CD: Layne, many thanks for agreeing to a part of the FuseVisual Project. I’ve been looking forward to this one for quite a while. Lets start with your history and backstory a bit. Tell us about your journey to photography and where it all began.
Layne Kennedy: My father was a rescue pilot in the Air Force and during those early years are, as Neil Young described it, "Where all my changes took place." I was in Anchorage, Alaska. Because Dad was in the Military, back in those days pilots traveled a lot to Japan. So, he had tons of Nikon equipment laying around that he rarely used.
I took a photography class early in High School and when watching that first print slowly emerge in that tray of dektol, I knew was hooked for life. It was magical. These light sensitive silver halide crystals reacting to light and coming to life right before my eyes.....Wow!
Soon I was taking tons of photos of my buddies on skiing, rafting, and just hanging-out. I'd develop them at school and share glossy RC prints with everyone. The excited responses from friends easily fueled my motivation and I couldn't wait to shoot more. New angles, more daring approaches, and the lessons of learning to read light kept me competitive with myself. I never got bored. Constant practice, like a guitar, I got better as time went on.
I continued on with photography courses in college but my visual direction changed dramatically. Sports photography and news photography weren't offered. It was black & white fine art photography. I went from 35mm to a 4x5 view camera. I learned the dreaded zone system and processed each individual sheet of film based on shadow and highlight readings. The prints and tonal ranges were exquisite. If I took ten photographs a day I had a good day. Using a 4x5 camera, a magical realism occurred from negatives that are sharper than the human eye can see. It was magnificent. Clearly for me, a new motivation took over the reins. A slower process, but very Zen like. You knew every square inch of that ground glass before pushing the shutter. The next four years was all fine art, large format photography. I'd never trade that experience. But, new troubles were ahead of me.
At that time, to make a living as a fine art photographer, most go on to graduate school, get their masters degree and then teach photography at the college level. Summer's were used for personal work, applying for grants and fellowships and inch away at shooting between semesters. Holding shows, becoming part of collections, both public and private, were the path to financial security. As I applied to grad programs my professor pulled me aside and asked a very important question once again changing my path; "Do you want to be a teacher or a photographer.” he asked. Clearly, I could see the dilemma. I wanted to be a shooter first and foremost. Shooting was my connection to the world and I was not willing to give up those intimate moments between subject and final print.
But, how do I make a living and continue to be a photographer? I went back to school at the University of Minnesota and joined the famed Minnesota Daily newspaper and honed my skills as a news photographer. I loved it. Shooting sports, news, portraits and feature stories brought me full circle again. The diversity in subject matter and working under a deadline is one of the best training grounds any photographer can acquire. From there, I was given a internship at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, freelanced for AP, and slowly moved into magazine work as a freelance pitching story ideas.
CD: You are known for your North Woods photography, for shooting in extreme temperatures and also leading wilderness photography workshops. What is it about the cold and remote areas that drives you?
Layne Kennedy: Tough question. I like open spaces. I know how to push myself in the wild and prepare for it. Growing up in Alaska certainly provided the imprinting for that. But, also the cold is a
challenge and few do it. So, its easy to set yourself apart if you are willing to freeze your ass off. There is such a feeling of immense gratification capturing photographs in harsh conditions. I think if I had grown up near the ocean, I would have become a underwater shooter. So a lot had to do with where I grew up.
I believe it all revolves around motivation. If you are capturing meaningful visual material, you remain motivated and push harder each time you are out. The drive to bring something new to the viewer each time becomes a challenge. And nature is funny. It stays the same but changes every day. You need to be there to witness those subtle differences.
CD: Who were your influences: First as a young photographer and now?
Layne Kennedy: Being weaned in fine art, my early influences were those from the F/64 Group. It’s what we studied. If memory serves, Henry Swift, Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak and Edward Weston were the original seven. The term f/64 refers to a small aperture on a large format camera, giving great depth of field, rendering a photograph evenly sharp from foreground to background. This was their practice as shooters and most were landscape related photographs.
But many others from that era and beyond captured my eye. I adored the works of Paul Caponigro, Wynn Bullock, Minor White, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Margaret Bourke-White, Eugene Smith, Eliot Porter, and Dorothy Lange to name a few. There's simply too many to mention.
Weston in particular during the 1930's using fruit and vegetables creating images that transported the viewer emotionally (think of his Peppers No. #30 and its sensual human likeness)
took photography to new heights and allowed room for new directions in the medium.
