Opening a Lens on Myself

This story starts when I was very young, before 10 years old. I’m in a darkroom and there is a red light above. My father is holding a small black box that smells very strongly of chemicals and he is showing me how to turn the dial on the top of the box two or three rotations every few minutes or so. I can’t wait to see what will emerge from the water and chemicals, from this alchemy that produces life as a still frame, people and time frozen for closer inspection.

“Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees.”–Paul Strand

img_1521My father, an active amateur photographer, taught me how to develop film and print photographs in his home darkroom. His early black and white work was very graphical and deliberately composed. He often photographed WWII wreckage in Germany, posing my mother amidst the ruins. As I paid close attention to his photos, I began to notice how images made me feel, and which images resonated with me, and I wondered why the images had such power. (His photograph, above.)

As a child, I took snapshots with Brownie and Polaroid cameras. In high school, I sometimes used my father’s larger format Roliflex camera to try to take more formal photographs of family and friends. When I was older, I was given a SLR camera and, once in film school in New York, my photographs (like the movies I was making) evolved into “still-frame narratives,” where I tried to tell a story in each frame. I would stage sets and develop characters and backstories for the images.

While in New York, sometimes assisting a fashion photographer, I began to pay much more attention to fashion and celebrity photography. Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine came out around that time and brought a lot of startling photography to light. I particularly loved Helmut Newton and Norman Seeff‘s work. Newton’s sexy, sometimes sadomasochistic photographs were thrilling to me because of the blank expressions on the models’ faces while posing in such charged settings. Seeff pioneered the o-ring flash which flattened images and put an sharp penumbra around the edges of his subjects. Both artists used deliberate, strong effects that interested me as an amateur photographer–and as I developed different personas.

“Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.”—Walker Evans

So began a series of photographs for which I began using myself as a model because there wasn’t anyone else around when the muse would speak to me and a photograph would come to mind. I would design and decorate a scene, finding ways to set up the shot using my Nikon SLR camera and tripod, imagining what the subject would look like–and feel like–in the photograph. Then I would dress and get made up for the effect I had imagined. When all was ready, I would look again through the viewfinder, then push the timed shutter release and race to get in the mood and into position.

In those days, taking photos with the SLR camera, the “pay-off” when I could the photograph and see how I looked as someone else was delayed because processing film took a long time. But I was certainly “in the flow” when I felt an image come to mind, sensed how I wanted the character in the picture to feel, and imagined how I would set everything up. I would often dream vivid images–flat, detailed, color photographic images–and wake up to grab a sketchbook to sketch out what I’d dreamed.

I kept working with self portraits, exploring sexuality and narrative with the images. And although I was the subject in those photos, I didn’t think of the subject as “me.” I’d look dispassionately at the final image and think of ways I could have had the subject positioned differently, or how I could have lit the scene differently.

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”–Ansel Adams

But I didn’t just take my own photo. I also did portraits of friends posed against wall surfaces that captured the essence of their personalities (the Wall Portrait series), then moving into a series of friends’ portraits done as double exposures of them with their favorite shoes (the Dream Shoes series). I was also creating blurry photos by slowing the shutter speed and moving the camera, exploring the feeling of film being malleable like paint. I shot thousands of photos: portraits, landscapes, vacation vistas…

robert-downy-kuhenMy photographic explorations with self-portraits (and personas) continued for about 25 years, through a BFA in Visual Communications with a minor in Photography. And during a 16-year job at National Geographic where I found sources of great inspiration in the photographers and picture editors, and in a group of colleagues with whom I formed an 8-year long photo group. Besides working short stints with various photographers as a stylist and designer, I became more fearless doing portrait photography at the Santa Fe Photography Workshop with Karen Kuehn, a terrific photographer. I never felt alone (although I was quite often alone) because I was so often thinking about photographs I had made or wanted to make.

Then there was a hiatus… career changes. Cross-country moves. Divorce. No images.

Until I bought an iPhone. But forget about the phone-part of the iPhone. It is the camera on the phone that rewakened my passion for capturing images. That little iPhone camera is always with me, able to produce high-quality photographs that I can tweak and filter to my sense of what is “right.” I can manipulate the digital images like paint (like the old blurry images I pursued in the 1980s and 90s). Images can be seen instantaneously and re-shot if I don’t like them. And they can be shared and discussed with friends–my community–via the Internet.

In the Age of the iPhone, my photography is a different form of creative expression; no longer staged and choreographed, no longer playing with ideas of persona. Perhaps I have gotten comfortable with a more placid self, one who isn’t probing the depths of sexuality and changing personas. Or perhaps I’ve gotten old and no longer like the way my subject looks in pictures. Or both.

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”—Aaron Siskind

My photographs have become more diary-like. More like a way to say, “I was here. I saw this.”

“Selfies,”so much easier to take with the light little iPhone than with the Nikon SLR and a tripod, are now shot mostly so that I can “paint” on them, manipulate them and contemplate the feeling of playing with the surface of the image. The face I’m seeing these days seems more self-assured, more happy.

Photos now happen spontaneously–unlike when I dreamed and planned images. These days, I get into a flow state after the photo is taken, as layers are added, details are blurred, effects are added. I experiment more freely with the images now because it’s easier.

While I do take portraits of people without manipulating the images,

I love making portraits into “paintings,” playing with colors and effects to bring out what I feel is the essence of someone’s personality:

Through photography I’ve been able to see different perspectives of who I am, have “known” people on a deeper level, and been more able to fluently express how I perceive the world. But I’m not unique; everyone has access to their true self through creative expression, no matter what media they choose. You just have to be curious and let yourself fall into making something. Don’t you have an iPhone?


“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”— Elliott Erwitt

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