LensWork Magazine Interview

LensWork Magazine Interview, January–February, 2001

Brooks Jensen: Let me start, Don, by asking you about your long photographic career. You have been involved in photography for some fifty years or so in one form or another.

Don Kirby: Seriously doing my own work – my own printing and that sort of thing – this is my twenty-sixth year. I was interested in photography as a child and made prints with a very primitive camera when I was eight years old, sending them off to be commercially processed. I still have a few of those images laying around! I printed a little in college, too. I had a friend who always had a darkroom. So, it has been a long time.

BJ: How did you decide to get serious in photography? I’m always fascinated by this. A lot of us picked up a camera in our youth, but something happens usually in someone’s life where they say ‘you know, this is my life.’ Do you remember how that happened for you?

DK: Oh, very clearly. And it is a mystery. I had to, in some way, provide some sanity in my life and relief from my day job. I got very interested in outdoor activities. I became a mountain climber, a river runner, a rock climber, a winter mountaineer and backpacker, and a canyon explorer. I’d always carried a slide camera with me – more or less to record the spectacular places I was and the activities I was involved in. On a trip up the coast of California in 1974, a slide camera in hand, I put in a roll of black and white film for reasons of which I have no recollection why. I did so and started photographing totally different subject matter – much more abstract, much more form and pattern oriented which obviously had a different purpose. I didn’t like the commercial renditions of those prints. I thought I could do better than that so I built a darkroom. And I purchased the original Ansel Adams books on technique and started teaching myself to do my own printing. That’s how it all started. The more I got involved – it didn’t all happen immediately – the more it became obvious to me that this was what I really wanted to do in life. That’s when I started plotting my escape.

BJ: Escape! From what? What were you doing at that time?

DK: I spent thirty some years in the aerospace industry, building satellites and communication payloads for satellites. I still consult in that field from time-to-time. Now I live a kind of a dual life, but really 99% of my time is spent on photography. Photography is essentially all of my interest.

BJ: I interviewed Ray McSavaney, a photographer who is an urban planner. He seems to think that his career in urban planning influences his photography a great deal. Would you say the same thing about your “day job?”

DK: I really wouldn’t. If anything it probably influenced more my teaching than anything else. At the end of my aerospace work, I spent the last ten years teaching in that environment. Teaching was a natural thing and it has continued into photography and my involvement in workshop programs. I think the ability to deal with groups and that sort of thing has been very important in my teaching and photography. As to the actual work I did in the aerospace industry, I don’t think there is any real carryover into my artwork. In fact, if anything, it’s almost a negative carryover. I designed optical systems in the aerospace industry and did ray traces and that sort of thing. You’d think I’d know all about camera lenses, but I don’t. If you asked me the design aspects of my lenses I couldn’t possibly tell you. I have no interest in the technical aspects of designing optical equipment anymore.

BJ: There is a left brain/right brain thing that happens to photographers sometimes. It sounds like you are one of those who discovered the artist side was clearly more important to you.

DK: It’s an intellectual process on both sides, but the issues are different. Even in the aerospace aspects in my life the emphasis shifted from the technical aspect to working with people. Interestingly enough, working with people is a lot closer to working with images than the scientific technical aspects I was trained for.

BJ: The personalities of the images almost …

DK: That’s right. The emotional component is very important. Trying to convey ideas photographically – visually – that certainly is a lot different than doing mathematical designs!

BJ: You are known primarily for three bodies of work. You’ve done a considerable amount of work of late in the wheat country as can be seen in the portfolio we are publishing in this issue of LensWork. But, before we get into that, I’d like to talk a little bit about your work and the Anasazi dwellings and your general landscape work. With such different subject materials as this, does your working method change? Does it take a different eye? Or is your approach the same, just different subjects?

DK: It’s really the same. I feel exactly the same about the expressive possibilities in all environments whether it is the canyon country, in open country, the wheat country or trying to do something with an Anasazi dwelling. Even with an urban scene, the process for me is really the same. The physical logistics of how I go about it is certainly different, but the expressive possibilities are really the same.

BJ: When you are out there working in the field – in particularly I am thinking of the Anasazi ruins but also it can be said of the desert landscape – you are obviously involved with a subject that many, many photographers have photographed before you. Are you aware of that as you’re working? Does that influence your thinking? Or do you try to take all of that visual literacy and set it aside?

DK: I suppose I can’t really set it aside, but it doesn’t concern me very much. I have my own ideas of what I want to do and I just try to respond to the subject in my own way. Particularly in the field, I don’t concern myself very much with what has already been done. I suppose at some point, for example when I’m making a print, and I realize that somebody has done exactly the same thing, I probably won’t exhibit the image, but that is later. In the field, the idea is to respond to what you find and try to make some impressive statement and not worry too much about whether it has been done before. It’s something new for me at least, and something that interests me sufficiently enough for me to pursue it.

BJ: You are primarily known as a fine art printer – as a matter of fact, known as one of the master printers of your generation, yet you are not particularly well-published. Is that an accident of fate or a specific strategy? Or are you looking for a publisher!?

