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Interview: Bear Kirkpatrick

The Were Saved By Whim, Without Turn, 2011 -- Bear Kirkpatrick

Our current exhibition The Nude – Classical, Cultural, Contemporary includes the work of 15 photographers all depicting the nude. The photographs range from classical studies, to the exploration of cultural and contemporary themes; some are playful and some investigate more existential realms, while others manage to combine multiple elements. When assembling this exhibit we pulled from our list of represented artist and invited a number of guest artists, many of which we found on Art Photo Index, including Bear Kirkpatrick. Last week we launched a full portfolio of work from Kirkpatrick’s Hierophanies series on the Photographers Showcase – this week I thought you would enjoy getting to know a little bit more about the man behind the images. --Anne Kelly

Anne Kelly:     As a child you went deaf yet you managed to hide this for quite some time. This time period changed the way you see and experience the world. Please tell us more.

What Was Firm Has Fled, 2009 -- Bear Kirkpatrick
Bear Kirkpatrick:     The story that my mother tells is that I was sitting on the floor, playing with blocks just minding my own business. This was in an apartment in New York when I was about 3 years old. When my father came back from Vietnam we moved into the same building that my mother’s cousin lived in, and one day she was over at our place and she looks at me and tells my parents that I can’t hear a thing, that I am completely deaf. My parents say something like you are out of you mind? We talk to him, he talks back, etc. He gets fevers and earaches and wakes up screaming but all kids do, right? And so my mother’s cousin walks up behind me and claps her hands loudly right behind me. I don’t look up, don’t even flinch. Just keep right on playing with my blocks. This event begat a series of tests and a long course of antibiotics and eventually surgery to insert tubes into my eardrums to get all the gunk out. And my hearing comes back, but not the same as it was before. Because the second story my mother tells is the morning after we got back from the hospital. She is in the kitchen and hears me screaming and calling for her. She thinks something has gone wrong with my ears and finds me cowering under my blankets, covering my ears with my hands. Something is terrifying me, something outside in the trees I think is going to get me. It was the birds outside, in the branches. I hadn’t heard birds for so long they were unknown and terrifying. So, it makes you think about what happens to a kid who by the time he is 4 has been deaf for half his life. I have my teacher evaluations from the years after and it’s a strange thing to read how I liked to work alone, was not very communicative, did not like to join the group, that I did not listen very well. And I think I still don’t listen very well.

Anyway, those are the stories I have to work with.

AK:     You received your MFA in writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and focused on writing and metal sculpture. After graduating you started making custom furniture and jewelry -- this was all before you got into photography. How did you transition into photography?

BK:     The photography and writing were going on at the same time, way before grad school. My father liked photography and had a 35mm camera and a small darkroom he made in a closet at home. It was the same closet that we kept a pet lizard named Izzy. He needed to be warm all the time so there was a ladder-type nest with wool blankets and a red heat lamp. The smell in there wasn’t so great, I remember. The mix of photo chemicals and lizard, in a small hot room. I was about 8 or so, and I was writing stories and doing little things my dad let me do in the darkroom to help him, which wasn’t much. But I carried both of these interests through high school and into college and then into the mess of post-college years. I branched out, began making pen and ink drawings from Michelangelo paintings, carving in marble because my brother hooked up with some people who lived in Pietrasanta Italy for part of the year and shipped back huge blocks of Carrara white. But then came this moment when I didn’t want to be a delivery driver anymore. I was living in Boston and had been mugged twice, and my friends were either turning into alcoholics or heroin addicts. So I applied to two different MFA programs, one in visual arts, the other in writing, and I got into both. It was a serious thing to me, and I couldn’t make up my mind because I wanted to do both and my father was telling me I had to pick one but I couldn’t. A week later I had my first short story taken for publication by Gordon Lish at The Quarterly—and that was that. I went off and got an MFA in writing. But on the side I took metal working classes, and learned how to cut and weld steel. After grad school it was the metalworking that saved me because I made sculptures that people bought on occasion. The sculpture led to furniture which lead to woodworking and also jewelry making. All the while I was trying to write a big story, a novel. I had a full woodworking and metalworking shop, and was building very expensive pieces for people in New York. Hedge fund people and rock stars, folks who had a lot of money to spend on custom furniture. Photography came back into the picture because I needed photos of the furniture and jewelry I was making -- now this was all to try to make a living, just to keep going for a few more months, pay the rent, get the novel done and published and go out and become a famous writer. But then better digital cameras were coming out, and when Photoshop became a real power I just fell in love with photography all over. It was like photography had become 10 times better than it was in the old film days. You could play so much more. And you could do something that you could not do before, which was to use pictures as material to make pictures.

