18 March 2009

March ’09: Kerik Kouklis

Posted by dianab under: Interviews .

Kerik Kouklis is a California-based fine-art photographer, specializing in 19th century alternative processes, specifically gum over platinum, and the wet-plate collodion process. He will be teaching an Introduction to Wet-Plate Collodion process at Project Basho. To learn more about Kerik and to see more of his work, check out his website.

Interview by Diana Bloomfield

Kerik, if you can, tell us about your first experience with a camera.

I think I was in sixth grade the first time I picked up a camera. We had a photography section in our sixth grade class where we learned how to develop film and make prints. At that point, I was hooked. My dad made space in the basement for a simple darkroom, and I took some photography classes as a local camera store in Oakland, CA. Soon thereafter, my grandmother gave me her old Zeiss Ikon Contaflex, which was my first 35 mm camera. After a while, it stopped working, so I took it apart because that’s what 12-year-old boys do. I then saved up my money and when I was fourteen, bought a brand new Miranda Auto Sensorex EE. I used that camera all through junior high and high school for things like the school newspaper, yearbook, and concert pictures.

Where, and with whom, did you study photography and printing, or are you entirely self-taught?

kerik1Face it, no one is entirely self-taught, and I kind of roll my eyes whenever I hear someone proclaim that. My education came through the UC Extension classes with Frank Espada, reading the Ansel Adams technical books, as well as many other books and magazines. After seeing some of Ed Weston’s platinum prints at a gallery in Carmel, I was smitten and in 1990 I took a weekend workshop on platinum printing, which got me started in alternative processes. The workshop was not well organized and I learned just enough to go on, but I was a boat without a rudder – some successes, but more failures by far. By this time I was shooting 8×10 and spent the next few years refining my platinum printing skills and then moved on to 7×17, 11×14, 12×20 and 14×17 cameras. Of these, the only formats I’m currently using are 8×10 and 14×17. In the mid-90s, as the internet grew and became more accessible, I started to communicate with other like-minded people with whom I shared and learned a great deal. Around 2000, I learned the gum bichromate process from my friend Stuart Melvin, of Santa Fe, NM after which gum bichromate over platinum/palladium became my primary medium. In 2004, I learned the wet plate collodion process from Will Dunniway and France Scully & Mark Osterman. While I continue to work with platinum and gum, wet plate has become my main obsession.

I understand that you are trained in, and work as, a geologist. How does that career mesh with that of a fine art photographer? Do these two seemingly disparate interests influence and inform each other?

kerik2While my career as a geologist may seem disparate from that of an artist/photographer, studying geology in college got me out in the field frequently for field trips which often took me to places that also presented interesting photographic opportunities. My current career in geology has little to do with art or photography, and there is very little cross-over, but my landscape work continues to be influenced and informed by my understanding of geology and geologic processes. My professional geologic career will help send my kids to college, make the mortgage payment and the other mundane expenses of modern life, but photography will always be the most important creative outlet in my life as it keeps me grounded and according to my wife, relatively sane. Of course, if money wasn’t a factor I would choose photography over my day job as a geologist, but in the real world, it would be difficult to choose between the two, because without one I can’t really have the other. Having a steady job with a decent income, health insurance for my family and the other benefits that go with it relieve the pressure of selling work as an artist. When the sales come, they are welcome of course, but I don’t worry about when the next check is coming in.

I know that you are often referred to as a “landscape photographer,” yet when viewing some of your works, I see that you have a wonderful collection of portraits you’ve made. These look to be mostly of family and friends, and from your site, it appears almost all are made in the wet-plate collodion process. Can you tell us a little about that process and why you chose it for these particular images?

When I began wet-plate collodion, I did mostly still lifes as it was an easy way to practice and learn the process. Then I began making portraits of family, friends and workshop students because, well, they were there! And I soon found that I very much liked the look of the wet plate portraits. The process can transform a person and bring out characteristics that are overlooked by film and pixels. Because the exposures for wet plate are typically several seconds, the subject has to remain as still as possible; they have to concentrate and cannot put on the mask that people often show when they are in front of a camera. Many of the portraits I’ve done are very close-up, just from the forehead to the chin, because I like the way they challenge the viewer to look the subject right in the eye.

