For the past few years, California Bay Area artist Klea McKenna has focused her attention on photograms—an image created directly on a light-sensitive surface, without the aid of a camera. By responding deeply and personally to particular locations, McKenna produces large, immersive works that, though seemingly abstract, retain a direct link to the environment that produced them.
Her work is beautiful yet entirely mysterious. Each photogram (which is unique) seems to hold a silent secret that pulls us in deeper with each passing moment. Managing editor Alexander Strecker had the chance to sit down with McKenna and find out more about her work and the lessons she has learned as an artist.
LC: Walk us through constructing one of your photograms, say your “Rain Study” series. You take a piece of photo-paper, you bring it outside and…?
KM: For my “Rain Studies,” I work at night, outdoors, in the pitch darkness. I need to work far away from civilization and on nights where there is no (or very little) moonlight. Lately I’ve been making Rain Studies in Hawaii and I try to schedule my stays to coincide with the dark of the moon or to work at night when the moon hasn’t risen yet or has already set. And of course, it has to be raining!
While I work, I have a covered area that I can keep my supplies under, a garage, barn or when I’m in Hawaii I work out of a shipping container in the forest. I run in and out of the rain and my work station and make exposures using flashlights.
The things that affect the finished image: every storm is different and there are different-sized raindrops and different patterns that the drops make. The part I can control that affects the image are the angles: there’s the angle of the light to the paper, the angle of the light to the rain, the angle of the rain to the paper. After all, if you think about photography—the film and the camera, enlarging in the darkroom—the relationship between the substrate and the light is almost always perpendicular. If you change that, a whole world of possibilities opens up.
When I’m in Hawaii (or really anywhere working on location) I work completely blind for a few weeks. It’s like the entire outdoors become my darkroom—but since I don’t actually have a wet darkroom out there, I can’t develop anything. Two weeks is usually the psychological limit to how long I can work without seeing any results. After that, I start to doubt myself and ask, “Maybe this is all just gonna be black…what am I even doing?”
At the same time, the challenge, the risk…the whim of the elements and things I can’t control are a huge part of the creative process for me.
Being at the mercy of nature and of bigger systems is essential to my work.
LC: What inspires you to pick the locations that you choose?
KM: The landscapes I choose are places that hold some personal significance for me or mark a collective history that I find interesting. Although I’m very thoughtful about where I go, in the end, my aim is to make my materials interact directly with the place, to figure out ways to make the landscape imprint on my materials. I’m trying to orchestrate an interaction—but mostly I’m trying to get out of the way.
A few years ago, I went back to Hawaii where I had spent much of my early childhood. Since my dad had died a decade earlier, I hadn’t been back much. But I decided to return to our family house—way up in the middle of nowhere, off-the-grid and adjoining a forest preserve—and just bring all of my light-sensitive materials.
The way I work is rooted in a deep observation of the landscape and of nature. And each work comes out of direct contact with its surrounding environment. In that way, it’s totally photographic: there’s a direct reference to reality. Even if the work appears abstract at first glance, it’s actually hyperrealistic in some cases.
LC: What drew you towards abstraction, er, “hyper-realism”?
At the time when I veered off the road of representational photography, it had gotten to a point where I would go out and shoot with large-format or medium-format film. When I would get the pictures back, they would look exactly how it looked when I took the picture.
I guess that’s the goal you’re working towards when you’re learning the basics of photography, but for me, it didn’t feel like there was a transformation happening. It felt like a replication and what I was really craving was that feeling I had as a teenager when I first learned photography. That feeling when you slide the paper into the developer and think, “Ooh, what’s it gonna look like? I have no idea!”—that sense of curiosity and wonder and unpredictability.
So, I began to find strategies to intentionally lose control. I started taking steps that would leave things up to chance. I went through all kinds of weird experiments: putting things inside the camera, filling my (box) camera with river water and shaking it up, putting plants or rocks inside the camera to obstruct and transform the view. These ideas were all related to landscape but, really, they were about me trying to lose control.
