“Hey Ken, what’s with all the dark and fuzzy pictures?”
No, I’m not really asking that, but I’m willing to bet that someone who hasn’t actually spent time with Ken Rosenthal’s work might say or think it. That’s a part of it though, right? Perception. How we see things, and how we articulate them to others. In our fast paced, frantic, social media fogged, whirlwind world we often don’t take the time to really examine anything like we should. There’s always some other distraction - some fire to put out - some personal emergency that others don’t see. Finding peace to reflect upon art is important to one’s mindset as we try to navigate our lives in any sort of meaningful way…well, at least that’s how I see it. I think this is wildly important, in fact.
Like usual, the rambling, stream of thought writing I take part in when doing these intros does actually set the tone for what I’m trying say. It’s the tone that I wanted to portray in this interview with Ken. I wanted to take the time to have a conversation and try to sufficiently examine the arc of someones creative process. Time to see how one body of work may inform the next, and then the next, and so on. How does our life dictate where we are and how we perceive the intricacies of the art we wish to create? It’s all so….introspective.
What do we call this (you know, because we have to put labels on things, right?) - an exploration, a coming to terms with oneself, a personal spirituality? It’s art…so many questions, and so many roads to take in search of the “why”. The nice thing is that Ken has some thoughts and ideas on this, and I am a more enlightened person for getting to discuss his work and process. This one took some time, but I am more than grateful that it was given so freely.
Ken Rosenthal received a BA in still photography from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, and a MFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His artwork is represented by Klompching Gallery, New York; Etherton Gallery, Tucson; Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe; Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco.
Rosenthal’s photographs are in many public and private collections internationally including The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; The George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Portrait Gallery, London; Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; Portland Art Museum; and the Wittliff Collections’ Southwest and Mexican Photography Collection, San Marcos, Texas, which holds a major collection of his work.
Since 2002 his work has been featured in more than 150 solo and group exhibitions internationally. His work is currently featured in the four person exhibition Shots In The Dark at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (alongside photographs by Christopher Colville, scott b. davis, and Michael Lundgren.) Curated by Kate Ware, Shots In The Dark is on exhibit through March 31, 2019.
The first publication of Rosenthal’s work, Photographs 2001-2009, was released in 2011 and includes text by curator Rebecca Senf. Photographs 2001-2009 was included on photo-eye’s Best Books of 2011 list. His next book, Days On The Mountain, will be published in Spring 2019 by Dark Spring Press.
Michael Kirchoff: I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview with me, Ken. Though we’ve never met, I do know your work, and have had the honor of witnessing it’s progression over the years. In starting, I’d like to take a large step back and ask about what got you into the arts, with photography at the center of your own image making?
Ken Rosenthal: Thanks so much for inviting me have this conversation, Michael. You’re one of several photographers that, having seen your work over time and followed you via social media, I feel like I know in some way. I look forward to meeting in the real world one of these days.
I can trace my interest in the arts back to early childhood. I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents were passionate about the arts, and shared their love of art with me as far back as I can recall. My dad was an avid and focused collector of late 19th & early 20th century Western American painting, and I grew up in a home filled with art. They were both quite involved with LACMA, and took me to exhibitions and openings regularly. I feel very fortunate to have had that early exposure, and to grow up in a home where art was embraced, valued, and part of everyday life.
My father was an avid amateur photographer, and he introduced me to the darkroom when I was quite young. I used to help him when he processed film or printed on the weekends. I was given my first 35mm SLR when I was in junior high school. I’ve been an avid concert goer since my early teen years, and my initial photographic pursuits involved going to shows a few times a week and sneaking cameras into the clubs to photograph the bands I saw. The first show I photographed was Lou Reed at the Roxy, 1979. As technically deficient as those negatives are, I still have and treasure those little strips of Tri-X!
I entered college as a psychology major at the University of Southern California, but realized early on that psych was not a good fit for me. I came across a copy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s book Lady: Lisa Lyon, in the campus bookstore of all places, and was instantly captivated by Mapplethorpe’s work. It was unlike anything I’d seen at that time. I then found a copy of his book Certain Portraits, and shortly after that signed up for my first photography class. I had the great fortune of having Robbert Flick as a professor and mentor while at USC. He was incredibly supportive of my work, challenged my ways of thinking about photography, and encouraged me pursue a MFA in photography. Had I not met and worked with Robbert, I doubt that I would have gone down the road I did. I might have still pursued a career in photography, but likely not in the fine-arts.
