By Addie Joseph
When he wasn’t in the classroom, Leonard Sussman often could be found at work in his office on the seventh floor of Baruch College’s Vertical Campus, sipping a cappuccino he had brewed in the machine behind his desk. It was a snug space, shaped by decades of teaching and photography experience.
To his right, one wall held bulletin boards that displayed a patchwork of photo prints and past exhibition posters; facing it, a full-length shelving unit housed books, portfolios and digital and analog photography equipment.
“It’s been a place away from home, a home away from home, sort of, for a long time,” Sussman, 72, said during an interview in his office in November. “Forty years at Baruch, not (all) in this office, but it’s a long part of my life, even more than half of my life.”
Sussman, an accomplished Fine-art photographer who focuses primarily on landscapes, retired as a professor and the Deputy Chair of Art in Baruch’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the end of the Fall 2019 semester. During his long tenure, he instilled a passion for photography in his students, while pursuing his own artistic endeavors around the globe.
“I feel very lucky to have been able to do this for a long time,” said Sussman.
Sussman’s photographs have been featured in numerous individual and group exhibits in the United States and Europe, and he also showcased his work at Baruch, most notably in a 2005 solo exhibition, “From Sardinia to Berlin” at the college’s Mishkin Gallery.
Such achievements and an unwavering dedication to his craft were a source of inspiration to his students and colleagues, including Joel Lederer, an adjunct assistant photography professor who first got to know Sussman about 10 years ago when he began teaching at Baruch.
“He seemed to embody a seriousness about his work that was kind of infectious,” Lederer said. “He didn’t really have to teach (it), you’d just kind of have to be around him, in that way.”
Sussman moved to New York from California in 1975 to pursue an MFA at The Pratt Institute, planning a career in teaching and practicing Fine-art photography, rather than working in commercial photography. He graduated in 1977 and two years later started teaching at Baruch College as an adjunct professor of photography. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, it would be the start of a long and impactful career.
Sussman adopted a traditional style to teaching film and digital photography, based on his own experiences in and out of the classroom, which fostered his students’ growth as artists. He lectured at the start of the semester, providing his students with a solid foundation of photography techniques and understanding, then opened the darkroom to students, encouraging them to learn through practice.
“(Students) use me as a resource and we have frequent critiques looking at the work,” explained Sussman, “me talking about it, as well as the students.”
With this class setup, students said they gained a well-rounded understanding of shooting, developing, editing and printing techniques, without relying on guesswork to achieve the results they desired.
“He’s a lot more technical,” said Julie Tracy, who was in Sussman’s fall 2019 Intermediate Photography class. “He’s given us a lot more details about light and dark and how to manipulate the camera.”
Students appreciated the freedom Sussman’s teaching approach gave them. “He makes the class have a very open-ended and creative expression, where you could do whatever you wanted to do and take the pictures you wanted to take,” said student Franklin Poveromo Jr.
Beyond being recognized for his dedication to teaching, Sussman also was an amiable presence on campus. Lederer recalled that Sussman always seemed to be interested in how he was doing and what he was working on, when other colleagues would forget to ask. The two also send each other articles and other content they think the other will take interest in, Lederer said.
Sussman brought the same friendly and thoughtful attitude to the classroom.
“There’s a banter in the classroom that I think’s friendly, sometimes it’s a little sharp, but it’s just his sense of humor,” Tracy said. “I think he recognizes when people need a little more support and he also recognizes when people need a little more room to play. So, I think, in my experience, he’s been a great professor.”
Gary Quintal, a lab technician for the Department of Fine and Performing Arts Department since 2002, described him as “a casual and easy-going person” who was able to positively critique students’ work.
In fact, Sussman viewed critiques as an important part of his classes and scheduled them frequently throughout the semesters. He used them both as an opportunity to give feedback to students’ progress, but also to encourage students to develop and voice views on the works presented by their classmates.
“I always talk about how important it is for them (students) to participate,” said Sussman. “I’ll also say that when I give my opinion or talk about what I think about a piece, and someone argues, that I’m perfectly happy to listen to what they have to say and frequently I’m open to changing my mind about the work if they present a good enough argument.”
Before his retirement, Sussman scheduled his photography work around Baruch’s academic calendar, doing extensive work in New York, Italy, and other locations. But for the past five years his curiosity has drawn him to colder regions, bringing him to both Antarctica and the Svalbard Archipelago in the High Arctic of Norway. He has returned to Svalbard five additional times already, braving frigid and vastly unfamiliar conditions for weeks on end, intent on capturing the beauty of the region as something he believes we should strive to preserve.
“For him to go up north and document the melting of our world is seriously, seriously impressive,” said Lederer, “That’s something I’m going to keep with me forever, like, ‘I worked with a guy who did that.’”
While Sussman is interested in returning to Svalbard post-retirement to capture the environment in more varied conditions, his next project is set in Greece, where he will start a residency in June, collaborating with Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos and potentially working on other projects.
“I’m doing more than I ever have,” said Sussman, “I think I’m doing my best work. So, I don’t think I’ll have the problem of ‘what am I going to do now that I’m retired,’ it’s more an issue of ‘how am I going get everything I want to get done, done,’ which is a good way to be going out.”