An Interview with Kenneth Shevlin

Meet Kenneth Shevlin: artist, former commercial photographer and participant in Dickerman Prints' artist-in-residence program.

Kenneth's unique and varied photographic works range from the surreal to the hyper-real. His Places In-Between | New Landscapes series emulates the style of 19th century impressionism using a homemade pinhole camera. Meanwhile, My Space takes an intimate look into that most personal room in our home: the bedroom.

Recently, Kenneth was kind enough to spend some time chatting about his photography and career. Here is that interview...

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DP: What does photography mean to you?

Photography is a complicated subject for me. In a day and age when everyone has a camera in their pocket and the ability to broadcast every moment of their lives, I find the amount of images I encounter on a daily basis overwhelming. The over saturation of imagery in the world maybe even threatens the medium of photography to be taken seriously. As far back as 1977 Susan Sontag had already written in her book, On Photography, that - 

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Photographers today seems to relish the idea that “there’s an app for that…” or “Don’t worry about it, I can change it in post…” Expediency and convenience seems to be king in the medium, robbing it of a kind of specialness. I’ve always loved photography and the potential for it’s meditative process in making art.

I think that’s why photographers like Ellen Susan and Sally Mann use the 19th century collodion process. Aside from the unique images that are created through this process, I imagine the cumbersomeness of that process slows them down and helps them more deeply engage with their subjects.

Photography is a complicated medium that skirts the line between a means of art making and a mechanical reproduction process - (Think Walter Benjamin). So what does photography mean to me, or rather why am I a photographer? I like the process of using a camera as an investigative tool and hopefully uncovering new ways of seeing and interpreting the world. That and I can’t paint!

 

You have spent most of your career as a commercial photographer. How does that work differ from your passion projects?

To clarify, I only spent a relatively small amount of time as a commercial photographer in the early to mid 1990’s … and most of that time was spent as a first assistant to a very successful commercial photographer here in San Francisco. He specialized in fashion and table top. It’s safe to say that experience killed most of my interest in commercial photography and almost killed my interest in photography in general. After quitting my assisting job and any commercial photography pursuits, I didn’t really pick up a camera again until 2010.

 

To answer the second part of your question, although quite a stretch in time, the way my photography differs now from before has everything to do with having gone to college and studying art history and conceptual art practice. Art history taught me how to think about art aesthetically and how to appreciate art and its trajectory in a social and historical context.

The conceptual art practice part taught me how to challenge conventional thinking around materials and what art could actually be outside of mainstream interpretation. The experience taught me to think about the “why” and “what" when considering what I was doing. I think without that experience I probably would never have come back to photography… up until then it had seemed so devoid of meaning for me… other than a way to promote products.

 

Can you describe the idea and inspiration behind your My Space project?

The My Space project came about in late 2014 while recalling my childhood. I had these memories of hearing nightly muffled interactions between my parents through our shared bedroom wall. Usually devoid of any discernible content because of the wall separating us, my parents bedroom became a mysterious place where private things were spoken about, done, and kept hidden away.

Being left alone quite a bit as a child, I would enter their bedroom as a kind of anthropologist any chance I got. I would search through their drawers and closet trying to find clues as to what was going on in that room during those nights. I came across allot of things I shouldn't have: A gun, war medals, pornography, money, cigarettes… It was both fascinating and frightening to me that my parents were one thing on the outside and two complete strangers to me when inhabiting their bedroom. So it got me thinking about the bedroom as unique space, the things we do in that space and the artifacts we keep there. So as a subject, photographing bedrooms seemed it could make an interesting series.

I’m still working out how best to present the spaces in terms of the amount of room to photograph and composition. Once I figure out what seems to work best, I plan on doing as many rooms as possible for a future show and maybe even try to self-publish a coffee table book of the images.

 

If you could photograph the “spaces” of any five people – living or not – who would they be and why?

I’m not sure. It’s the same issue I have with “if you were marooned on a desert island, what album would you want to bring with you?”  

I’ve found every room I’ve photographed so far to be fascinating in some respect.  I go into every environment excited by the challenge of how to compose the photograph and how to light it.  What I find fascinating are the participants reactions after seeing the completed shot of their bedroom. It ranges from them really liking the photo to feeling it looks like some kind of forensic crime scene … filling them with a kind of dread … I guess I couldn’t ask for a better reaction!

 

Your landscape series attempts to emulate the look and feel of 19th century impressionism, what draws you to that particular art style?

For this body of work, the impressionistic look is a result of having used a pinhole camera. I felt the landscapes needed a particular visual style in order to explore the idea I was having about them. Namely, rapidly diminishing open spaces resulting from resource extraction and the expediency of wholesale development.

I felt Impressionism as a recognizable style was both in concept and technique best suited to the look I was trying to achieve. In this approach I’m trying to blend the scene, allowing light and natural forms to subsume the disfigurement caused by human imposition. My hope for these images is that they create an abstracted landscape existing somewhere between the literal and the imagined, encouraging contemplation around more thoughtful use of these spaces and the need for their conservation.

 

You developed your own pinhole lens for full frame digital cameras. Can you talk a bit about how you made it and how you use it?