MK: It’s wonderful that you are able to attribute the initial direction of your career to someone like that. I’ve met Robbert Flick on a couple of occasions and can attest to his insights into this career choice. You call him a mentor, which in turn reminds me of the times I’ve heard of you acting similarly with your help and encouragement of others finding their voice in photography. Do you feel that sharing your knowledge and experience with others to be an important aspect of your photographic life? Paying it forward, so to speak?
KR: Absolutely! I think it’s essential to the health and evolution of the medium. There have been so many artists that have helped me over the years, in ways large and small, via their advice, instruction, referrals, and encouragement. In addition to my photo professors, I’ll never forget the generosity of artists such as Arnold Newman (who I was fortunate enough to work as a printer for between undergrad and grad school), David Hockney, Sid Avery, and Fritz Scholder who shared their wisdom and experience with me when I was young and just starting out. I believe it’s incumbent upon me to reciprocate by helping other photographers if I’m able to…I’m a big believer in paying it forward.
MK: Before I address some of the newer photographs I’ve seen from you, I wanted to ask about identity and your past imagery that has a very specific and attributable look to it. There is no mistaking images from work in Seen and Not Seen, A Dream Half Remembered, or Missing as being yours, for example. Until more recently, do you feel that maintaining the creative decisions in your printing had helped you or put you in a box that needed to be broken free of?
KR: That’s a great question, and it’s something I really struggled with for some time. I would have to say both. I know that when I made Seen and Not Seen, and first started showing that work, having prints with such a distinctive quality was a huge advantage. That work stood out, and really helped me to find and establish an audience for my work. The subsequent series’ I released that retained that same formal quality went different places in terms of what I was addressing in each series, but they were linked by the diffusion and toning I was employing. By the time I began working on the series Days Between, which wound up being the final series in which I worked in that style, I was beyond ready to leave that aesthetic behind. I did not want to be bound to any expectations that anyone had for my work, and I felt that there was new territory I wanted to explore. There were images I was making that didn’t ring true when printed in that manner, and I couldn’t imagine making work to fit a process. That, coupled with my reluctance to feel I had to meet expectations (real or perceived), led me to step away from my comfort zone and move in a different direction. It wouldn’t have felt authentic to me to carry on in that vein, and if I’m not making work that is honest and moving forward then there’s no point in continuing to produce work.
MK: It’s interesting that you mention Days Between, since I had not realized this until speaking with you, but those photographs really do have the tone of stepping away from previous collections, while still embracing to a lesser amount, previous works. A transitional phase to be sure. I also wanted to bring some attention to another body of work that is at first glance quite different in it’s look and approach, Feathers. While continuing to contain your aesthetic, you introduce us to a different concept of portraiture that is quite revealing. Though you seem to have moved away from it, what is it about portraiture that had fascinated you, while also motivating you to handle it in such a unique capacity?
KR: Days Between was indeed a transitional series, and led into That Was The River, This Is The Sea and Feathers. It’s the only one of the diffused series that has no traditional portraits. It’s a very quiet group of images, and is still kind of a puzzle to me (which I like.) In the context of the 5 series that preceded it, it reads like a departure from portraiture. It really is the point that I began approaching the portrait differently, and many of these images function as auto-portraits for me. Not entirely dissimilar to the nocturnal landscapes in The Forest, or the landscapes in the series I’m currently three-plus years into, A Night On Fire, The Flood, and The Falls.
Portraiture has been at the root of my work since my undergrad days. Much of the work that was most inspirational to me early on was portraiture: Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Avedon, Penn, Bill Burke, Newman, Nadar, Cameron, Meatyard. I’m notoriously introverted, yet I do need periods of connection with others (especially as I work in such a solitary manner.) The camera has always functioned as a license to approach and meet others that seem interesting. The making of a portrait, for me, is a silent conversation between myself and the person I’m photographing. I don’t like to talk or offer much direction. People seem to instinctively expect some sort of dialogue or direction while being photographed, and I think that unexpected quiet leads to more honest moments where the sitter is less focused on how they are trying to present themself and their guard comes down (if only for a brief moment.)
