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A Conversation with Fine Art Photographer Ken Rosenthal

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Ken Rosenthal received his MFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. 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 George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Art Institute of Chicago; National Portrait Gallery, London; Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Wittliff Collections’ Southwest and Mexican Photography Collection, San Marcos, Texas, which recently established a major collection of his work.

Since 2002 his work has been featured in more than 150 solo and group exhibitions internationally. The first publication of Rosenthal’s work, Ken Rosenthal Photographs 2001-2009, was released in 2011, and was included on photo-eye’s Best Books of 2011 list.

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PetaPixel: First off Ken, Let’s talk about your early days as a photographer. What artists and mentors influenced your style and philosophy towards image-making?

Ken Rosenthal: I have been fortunate to have been guided by some incredible mentors over the years. Sid Avery was one of my earliest mentors. Sid first looked at my photographs when I was in high school, and was the first person in the medium who truly encouraged me to pursue photography.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, I studied with Robbert Flick. Robbert had as much of a role as anyone in helping to shape the artist I was to become, and taught me to think about images as they related to a body of work on the whole rather than just as individual photographs.

I worked as a printer for Arnold Newman between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Newman had been a huge influence for me, so it was totally surreal to go to NY for a wedding and wind up meeting him and getting a job printing for him a week after I graduated college. I picked up a great number of darkroom techniques from him, and learned good business practices and the value of a strong work ethic.

I received my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I studied with so many incredible artist/educators: Ken Josephson, Barbara Crane, Joan Fontcuberta, Mark Alice Durant, and Fred Endsley among others.

The artists that I was most influenced by early on were Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Arnold Newman, Edward Weston’s early pictorial work, the films of David Lynch and Wim Wenders.

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PP: Back when you were an up-and-comer, what bit of advice was most valuable to you?

KR: The piece of advice that comes to mind is from my friend Swanee (Mary Virginia Swanson), who taught me the importance of “the company you keep.” This has been especially helpful when working with galleries, as it is so critical to find galleries and gallerists that are a good fit for you (and vice-versa.)

From the series Seen and Not Seen, #409-3

PP: You’ve got a portfolio on your website called 2001-2009 that’s comprised of six individual but interrelated bodies of work. Behind all these projects, there’s a consistent aesthetic and emotional tone that ties them together. I would describe this tone as dream-like; not fully grounded in reality, poetic and sometimes surreal… What’s behind this way of seeing the world?

KR: Much of the work from 2001-2009 is bound together by my interest in the relationship between photographs and memory, and how many of our memories are shaped and informed by photographs (as well as dreams and stories.)

I suppose I’ve always been less interested in a literal or realistic depiction, or remembrance, than in how I perceive or remember something. Or, perhaps, how I would like to remember something. My work tends to be quite autobiographic, but is also able to take on a more universal reading by stripping out much of the specificity via the use of diffusion.

It’s the essence of the image that I want the viewer to be able to relate to, rather than the specifics. I think this allows for a more interesting point of entry.

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PP: Some readers may be interested in your process. Talk through the making of these images — the shooting, the printing, etc. — does the ‘softness’ of your imagery come from a particular camera technique?

KR: The images are all shot on black and white film (mostly 120mm), and are shot in focus. This allows me to control the degree of detail I want to allow into the image.

The prints are made on fiber based paper in a traditional wet darkroom, and are quite labor intensive. There are two separate toning baths, as well as some selective toning and selective bleaching. While my prints are released in editions, the nature of my toning techniques makes each print unique. How I achieve the softness, or blur, is not something that I discuss.

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PP: Throughout your images we’re met with dark figures and unusual gestures, and I feel a strong sense of ambiguity in trying to translate your work into meaning. I mentioned the term “surreal” earlier. Do you think surrealism is an accurate description for this work?

KR: I’m not sure if surrealism is an accurate label, though there are definitely surreal qualities to the work. Many images are not easily defined, and many have a very different tenor depending on how they are sequenced and presented.

There are many dark, silhouetted figures in the series. Some of these figures represent difficult or traumatic incidents in my life. I had one experience when I was about 19 or 20 that was very traumatic. I was pulling out of a drive up ATM, and in my peripheral vision I saw figure running towards me. It was late at night, so it was really a blur. This guy jumped in my car through the window and pressed a knife in my neck. My car crashed into a dumpster, and he demanded my money which I gave him. He then took my car keys and threw them far out into the parking lot. He told me not to move for half an hour or I’d be killed. Then a car pulled into the lot very quickly, and he jumped in and was gone.