DK: Well, I’m not well-published, that is true. I haven’t exerted any effort in that direction. I’m certainly interested in being published, but it hasn’t happened. I guess it’s such a joy to do the work I just get side-tracked. Also, I always feel that I got a late start compared to a lot of others. I always feel that I am catching up with producing the prints that I want to make and so I haven’t done much to market myself with publications. I suppose I could say that for the original prints, for that matter. Publishing would be great, but it’s been out of reach for me so far.

BJ: You’re certainly not alone in the tradition of photography. Even great photographers like Oliver Gagliani were relatively unpublished in their day because they were more interested in photographing than they were in managing their careers. I guess you fall into that group.

DK: Apparently so, but there are no regrets in that respect. I mean, doing the work is increasingly exciting to me, and so I am not too concerned with all the rest of that business and marketing stuff. How much pleasure are you allowed in life anyway!?

BJ: Let’s talk about the wheat country project. This is a landscape I’m intimately familiar with because I’ve spent a lot of time over there myself. First, from my own experience, I can tell you that this is difficult subject material to work with. But you’ve developed an approach to that flat land and to the subject material that is visually very successful. I suspect that has something to do with your relationship with the land and the people and maybe some personal history.

DK: I know it has a relationship to my background. It’s no surprise, although it really came to me in retrospect after I had been doing it for awhile. I grew up on farms. My parents were sharecroppers in Missouri, which is a good way to go broke. I’ve now learned a lot about farming – about the land and the people. They seem to be the same the world over. I see the same changes happening in the wheat country of the Northwest that I saw happening in the Midwest. The industrial farming and the depopulation with the grown children all leaving the farm; larger farms and larger equipment and more money changing hands and the land being degraded – all of these processes are very familiar to me.

BJ: You’re able to bring to the production of a photograph something that’s personal experience and knowledge that goes deeper than a mere “Oh that looks like a photograph!”

DK: I think so. It’s not as clear to me how that gets into the work though, as it is in the case of the Anasazi photographs. I’m trying to produce with the wheat country work an emphasis on lyrical and graphic forms that doesn’t have too much to do with my understanding of people and the economic issues or the land use issues that are going out there. I’m not making environmental photographs. I have some very strong feelings and opinions about what is going on, but those aren’t really expressed through the work. I think it is beautiful country out there. It’s not, as you say, easy to photograph. The photographs require extensive manipulation of the negatives and the prints to pull them off. Sometimes I think I’ll just photograph this a little more easily and not undertake the negative manipulation but somehow those never work. (Chuckles) Then I remember that effort is not the issue. Nobody cares how hard it is to make a photograph. It’s the image that counts.

BJ: Well, the land is really difficult to make a living on out there, why would it be any easier to photograph?

DK: I never thought of it in quite those terms (chuckling), but I suppose that’s right! I certainly have an easier time of it than the farmers do! Believe me, I have no desire to be riding one of those freight train sized tractors in all of that dust and dirt anymore. I served my time doing that as a kid!

BJ: When did you start doing this photography of the wheat country?

DK: In 1991. It was my first visit to Washington State. I had an opportunity to drive from the Seattle area to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho to do some hiking and photography. I went across Eastern Washington on Route 2 and made one negative of a field – which I can’t find these days, for some reason – and made a print from it. I liked the print a lot. Since I teach in Washington four times a year, I can get up there from my home in California quite frequently. The next trip there, I spent two or three days photographing in the wheat country and got four prints that I liked. Like any other body of work, once I’m interested in it I just keep photographing it until I lose the interest. I must admit this is only a theory, though. Since I’ve never lost interest in any body of work, I just get busier and busier!

BJ: Return seems to be a reoccurring theme in all of your work. You go once, you photograph once, then you get the bug and it becomes a passion. It sounds like it’s a methodology for you. I have this picture in my mind’s eye of sort of an amoebic approach – let’s do something over here, let’s do something over there – and then sometimes it catches and then you can run with it.

DK: It seems to work out that way. That has been true in other aspects of my life. It seems that it takes a good while for me to get anywhere. Maybe that’s my nature.

BJ: Well, if it works, why not? This work has an extraordinarily consistent palette. It’s strange talking about a palette in black and white photography, but there is definitely something about these images that all share a look that is related in this body of work. Is that the fruit of long hours in the darkroom?

DK: There are really two palettes that I use in the wheat country work. One which is predominately a defined graphic pattern with strong blacks strong whites, and lesser midtone emphasis. I’m really happy when I can get the land and the patterns of the atmosphere – the clouds – working in a complementary design in some sense. The majority of the images are done this way, hopefully with a lyrical, interesting graphic design. The second palette I use, albeit less frequently, is a high key print with a kind of white-on-white in a two to three zone print in the very high key range. I like these when they work. The percentage of those that work are very low, but I have a few.

BJ: What’s next for you?

DK: It’s not clear at this point. As you say, this aspect of going back again and again has certainly been my pattern. But, I think I am ready to try some new things. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in continuing what I’ve been doing, because I am, but I think it’s becoming too easy and too comfortable. I want to give myself the chance to get interested in some other things. We’ll see.