I’ve also been sitting on an artist book that I finished a few years ago, that’s primarily portrait based but interspersed with some landscapes and interiors. It’s a companion piece to The Forest titled Days On The Mountain, shot entirely in NE Washington over a span of about ten years. Curiously, for me, it’s a mix of color and black and white. It was a really tough project to put together, emotionally, but I think I’m close to the point of getting the work out there. The book would be the final form, and I don’t think I’ll edition prints of the work (with the exception of a few images that would accompany a limited edition version.)
MK: There you go again, leading me perfectly from one body of work to the next. You mention The Forest, which was certainly a bit of a departure in terms of both style and content. It seems to be a launching point into your latest collection, A Night On Fire, The Flood, and The Falls, which I was pleased to find while viewing the latest Critical Mass submissions for 2018, and a big reason for why I wanted to do this interview. Your work is very personal, while also being extremely relatable in its scope. We can easily put ourselves into your shoes with regard to the ideas laid out in your photographs. Your most recent work can be attributed to personal struggles that have had a traumatic effect on you, and I’m not asking you to give any details you are not wanting to express, but do we also attribute this to the change in direction of your work? You are very introspective while giving us a conceptual view of what this is. Have the events ceased, and will there be a final culmination to this portfolio to be viewed more widely?
KR: In recent years there have been a number of extremely challenging incidents and changes in my life that have absolutely played a role in the change in direction my work has taken, no doubt. The Forest was in part informed by build up of this period of time. I’ve had six major life challenges I had to confront between 2014 and the end of 2017, any one of which would have been enough to throw me into a serious funk. It was basically a perfect storm that lasted about three and a half years. The cumulative effect was that I felt like there was very little in my life I had any control over. My work was really the only area of my life I really felt in control of for a good period of time. A Night On Fire, The Flood, and The Falls is absolutely shaped by these life changes. I found myself gravitating primarily towards landscapes which were radically altered by dramatic forces both geological and man made, and these spaces functioned as analogues for that in my life I was unable to control.
Have the events ceased? Knock on wood, I believe so. The details are not paramount to navigating through the series: we have likely all experienced adversity and/or trauma. But I’ll share details of the most recent (and hopefully the last) of the major hurdles I’ve encountered (and I’ll try to keep a very long story short.) I sold my home and studio of eighteen years in 2016, had a new home/studio built, and moved in in early 2017. Shortly after Thanksgiving in that year, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a loud crash in my home. I called 911, and locked myself in my bedroom. When the police arrived, I went downstairs and let them in. There was nothing amiss downstairs, but when they opened the door to my young daughters bedroom, the air was clouded by white powder. My next-door neighbors, three college students, had been screwing around with a loaded shotgun, and it discharged and shot through the wall of my home…inches above the headboard of my daughter’s bed. Thankfully she was at her mother’s home that night, but if it had been the next night she’d have been in bed when this occurred. There are really no words to sufficiently express what I felt that night (or, for that matter, over the seven months until the criminal court case against the shooter was resolved.) Two months after that incident I bought a new home and moved out. I was barely able to work until the the judge’s sentence was imposed on the shooter this past summer, but I have been working furiously since. If I had to guess, I’m about a year to a year and a half from completing the series, and I feel really good about where it’s at right now.
MK: Wow, I’m a little bit speechless upon hearing of this event, especially knowing that it was merely one of many you’ve had to endure of these past few years. Certainly, I am so glad to hear that things have eased away from events such as this. Also, I echo your statement that it was with luck that your daughter was not at home during this incident! I cannot imagine what that was like. Perhaps it best to move on from specifics, but instead go a slightly different route in looking at this work. I find it interesting that you found solace in the wanderings of your environment and chose to document them in such an introspective way. I can definitely relate to this, and within the context of so much of your work being portrait based, this feels quite like a self-portrait of sorts. Would you agree, and do you see this being a road you will go down a little longer? I ask this because I’m wondering how much and how long trauma like this can twist our work to create a new dialogue.
KR: I do agree that this series is in no small part a type of self-portrait. It’s certainly autobiographical. But I consider the vast majority of the work I’ve produced over the past 35 years or so to be autobiographical. I’m less concerned with what I’m actually photographing than I am with my experience with that space, person, or object. When I look through images I’ve made over time I’m exponentially more interested in my memory of where I was at in that moment in time than I am in where I physically was or what I was photographing. So, yeah, I think I tend to approach making work in a very similar way, even when there is a dramatic shift formally or with regard to content. I imagine I’ll carry on in this manner.
