Alexandra Fanning spoke with Suzanne Saroff about optimism brought about by spring, photography as a vessel to learn about oneself and the world, and the trouble with finding flowers during lockdown.

In our series, The Zealous Set, we talk to the artists catching our attention about what they’re creating, watching, reading, and what they’re being inspired by. This week we chat with Suzanne Saroff, whose brilliantly colored, meticulously arranged photographs create a serious mood.

If you like beautiful things, you probably follow her on Instagram @hisuzanne. You’ll also likely recognize her work in publications like New York Mag, T-Magazine, Manrepeller, or brands like Glossier, Prada and Calvin Klein.

Originally from Montana, now based in New York, Suzanne Saroff works as a paid creative by day and independent artist by night.

She creates exquisite still-life compositions with moody but brilliant colors, photographing mainly flowers, dabbling in fashion-y portraits, both human and animal (a rooster makes an appearance!).

What makes her images stand out is not only her use of luscious color and shadow but her technique of distorting the image in some clever way using glasses filled with water, or translucent spheres. The idea here is to alter the viewers perceptions, explore one’s interpretations of reality, taking the time to look at and appreciate objects around us.

More recently Saroff has begun to express feeling and emotion through floral arrangement. In one recent image, a red tulip appears to hold its leg aloft, like a ballerina. In another, a human hand reaches through a dense collection of yellow roses, tulips and Flamingo Flowers, Saroff cheekily uses the trending term “Return to Nature”, we are the virus.

We talked to Saroff about what’s inspiring her right now and how flowers are an amazing way to connect with people.

Alexandra Fanning: Tell us a bit how you got into photography, you’ve really found a unique aesthetic.

Suzanne Saroff: I feel the most alive when I am making artwork. Photography is how I learn about myself and the world. It helps me explore abstract ideas that I have in a tangible way. Getting into the studio is calming – a time of intense focus where I channel everything I feel into what I am making. I am obsessive with my work: when I have an idea I will focus on it until I feel it’s right and meaningful. I moved to New York when I was 21 and had a full-time job during the day.

Everyday I would go home and work on my photos into the night. It was a process and routine of discipline. In those years through my photos I was learning how to be patient and confident in myself and in my work. My process has evolved and I am focused on making new work, exploring new ideas. It’s nice to be able to spend all day working on my photos. In addition to making work for myself, I also have been lucky to work with great brands and editorial clients. It’s been a lot of learning and growing. 

AF: Where do you start with a series? How does a project begin to form?

SS: Sometimes I have a concrete idea, and other times it’s more abstract. It often just starts with a feeling that I then spend time with in the studio until it’s actualized. I often will have an idea and explore it until I am tired with it. And then, after taking a break from that idea, I will often be inspired by something and back up and explore it in a new way.

Suzanne Saroff, technique of distorting her compositions using glasses filled with water, or translucent spheres

AF: What’s inspiring you at the moment? What are you into right now?

SS: Recently it’s been walking through the city, visiting parks, feeling the energy of everyone around me, and letting myself feel the weight of it all. I hold on to the optimism that I see in the flowers blooming on street corners, and the blooming trees. 

I have been painting a bit too over the past couple of months. It’s been nice to get lost in that, and explore color palettes for my photos by mixing paints.

AF: You must meet a lot of interesting people through your work, but what types of relationships do you form through your artistic practice?

SS: Flowers have been a big way of connecting with people. Through the world of Instagram I have become friends with artists with similar approaches, often flower related. Going to the flower market on 28th street regularly was a big part of my routine pre-COVID-19. Every week, seeing familiar faces was nice. Now, with NYC shut down, I’ve been missing that. The bodega on my corner also stopped supplying flowers for a month during the quarantine. When the flowers came back I was happy to get some for my apartment, and the flower guy there seemed excited about it too. Connecting over the shared optimism of what the flowers coming back meant is a feeling that I’m holding on to.

AF: How are you staying connected with other artists and the art world at the moment?

SS: Recently Instagram has been a nice way to stay connected and inspired. Curating the accounts that I see in my feed to be those of artists, photographers, galleries and museums, and accounts full of flower fields and nature. I walked by Half Gallery in the East Village recently and I appreciated how they made their entire group show visible from the street.

AF: What are you listening to while you work?

SS: I’ve been listening to a lot of old records. Recently it’s been really eclectic: Jazz, Reggae, 90’s Hip Hop, Edith Piath. My Bill Withers record has been on repeat.I really like Billie Eilish’s recent cover of Sunny, the original Bobby Hebb song is one of my favorites.

AF: What are you reading and binge watching under lockdown at the moment?

SS: I just finished watching the second season of My Brilliant Friend, and feel a void now that it’s over. I have been reading a bit of poetry recently. Growing up I used to love reading poetry, and it’s been nice to get back into it.

AF: What’s next, what can our readers watch out for?

SS: I’ve been working on some larger scale still lifes, and will be sharing those soon. I have started to put together a book of my flower photos. Early phase idea right now, but it’s been fun to work on the visual narrative of it. Stay tuned.

AF: Fabulous! We can’t wait to see more.

Suzanne Saroff, Poppy