Finally, a few years ago, I started to round the corner a little bit on this idea of control. I started to feel like I missed seeing my hand in my own work. Part of this transformation was thanks to my commitment, for the first time, to slow down. Rather than jumping on to the next subject or next experiment, I decided I was going to find a way to really fine-tune my process.
I feel a great sense of kinship to artists who are embedded in their materials—papermakers, sculptors, anyone whose work has a real hands-on element to it. Sometimes, photographers ask me questions like, “How did you do that? How did you make that?” They want to know very specific things: technical details, lens sizes, f-stops, filters and so on.
Meanwhile, when someone looks at a painting, they never ask the painter, “How did you do that?” or “What size of brush did you use?” The answer is simple, and we don’t question it: they painted it.
LC: From the first photograms you’ve made up til now, do you feel like you’re perfecting something or is it just a continual experiment?
KM: A bit of both. I am definitely perfecting the ability to produce the work but at the same time, once I reached the point where I felt confident that I could consistently make an image, I began to embrace (again) the anomalies. After all, I don’t want them all to look the same. I began to ask myself, “How can I encourage weird things to happen?”
One of the things I like about making this work is that I have the chance to take a sensory experience that is emotional, but also familiar (standing in the dark in the pouring rain), and render it visible, material. As I said, my work comes out of a place of close observation of nature. Every little moment, every drop, is different somehow each time.
LC: Will you continue to make photograms indefinitely?
KM: I hope to be making art my entire life! I’m not really worried about being labeled as someone who makes photograms, because to me, that’s an entire medium. Do painters worry about being “confined” to painting their whole lives? Photograms are a whole field and there’s so much that can happen with them. I could make photograms for the rest of my life and not be done. I’m in love with this medium. That said, I have lots of other ideas brewing too.
The idea that you have to completely change-up what you’re doing every couple years is kind of short-sighted. You look at artists who’ve made a life of pursuing one idea or technique. They work on a project over many years and oftentimes that long-term investigation is what makes their work that much better.
Put it differently: if you’re so interested in one thing as to want to dedicate all your time to it, how are you going to stop being interested in it after two years? That’s not how it works.
If it’s something you’re really passionate about, it’s probably going to be a life-long interest that weaves in and out of your work. Just because the photography world functions around discrete bodies of work and photobooks and periodic exhibitions doesn’t mean you have to define your creative output that way.
LC: You went to art school, you have a community of artist friends (both photographers and otherwise), you are a mom and a working artist. From these experiences, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
KM: The first thing, which people don’t talk about very often but which I think is an important reality is to choose your partner very carefully (I mean your romantic partner). Choose a partner who believes in the value of a creative life.Especially for younger artists and people starting out—there’s going to be so much pressure, forever, to just get a”normal” job. You’ll feel that pressure from society, your family, daily life, the internal feeling that you’re not makingenough money. On the hard days these things may make you want to give up. But if you start getting that pressure from your spouse as well—then it’s that much harder to stick with it.
Being an artist is not very rewarding much of the time. It can be immensely rewarding personally, internally, but not externally: no one’s automatically going to be impressed or interested in your work or give you lots of money or tell you you’re great. But if the person you’ve chosen to share your life with believes in it and isn’t criticizing your choice then you’re much more likely to be able to keep doing it in a meaningful way.
The other key is finding your own work ethic. Have a studio, Go to your studio. Build that time in and protect your studio/darkroom-time like it is gold. Especially during your first five years after school or when you’re just starting out, or after having a child—It’s those transition times that drop-off often happens. That said, there has to be joy in it too, but for many artists (myself included) there can be great pleasure and joy found in consistent hard work.
If you really believe in what you’re doing, if you’re working hard at it and pushing yourself and you just keep doing it forever—at least you’ll still be doing it. I’m not saying anyone will notice, but you’ll still be doing it, which, in the end is the goal—isn’t it?
—Klea McKenna, interviewed by Alexander Strecker