As far as trauma goes, I think it has the potential to indelibly shape one, and one’s work, indefinitely. I’ve lived with PTSD my whole adult life, and part of my youth, and those experiences continue to contribute to the narratives that run through my various series. For myself, a key is to accept that…to allow that to inform a part of my work, and the paths I choose. But not to define it.
MK: Leaving yourself open to fate, so to speak? Would you ever see yourself venturing into yet another genre of photography that you’d always wished to explore more of? Maybe that would seem too forced, especially for someone like you who is very much in touch with the photographs already so well conceived from your own psyche.
KR: I’m all for leaving things open to fate, it’s often a great path to discovery. I think it would indeed be too forced for me to venture into any genre of the medium, with intent, to try it out. That said, if I am led there naturally, that’s great. My projects typically take shape very naturally. I can’t think of a series I’ve made (assigned student projects excepted) where I began with the concept for the series and then commenced working on it. Even very early work, such as a series of portraits of veterans I made from about ’87-93 on Memorial Day at the Los Angeles National Cemetery developed this way. My projects always begin with images that I’ve made work prints of, and put in piles to consider. It’s only when several pieces reveal themselves to be in dialogue with each other, and speak to issues that are relevant to what’s going on in my world at that time, that I begin to take notice and separate those images. The series evolves from there.
MK: After having this discussion with you and understanding the timeline of how your work has progressed through the years, I can definitely see it that way as well. What about what others are doing? Do you study the photographs of others, past or present, and find any kind of influence in your imagery? Or perhaps influence from other forms of art?
KR: I do actively follow what others are doing, absolutely. It’s exciting to keep track of what my friends and colleagues are working on. Living in a smaller city, time spent browsing on the internet is essential in keeping in touch with the projects others are working on. I’m obviously most directly in touch with what’s going on in Arizona, and there is a wealth of innovative work being made by photographic artists in Phoenix and in Tucson. In the whole southwest, really. David Emitt Adams, Chris Colville, Claire Warden, and Mike Lundgren, to name a few, are all producing really engaging new work. I always love looking at work by Sugimoto, Richard Learoyd, Lisa M. Robinson, Masao Yamamoto, Sally Mann, and Hiroshi Watanabe.
I find myself more influenced by artists outside the medium, particularly those working in cinema and music. I see a lot of films each year, and my bachelors degree was in still photography from USC School of Cinema. Among others, I draw inspiration from directors Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Terrence Malick, and the work of cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki and Robby Müller. Influences are numerous musically, but I gravitate towards artists whose songs are atmospheric, cinematic in scope and, at their core, are masterful storytellers (i.e. Iron & Wine, Springsteen.) I also love the ambient works of Eno, which always craft aural landscapes in my head.
MK: It’s interesting to hear how many photographers are more influenced by other forms of art. Some even specifically on a song, album, film, or performance that highlight the inspiring artists career. I love that cross pollination of the arts. Was there ever a particular milestone or turning point in your career that has been a focal point for you? Maybe something that has increased the visibility of your photographs to others?
KR: I don’t know if I could single out any particular milestone, but I think 2004 was a turning point for my career. I feel that interest in my work had been building, but in ’04 it seemed to reach critical mass. I remember my work was well represented at the Photo LA fair that year, and seemed to garner a good amount of attention. I wound up signing with two galleries that had initially seen my work at the fair that year. I attended FotoFest in Houston that spring, and I had a number of great meetings that led to purchases to public and private collections, and several high profile exhibitions.
Meetings that I had over the years at Photolucida and Review Santa Fe also led to any number of opportunities that brought greater exposure to my photographs, as did self-publishing a small collection of my work in 2011.
MK: I would agree wholeheartedly that portfolio reviews can and do lead to good things. It’s clear that your participation in them has proven exactly that. In addition to reviews, are there any other steps you take in search of an audience for your work?