 

There was a lot of trial and error getting the pinhole lens configuration to work correctly. Lots of gluing, drilling, step up rings, ND filters …etc. Even with the final lens configuration, it’s still a very hit or miss process trying to capture the image when shooting, but I love the process.

One of my favorite parts of being an artist is experimentation. I think most good ideas come from the “happy accident” when trying to solve creative problems. Recently I bought a new camera body from a different manufacturer … now I have to make the lens all over again!

 

You recently returned from a long photographic trip along the Northwest coast of America and Canada. Could you share a few of your favorite stories and photos from the adventure?

Indeed I did…last summer. It was an amazing trip. I try and get out onto the road each summer for a month to recharge and do the landscape work. It’s also a time I like to think about new photo projects. This trip though, I did more thinking than photographing.

My hope this last trip was to focus on the West Coast. Photographing the sea and the surrounding area from the tip of Washington State down back into California. Unfortunately with the strange weather - El Nino and The Blob (large mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean) most of the trip the entire coast was blanketed in fog.

So short of a meditation on the color grey through photography, I opted to do a bunch of reading on photography and exploring coastal towns. Many of those towns relying on tourism (now that logging is mostly gone) reminded me of something out of a David Lynch film …. scenes of desperation mixed with anxiety, fear and secrets. Could be another body of work!

 

On your Web site, you claim to have “no interest in whether analog photography is better than digital.” This begs the question, “why not?” Also, which do you prefer and why?

Well I’ve since removed that from the web site as I am not sure how much it added. But to clarify… My relationship to photography has always been a bit frustrated by the tension of its need for supposed precision, science and loyalty to purism and tradition. That and there’s a certain machismo around “gear” and the medium as if it were a kind of sport. It’s a real turn off and ultimately has no real bearing on the making of meaningful images.

It seems, unlike in other art forms, there’s this perceived notion that photography has a set of rules that need to be followed: One must use the correct shutter speed and exposure. There’s a particular lens or manufacturer that’s better than another. Adherence to “classical” composition is mandatory for a proper photograph. Lighting ratios … needing to follow development chemistry exactly (mostly during the days when I worked in the darkroom)… Pro vs Prosumer… A full size sensor is better than a cropped. It goes on an on. As far as I’m concerned these divisions are meaningless and do nothing to further photography as an expressive art form. Mostly it seems to relegate the camera’s use to an elite class of technicians working within a set of confining parameters.

With the development of digital photography there were the arguments between the purists and early adopters about how analog was better than digital…. how film had more fidelity or dynamic range or resolution. In the meantime most of these detractors were still doing the same stultifying work they’d always done. I don’t know… maybe the same arguments went on between those early photographers doing daguerreotype, ambrotypes and tintypes. Ultimately it all just seems like a bunch of noise.

I realize in the stridency of my response I should probably differentiate between my impressions of commercial photography and art photography. My experience working in commercial photography taught me it was important to represent the product or brand idyllically (realistically?) at any cost - regardless of the inherent falseness of the final “hero image”. This most of the time required manufacturing shots by using professional models wearing tailored clothing or in he case of table top … glycerin and water to emulate water droplets on a beer bottle. In these instances maybe it does call for a kind of science, being there is a need for consistency and repeatability.

On the other hand, with art photography (my opinion), it’s not always just about the final image, but the creative process of working towards the desired idea independent of the accepted means and conventions of getting there. More of a free and exploratory process of trying to create something unique in look, texture and feel ….something one of a kind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the reluctant say, “I’m not a good photographer … I don't know how to use a camera” …. It’s hard to imagine the individual(s) who did the cave paintings at Lascaux having such an ingrained notion of proper technique and skill!

So as to which do I prefer… analog or digital photography? Neither … they’re both great. I do more digital photography as it affords me the opportunity to experiment economically.

What projects are you working on during your residency at Dickerman Prints?

For the residency at Dickerman Prints, I will mostly be working on the pinhole landscape series. I did however work with Seth for one session on a “My Space” photo… discussing how I might do some adjustments to the image before printing. If time permits I’d like to work with Seth and print more from that series before the end of the residency. 

What advice do you have to those among us who dream of following their passion and turning photography into a career choice?

If you're talking about advice on how to become a commercial photographer as a career choice …. do NOT spend $100,000 to go to a art school to become a commercial photographer. Find the commercial photographer who’s work you admire and figure out a way to assist with them. You’ll learn more about technique and business that way than all the classes you could ever take at the Pasadena Art Center.

If you want to follow your passion as an art photographer …. get a skill … wait … get a few skills that you can use to make a living while pursuing your vision and personal style. Don’t be afraid to break rules. Create projects for yourself and figure how to bring them to fruition. Figure out what your work is about and why you’re doing it … it will help as a guide in realizing the look, feel and content of what you’re exploring.

Finally try and get into a residency program like the one offered at Dickerman’s. The ability of being able to work with an artist and master printer like Seth would be invaluable in helping you to get closer to whatever vision your trying to achieve.

 

To meet Kenneth and experience his pinhole landscape series, be sure to stop by opening night of The Residents: Volume III - Friday, December 4, 6-9pm at Dickerman Prints Gallery - 1141 Howard Street, San Francisco.