Given the ease of 21st century digital technology, what compels you to print in these ancient, often expensive, and sometimes toxic 19th century processes?

kerik3I use the processes that I do because I like the results and I like the “doing”. It’s really that simple. These processes include platinum/palladium, gum bichromate and platinum combined, and wet plate collodion. I don’t do them because they are difficult or rare or expensive; in fact, none of the processes I use really falls into those categories. Wet plate may not be convenient, but it’s not difficult. I can whip out an 8×10 palladium print in less than half an hour for less than 5 bucks. Currently I’m using both digital negatives and in-camera negatives for my work. The quality of digital negatives has improved greatly in just the last few years, and with tools like the Epson 3800 printer and Quad Tone RIP software, they rival large format in-camera negatives. As much as I enjoy working with view cameras, the ease and convenience of hand-held film or digital cameras is a welcome counterpoint. And have you seen the prices of Hasselblads lately? I recently acquired my first “Blad” for a song and have been having a great time with it.

Having taken a workshop from you myself, I know that you are an excellent teacher and very patient. You seem to travel around and offer a number of workshops. What compels you to do that?

I teach workshops for three primary reasons. One, the income from workshops helps support my work; two, the workshops allow me to travel to new and interesting places like Scotland, Alaska, New York, Philadelphia, etc.; and three, and most importantly, the interaction with the people I meet. In fact, many of my best friends are former workshop students. The only downside is that my best friends live in Scotland, England and several states scattered across the US. It’s hard to get everyone together for a party! The only negative aspect of teaching is the time that it takes, but I find that the inspiration I get from teaching and interacting with other like-minded people ultimately inspires me to do new work which more than makes up for the time spent.

What and who are your influences? What, or who, informs the act of photographing for you?

kerik4My work has been influenced by many photographers, including historical greats like Weston, Adams, Steichen, Stieglitz and Frederick Evans. But more than any of them, I’ve always been very inspired by the life and work of Josef Sudek. Here’s a guy who didn’t really get going in photography until after he lost an arm in WWI. And to me, he’s made some of the most poetic images in the history of the medium. I am also influenced by contemporary artists like Michael Kenna, Jock Sturges, Sally Mann and many others. I am also deeply influenced by the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. And finally, I am inspired every single day by my wonderful (and patient) wife and two teenage daughters without whom, none of what I do would really matter.

I know that some photographers choose to photograph when the spirit moves them; others have a very regimented style; still others view their camera as an extension of themselves, something akin to a third arm, and won’t leave home without a camera strapped to their shoulder. Where and how does photography (and printing) fit in for you on any given day of the week?

I’ve never been a project-oriented, regimented photographer. I photograph when the conditions are right (I love the fog!), when I see something interesting, or when I just plain feel like it. These days I often have a camera with me in the car and have been making photographs of the landscape on my commute to and from work. Now that the days are getting longer, I can come home from work, set up a quick still life in the studio and bang out a few wet plates before the light goes away.

Lastly, any tips for photographers who might want to venture into the large-format, alternative process realm of photography? Where does one even begin to start?

kerik51The very best thing to do is take a workshop – and I’m not just sayin’ that because I teach! Find someone whose work you like, study what they do, and do whatever it takes to spend some time with them to learn what they know. Even though workshops are expensive- especially if travel is involved- ultimately, the time, materials and frustration you’ll save trying to figure things out on your own will far outweigh the costs of a workshop. The internet is, of course, a wealth of information, Google ’til your eyes fall out! Read as much as you can get your hands on before attending a workshop and you will get much more out of the experience, but reading only takes you so far. Having someone there to look over your shoulder to point out the subtleties of the techniques involved in these processes is invaluable.

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