Photography was now more than recording events and objects, but creating art. I adore looking at all photography. Even today, I remain fascinated with its gift. From the early days here in North America, the expansion of the West with images by Timothy O'Sullivan and Mathew Brady in particular, I see through their work the dedication they possessed as young shooters and the tremendous body of work they created and left us under difficult conditions. Photography for me is like music. I enjoy most of all it. It's difficult to pin down my favorite song or artist. And, the same is true with photographers. But, if I had to name three modern day shooters whose work I really look forward to seeing each and every time, and whose work hits me on levels that stir my subconscious and artistic side, it would be William Albert Allard, James Nachtwey and Jim Brandenburg.
Allard's work has always struck me as the most beautiful form of documentary photography. His combinations of content, color and form reveal truths in one frame that often take others a entire story to expose.
Nachtwey's work, that rich B/W approach to the struggles of the world's people are almost religious and poetic in it's hard-edged content. It’s telling and moving, sad and beautiful, meaningful and frightening all at the same time.
Brandenburg's work is so close to home in what I experience, I have a real soft spot for Jim's photographs. Brandenburg has an instinct akin to each of the subjects he photographs. He understands the natural world so thoroughly he anticipates actions and reactions as they unfold. His photography presents nature in a way that everyone appreciates the need for wild places. This type of photography is not easy. A steward of the wilderness, Brandenburg’s skills in reaching beyond the obvious, revealing the marriages between wildlife and ecosystems provides a voice to protect our wild lands.
CD: Looking back over your career, what are the most important lessons you have learned from each path you've chosen?
Layne Kennedy: First, I'm lucky to do what I want to be doing. And, like any career there are ups and downs. I live my life wrapped around two sayings; "You can't win if you don't enter" and "Life ain't fair."
With both those realities in my head I can stay on the fence without falling.
The most important lesson was not to give up. If you love what you are doing, it'll work out. Will you get rich? Who cares. If you can make enough to remain happy, productive and motivated, what else is there? Don't be afraid to shoot what makes you feel something. Never shoot what you think someone else wants to see.
The single best lesson I got as a young photographer was in college. I had learned the Zone System style of exposure and development to achieve perfect prints with every tonal value intact. I could pre-visualize most any scene and create a perfect print of it. Once, we had a big party at our college house and there were eight 16 gallon shiny metal kegs on the back porch the next morning. The light was soft and I knew those metal kegs would print beautifully as B/W prints made from negatives with my 4x5 view camera. Indeed, they were beautiful prints. But meaningless as photographs.
The next semester, our professor called in a hand full of us advanced photo dudes and sat us down. "Give me your light meters, your cameras, lenses and your tripods" he stated in no uncertain words. He then handed out Kodak Brownie cameras to each of us. The Brownie has no controls whatsoever. He told us we had become technicians and lost our way as photographers. It was time to learn to see again and move away from technical perfection that meant nothing. He was right. We had become technicians. Best lesson I ever had as a photographer.
CD: You turn bowls. Beautiful bowls from incredible woods. Tell us about how this came about, how you balanced it with your career, and the joys and frustrations of working with wood.
Layne Kennedy: Ask any artist and I’m guessing they have some form of an artistic outlet. My wife calls it "therapy!" For me its been wood turning the last eight years. Before that I made freeform stain-glass lamps. And, I see glassblowing in my future as well. The need to rid my head of travel, learning software, backing everything up, constantly "being on" while on assignments, etc., these diversions are both creative and physical. It cleans my head out while being creative.
I can lose myself in these endeavors and make something with my hands that is tangible. Photography reaches me in other ways. But, I cannot touch photographs, only look at them. A bowl from a 100 year old tree that fell in the forest and is reincarnated to live on for another 100 years is remarkably rewarding. And, like those days in High School when friends liked the photographs you made of them, imagine how someone feels when a tree from their yard came down in a storm, that has been there for a century, now sits in their living room as a beautiful vessel I was able to make for them. It all gets back
to creating and motivation. They love it, so I love it. But, I will not take on commissions. It’s not why I do it. That would become work. I do it to relax.
CD: Self-publishing is an avenue you have explored. How do you decide what projects are worthy of a book? Do you then work with an editor and designer? Any pitfalls or words of wisdom to share about this brave new world?