KR: Exhibitions, giving public presentations on my work, online and in-print features, and maintaining an active presence on Instagram have allowed me to keep the audience for my work engaged and to find new audiences for my work while allowing me to spend more time engaged in creating new work. For the last seven or eight years I’ve been much more focused on shooting and printing. In this time I’ve finished two large bodies of work, and am close to finishing a third exhaustive series. The myriad online platforms have been an invaluable aid in freeing up more time to devote to creation while still actively promoting work and giving people a peek at what I’m working on.
MK: Interesting that mention a platform like Instagram. I still hear many people speaking out against how it is destroying photography by devaluing it, while I’ve always found positive qualities to it. I see it as a way to passively promote to a worldwide audience, while like you mention, putting the time into the work where it really matters. Though, I’m not saying it doesn’t have its frustrations, however. Have you received a good response from the platform, and have you had any positive action happen because of it in particular?
KR: Yes, I too have heard a lot of negative talk with regards to Instagram. Some of it is valid, to be sure. The idea that Instagram is devaluing/destroying photography, though, is ludicrous. One could point to any number of things over the past 15-20 years that have devalued areas of photography (i.e. micro stocks), but if anything Instagram has generated great interest in photography for scores of people. Sure there’s a lot of nonsense on the site, but truly distinct work still stands out. I like that it’s a truly democratic platform, personally. And it’s really quite flexible: it can function in whatever way you want it to. For me, it part journal, part sketchbook, part promotional tool, and part barometer. I’ve had a good response to my feed, I think. It’s introduced some people to my work, connected me with others, brings awareness to shows, new projects, etc. It hasn’t led to anything major, nor do I expect it to do so. It’s just another piece in a larger puzzle.
MK: Yea, micro stocks, let’s not even get started about that...a whole other conversation to be sure.
So I’m thinking with all of your support of other artists, not to mention your inspiring work in the field of photography - do you have any thoughts or advice for those willing to take the plunge into photography as a career. Any words of wisdom to those wishing to further their own?
KR: In general, I think it’s hard to give blanket advice to people embarking on a career in photography. There are so many paths one can take in the medium, the field is crowded, and everyone has very different goals/desires/agendas. I think the words of wisdom I would offer is to be true. Make work that comes from a place of honesty and authenticity, whether it is for an assignment, commission or personal work. The most unique and successful work is made when you are true to your vision, and you make the work you not only want to make but you need to make.
MK: I’m going to agree wholeheartedly with you on the being true comment. Call it wisdom or advice, that in itself is a necessary objective for anyone in an arts career, and I’m thrilled you’ve said it.
I think we should wrap up this conversation by mentioning some new and upcoming things you have going on. I know of a current exhibition, a recent print acquisition, as well as other notable things going on. I think now is a great time to elaborate of all these wonderful events of yours.
I also want to take this time to extend my sincere and grateful thanks to you for making the efforts necessary to engage in this conversation and present this interview. It has been a pleasure getting to know you more, and with all of the discussion of your work, I feel the insight you’ve expressed has helped my understanding of your process greatly. I’m certain that others are going to feel the same way. Cheers to you, Ken!
KR: Yes, there have been some great developments of late. Work from my series The Forest is featured in a four-person exhibition, Shots In The Dark, at The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (through March 31, 2019.) Kate Ware curated the show, and the exhibition of nocturnes also features work by Christopher Colville, scott b. davis, and Michael Lundgren. It was exciting to work with Kate, who was an early supporter of this work. I believe she was the first person I showed prints from the series to. I couldn’t be happier to be in this exhibition, as all of the works in the exhibition fit together perfectly and Chris, scott and Mike are all friends and artists I have great respect for.
About two weeks before I drove out to Santa Fe for the opening, I was in Northern Arizona shooting for A Night On Fire. I was contacted by The Getty to let me know that they had acquired an early print of mine (from Not Dark Yet, 2002) for their collection. That was a great way to end the year.
The last bit of news, which I won’t go into great detail about so as to keep things interesting, is that Days On The Mountain is being published. I’m working on it with a dear friend of mine, Andy Burgess, who started Dark Spring Press about two years ago. This has all come together since we started our conversation back in December. It will come out this spring, and appropriately enough we’re going to have the book launch in the Pacific Northwest.
Cheers to you as well, Michael! This has been an absolute pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity to have had this conversation, and I hope before too long we’ll be in the same place at the same time and can continue the discussion in person.
You can find more of Ken's work at his website here.