The real precise visual details of the event have mostly been forgotten, or maybe blocked out. But certain details remain: the sense that something bad was about to happen; the shadowed figure running; the feel of the knife pressing into me; and the feeling of absolute isolation and uncertainty after the car drove off and I stared out into the parking lot, one amber light illuminating the lot, knowing that I had to run out and try to find me keys. The power of this memory to me is in those faint impressions, those few details that linger. And I think those are the qualities that I sought to evoke in the works from those series’.

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PP: That’s an incredible story Ken. It seems that that feeling of isolation you mentioned permeates your photographs. The blurriness of them really helps to support that feeling too, because with your images I’m looking for something focused, something certain to lock my eyes onto, and I’m not finding it. It puts me in a place that’s a little uneasy, and that’s just how I feel when I’m searching for my own memories. Is this what you hope viewers will take away from your work?

KR: That’s definitely part of it. The sense of uneasiness you reference is certainly something that I am tapped into, and consciously emphasize through the use of blur, toning, etc. I hope the work evokes memories for the viewers, and not just the sentimental or nostalgic memories. I tend to make and select images that tie into my own childhood memories, and try to make connections with how those memories and experiences from my youth have shaped my development, psyche and interests.

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PP: In some ways, I can read your images like they are stills from a horror movie; some old silent film noir from long ago. Do you feel your work carries a relationship with cinema at all?

KR: I absolutely do. My undergraduate degree is in still photography from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. I had to take quite a few cinema courses as part of the curriculum. I grew up watching old movies on a b&w television that I had in room as a child, and film noir has long been an influence. My series Ghosts, in particular, contains many cinematic references and is informed by film noir.

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PP: You published this work in book form a few years ago. Can you talk about your decision to make a book? What did you hope to get out of it? How does the experience of viewing your work differ in that format, as opposed to an exhibition or online?

KR: In 2011 I had a solo exhibition in Southern California that surveyed the work I had produced over the past ten years, with an emphasis on the diffused works. I had not had a publication of my work published yet, and the exhibition seemed like the perfect opportunity to put together a small book of those bodies of work.

I hoped that it would expand my audience, and lead to some new opportunities. Shortly after it was published I was contacted by Klompching Gallery, and several months later was honored to be represented by them. The book was also a way for me to acknowledge those series’ at a point in my career where I was beginning to work in a very different style, and allow me to move forward. I intend to pursue a monograph of that work at some future time, but right now I’m very engaged in several series’ that I have been working on for some time now.

Viewing my work in book format is a vastly different experience from seeing images online or in an exhibition. Each has their benefits. All in all, an exhibition is most satisfying for me as viewers can see my actual prints as opposed to a reproduction. My darkroom process is quite labor intensive, but it’s a labor of love.

Like an exhibition, the book format allows for creating a narrative informed by the editing and sequencing of work. It has the benefit of potentially having a larger viewing audience than the exhibition, and as a small object that is held it creates a very intimate viewing experience. And while the quality of imagery online is, in my mind, not the ideal way for work to be viewed, the Internet ultimately allows virtually anyone to discover and view my work.

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PP: Finally, what do you have in the works now?

KR: I am currently working on three series’ that I’m excited about.

I am finishing up with the editing of The Forest, a series of black and white nocturnal landscapes shot in the Selkirk Mountain range in NE Washington from 2011-2014. It’s an autobiographic series, with the landscapes functioning as metaphor for an interior space.

Feathers is a series of weathered cyanotypes that I have been working on sporadically since 2008. The prints are very intimately scaled, fitting in the palm of your hand. These photograms are formally very sparse and simple, but the ideas behind the series is more complicated.

Long story short, the series stemmed from my interests in vernacular photography, specifically studio portraits. When looking through vernacular photographs at an antique store or photo fair, I usually gravitate towards formal portraits. I’m struck by how easily a family history is lost or displaced, and photographs of one’s relatives drift away and are found by strangers. Often there is no information on the back detailing the sitter, and all that can be known about the person is the story that we craft from the details present in the photo.

The third series is quite different from anything I’ve done, and I envision the final product as being solely in book format. I don’t want to say too much about it yet, as it is a new project and still evolving, but the title is Days on the Mountain.

Eerie photograph of a male bust at a tomb.

PP: Thanks for your time, Ken.

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