ON CALIFORNIA, PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE SUBLIME | A CONVERSATION WITH MIKAEL KENNEDY
Photographer Mikael Kennedy meets me for drinks on the warmest day in the past six months. At first we said we’d grab coffee, but who are we kidding, it is a balmy 50 degrees in Soho and everyone is feeling down right Californian. So, as if on cue, we order what turns into four quartinos of Reising to discuss photography, his side business in dealing ancient rugs (more on that later) and his recent book, titled simply, California.
Marisa Zupan: Tell me about the book. You needed to escape New York City and so you went California and shot tons of film?
Mikael Kennedy: Ha, well, I think my friend Jeff Thrope and I were both just fed up with New York at the time. He was going to be on the west coast so I said, I’ll come meet up with you. So I flew to San Fran, drove down, and found Jeff where he was living in a school bus on top of a mountain in Big Sur. And we drove. We drove a lot. Big Sur to Nevada City, to Mendocino and back.
This wanderer’s trip—was the work it produced what you were hoping for? I know it is a departure from your well established Polaroid work.
Well, before the trip I bought a Canon A1 on ebay for 30 bucks. Polaroid had stopped production in 2009 and I started moving away from that work. I still have Polaroid film but it doesn’t react the way I want it to. So I was looking for a new way to travel and take pictures with a small camera that wasn’t invasive. A point of shoot, but a little more controlled. And even so, sometimes the photos were out of focus and I don’t care. I shot 500 photos (compared with thousands if shooting digital) in seven days and I wasn’t able to look and see what I got. I was able to be in the moment and travel and shoot. It was one of the most enriching photographic experiences I’ve had in a long time. It has my mind thinking in a whole new way of motion. And color. It actually ties into the rugs.
Ha. I was wondering how the rugs connect to the photography—walk me through that.
[A while ago] I discovered the the Hudson River Painters — I would go to the Met almost every day to look at that work. Then I started going to the Cloisters to look at tapestries…and went back to the Met and started looking at the Islamic art, and the rugs there. It became the same visual language to me. These tapestries and rugs. The color blurs and patterns and just…beauty. There’s something interesting about the sublime, and the revelation of beauty and what it does to the human consciousness and that is how is see this body of work—California is just a visual experience. There is no message.
So, the basic elements — shape, color, pattern — are meant to evoke an emotion that is connected to a place, or feeling or nostalgia…
Well, I hope it is not nostalgia. A lot of my earlier Polaroid work was reviewed as nostalgic. Someone once said of my Polaroid project Passport to Trespass, “I am nostalgic for a life that isn’t mine”. But this time around, I just like the simplicity and the serenity of it, more than the nostalgic quality of it. I find that idea boring. Actually, I find photography really boring in some ways because I find it everywhere. Everyone takes pictures. Everyone takes beautiful pictures. It’s not that hard.
Let’s talk about that: the rise of the Internet, the iPhone and the democratization of photography. Do you find all that threatening to professional photographers?
No. I think the difference between taking pictures and whatever else you want to call it —being an artist or a photographer—is making a photograph mean more than a photograph. In a sequence, an artist or photographer is able to create something other than just a pretty image. Years ago when I was applying to every art fair and festival I could find, I would send in five Polaroids that were beautiful but no one would get it, they needed to see the entire piece. It’s like taking 5 notes out of a song and asking someone what they think of it. But when you see those photos in the scope of 12 years of Polaroids it then becomes something else. And there are amazing Instagram photographers out there right now who create fully thought out visual worlds and I’m not voting to say there is anything wrong or less about them.
So, it’s less about about the device, or a single image, and more about the body of work that you create?
Yeap. There is a quote from Tim Hetherington the war photographer “I am not interested in photography I am interested in visual communication” and I think it is the most accurate description of what am trying to do. I don’t care if I shoot it on a phone or digital, or Polaroid, especially if we are talking about the Internet. All the shows I do, the majority of people who see them don’t come to the actual show, they see them on the Internet.
..and that relationship with the Internet poses an interesting tension with the book. I’ve noticed there’s a kind of reverse trend happening where artists who have seen Internet success are creating physical experiences that bring more value to the work.
Well, yes of course everything I do is a contradiction, [he says with a laugh], but I think that is a strength. Everything has the experience mixed into it. So yeah, I believe in bringing it offline and giving people a physical experience. I think people are realizing that 60K followers on Tumblr or Instagram are meaningless unless you bring meaning to it. I’ve heard the internet called the great liberator. And everything I do is make possible by the Internet. But I don’t really care what happens there if it doesn’t have a real world application.
Not to get circuitous, but that does brings us back to the rugs – very real world things, with very real world applications.
Yes. Well, for example, the rug I just dropped off at the Wolverine store is a 120 year old prayer rug. And 120 years ago someone wove that rug. And then someone prayed on that rug on their knees and hands. They’re art objects, filled with traces of humanity.
Mikael is known for his work with the likes of J.Crew, Billy Reid, Filson, & Wolverine Boots, as well as his fine art photographs, some of which have a permanent home at Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX.
// California is published by Done to Death Projects. It is currently sold out but soon to be availble for purchase at Clic Gallery & Bookstore.
// View Mikael’s work and request prints at mikaelkennedy.com
// Read more about King Kennedy Rugs on Style.com