Layne Kennedy: All good questions. I've been interested in self-publishing for quite some time. Ten years ago when it was just getting its legs, I was never quite satisfied with how images were printed. They looked like inexpensive copies of your photographs. Then things got better, technology advanced, inks were better. For me, I had seen Sports Illustrated photographer Dave Black's book, Thoroughbreds-The Horse Racing Experience. I was instantly sold on self-publishing. Dave had used Blurb.com for this magnificent book and it was stunningly beautiful. So now it was what and why you should do a book.
There are many reasons to self-publish your own book and each photographer has different reasons why. One of the big ones is the "going green" concept. Publishers these days are picky about what they will publish. Times are hard for the publishing world when it comes to printed books. Titles need great popularity in subject matter and populated distribution channels. But, it also means printing a lot of books, storing them in warehouses, transportation costs, fluctuating paper prices, ect. How long before they see a return on that investment? When you self-publish a book, it's print on demand. You create it and can sell it one at a time if you choose. Order only the amount of books you need at any one time. It's a tremendous advantage over stockpiling thousands of books to sell over years and not nearly as taxing on the resources.
If you live in a rural town that has a population of 1,500 people, chances are no big publishing house is going to do a book on that town. It can't afford to. But, doing one for yourself, or the town,
is feasible in the self-publishing world. You won't get rich, but a book can be published and those locations, people, communities, or events can see a book completed.
There are numerous ways this self-publishing concept works for photographers. Personal projects can find a voice in print without sacrificing all your savings. Smaller books are being used as portfolios on specific areas of expertise, or as high-end examples for funding proposals, ect. There are many uses. You can print a book that is ten pages or two hundred pages. All you need is the time to put it all together. Most of the more popular self-publishing houses like Blurb.com utilize a drop & paste set of templates that make it remarkably easy. If you are comfortable creating your own pages, customizing is simple as well. Even software programs like Adobe's LIGHTROOM allow you to complete your book, upload it directly to Blurb.com and publish right from your desktop. And, these days you can upload a print version and also eBook version. Prints versions, because it's books on demand are inherently more expensive, but if someone really wants the tangible beauty of a book in hand, they will pay the extra cost. And, eBook allows you to go around the world for a much lower price still allowing you a profit.
If you write your own book, I suggest hiring an writer/editor to review your text. Editors are not personally attached to your project and can make corrections that you might miss. Show your project to peers before uploading to get some feedback. Take your time. Don't rush it. Look at books published similar to your idea to get a feel for what you like in design styles. Resist the temptation to overload your project with too many images. Be ruthless in your editing and show only what's needed. Don't duplicate similar's just because they good. It will drive your audience crazy. Don't announce your book to the world until you've published a copy, reviewed it for printing quality and any typo's. You get a different feel for your book once its in hand. If changes are necessary, you can make the corrections, upload the new version and delete the old one.
And lastly, you are now the publisher. With that comes the responsibilities of marketing the book. I always have a few copies on hand to sell at lectures, workshops, ect. Using your blogs, or other social media sites can advance knowledge of your book to others. If your book is on a town, contact the Chamber of Commerce to advise them of the book. They are arms reaching out as well and can help promote it. Just ask yourself, "who would want this book" and find ways to connect with them.
CD: What advice would you give to a young professional about to embark on this career?
Layne Kennedy: The first thing I tell young shooters is to protect your work. What I mean when I say that is DO NOT GIVE IT AWAY. It might feel right to take less or nothing to get your foot in the door, but more often than not, you are cutting off your own purse strings for the future. Yes, its competitive out there. But, you cannot move forward and make a living at it if you don't get paid. Also, I caution anyone against Work For Hire contracts. You do all the shooting and give up all rights to the work with those type of contracts. Then, they use your work in advertising, stock and reuse and you won't see another nickel for it. It's hard being both an artist and a businessman. Remember its OK to scribble out things you don't agree with and negotiate each and every contract. If negotiating stock prices, do your homework before committing to a usage fee. Utilize software like FotoBiz to give you an idea of what fee's are being paid for specific uses.
Stick to your style. It is what separates you from everyone else. Don't be afraid to show it when sharing your work, and only show your best in the early stages of presenting your photographs to new clients.
Be a sponge, ask questions, look at blogs and websites. In periods when there's little or no work, give yourself personal projects that you care about and dive in. This is where you learn, and themes or projects are where great pictures occur. It's F/8 and be there baby!
And, the greatest compliment I think I ever got came from friend and fabulous photographer, Richard Hamilton Smith. He had seen a photo in a magazine and commented, “I knew that was yours before I even saw the byline.”