Thank you to everyone who submitted their work to Terrain, The Kiernan Gallery was pleased to have Sean Kernan jury this show. We have asked Sean a few questions about his work.
As recipient of Santa Fe Teacher of the Year Award, your classes are well regarded. Your classes focus on the creative process leading up to making the photograph. What is your stance on the process of art making versus the product of art?
I never studied photography and I never learned how to teach it, so I had to intuit an approach. At the beginning I had been as caught up in the seductive mechanics of cameras and technical considerations as the next person, but still something told me that the heart of photography was vision and that if I could get people to look at what was happening before the photograph was made, the best photograph would happen. Vision and awareness was the place where the work had to begin. And that work was simply to be aware of everything, not just what might make a photograph.
The analogy I came up with was this:
A photographer walks into a room and looks for photographs.
A Secret Service agent walks into a room and looks for doors and windows and places to hide.
A two-year-old walks into a room and looks for nothing, but sees everything.
So the trick is to see like two-year-olds.
The Greek word for Art is techne, so it refers to the making. But there is something that happens before we make anything at all and that is what I started taking students toward. Photographers can wind up caught in a closed circuit of technical matters. They can come to think that a photograph begins with the camera, or perhaps when the image is taken into the software. This would be like a writer beginning from the point of grammar and sentence structure, fonts and page layout.
In short, I like to start with seeing and awareness and then turn people toward photography to make an image of the full range of what they see. Otherwise they can wind up looking for photographs that just look like other photographs. The trick in photography is to find your own work, not to reflect what you've already seen, isn't it?
The Secret Books
Some of your more recent projects focus on people as subject matter, what was it that drew you to landscape and the creation of Among Trees?
I listen to a lot of music, and I was thinking about how the language of music might function in photography: sound, spaces between sound, loudness and softness, and harmony between these elements. I knew there was a similarity, but I wanted to find them through experience. I might have done it with matchsticks, but somehow trees seemed more appropriate. For one thing, I couldn't place them but had to find them, to let myself be surprised by them. So it became a game. I wrote in the introduction to the book that it was as though there was an invisible ring in the forest, and that if I could find it and put my eye to it all of the elements – trees, sky, land, clouds, and space – would line up and harmonize. But because the ring was invisible I just had to move around in a state of awareness.
Some of your portfolios are shot in color and others are not. What dictates whether a particular project is a color or black and white project and what inspired you to photograph the landscape in black and white?
Black and white was my first love, and since it was what I learned I was not really available to color for a while. My mistake!
What I found was that there is usually something somewhere in the subject that dictates all kinds of things including color. For example, my photos of the Kampala Boxing Club were shot in color because the colors were so much a part of the African light that made it all happen. I tried out a few of those images in black and white, but the color was right. In fact, bright as the colors are, they are also simple, and there aren't too many of them in a given shot. In that sense they carry some of the abstractness of black and white.
Kampala Boxing Club
How has your background in theater influenced your still photography?
Surprisingly deeply. Good theater work is always based on being present and aware of what is going on around you. If an actor comes in with a strong idea and pays no attention to others the whole process dies on the spot. But if he or she manages to stay in the moment, wonderful harmonies emerge. The whole thing lifts to another level and everyone – all the actors and eventually the viewers too – can begin to make newer, deeper, and more complex discoveries through that process and then bring them into the work. It's a rising spiral.
And photography, too, arises from what is going on both out there and inside. The richest time in theater is in rehearsal, and photography is like rehearsing and discovering all the time.
The Secret Books
Terrain will be on view at The Kiernan Gallery from August 29-September 29, 2012.