Weeping They Conveyed Him In Silence, 2009 -- Bear Kirkpatrick

AK:     Tell us about the Hierophanies series. To my understanding your concept is largely inspired by Mircea Eliade's academic theory. What about this resonated with you?

BK:     Actually it started with trees, probably with that first birch tree that I made a portrait of when I was 13. Hierophanies originally started with nighttime tree portraits, but then I started bringing people into them. I was also reading a lot of Eliade at the time, and found some connections between his thoughts on primitive religion and the images I was making, so I used his work to help me shape the project as a whole, circumscribe it. Maybe that was a bad idea, I don’t know. One always wonders about the other possible themes or ideas around a center that could have been pursued instead. But what resonated with me about Eliade was his efforts to understand something universal about the human creation of a cosmology, of a theophany, some kind of brain stem reaction in abstract terms to the conditions of the universe. And I also was attracted to any study of ontology that denied teleology at the first step. I think I felt somehow that these things could be seen in the images I was making, but likely it is just me who sees them.

All The Links Rattled At Once, 2010 -- Bear Kirkpatrick

AK:     You set ups for making these photographs are quite elaborate. Please tell us about the technical side of making this work.

BK:     Yeah, they got a little crazy. I mean they just kept getting more and more elaborate as I went along until in the end it was like a circus. And all of it had to be lugged out to wild forests and swamps, the set ups took hours. They started as very simple, but then I got tired of the light I was getting. And I also started to look up, look down. So much depended on the location, what was there already, and how to show something hidden about it—that was always a goal—how to show some hidden face or body in a tree or grass or swamp, something you could not see by the regular path of the sun. Another goal was to try to make a human body talk to that hidden place—kind of like a hidden place talking to a hidden place. And some locations weren’t going to work with my standard lighting set up, and some weren’t going to work from an eye level perspective. So I started designing and making lightweight structures that I could break down easily and put together out in the woods and swamps. It had to be lightweight because I lugged everything in myself on a deer hauling cart that I modified by welding on additional struts. The camera I could operate remotely by a trigger—it was held in a carousel that had bearings and would travel along a beam over the site, and so the ground below could be captured on an X/Y grid and then stitched together later on the computer. And then because I wanted different light I had a 30’ x 50’ diffuser sewn from white ripstop nylon by a sailmaker I know, and I could drape this sheet over the whole aluminum structure and fire lights down through it to make things glow. It also had the additional benefit of helping keep the bugs out. But I think it was the giant tent that led to the end of the Hierophanies pictures. It grew into a dinosaur and then pigmies attacked it. I have been in those woods for 20 years and never once seen a wildlife agent or game warden. But here come these two men in their uniforms, with sidearms and boots, hollering at us to come out of the tent, Federal agents! Maybe somebody out walking their dog saw the tent, this big weird white thing, saw flashes of light, heard strange laughter, I don’t know. They figured we must have been terrorists and so called in the law. These bullies charged us, grabbed my camera, and separated me from my assistant and my model. One guy would ask me a bunch of questions, very who why what where, and then they’d switch and ask the same questions, looking to trip us up. This went on for about an hour. They went through all my gear and confiscated a saw and a machete and a pocket knife. They informed me of the 7 or 8 federal laws I had broken, all of which they could arrest me for and take me to federal court because this was federal conservation land. It was absurd. I don’t know what they thought they had come across. A porn shoot? A meth lab? The worst is that they were bullies. They seemed to be confused about what to do with us, so they told us to break down the whole set, pack up, and haul out. It took at least an hour to do this. They stood back and watched us and whispered to each other, didn’t help at all. Back at the trailhead they got in their SUV and looked up my website online, and this probably disappointed them. Eventually they gave my stuff back, and wrote me up a fine I could pay by mail, which I did. They let me know I was getting off easy. And they let me know that I was now in the federal database and not to do anything like this again and next time I even went off the path I would have to appear in federal court.

Where Are These Men Who Promised To Come With You?, 2010 -- Bear Kirkpatrick

AK:     You had mentioned that in a way your work is between photography and painting. Can you explain what you mean by that?

BK:     I guess what I mean by that is I like to use tools in Photoshop that seem more akin to painting then photography, although sometimes it is hard to tell them apart. I use multiple layers of materials and colors, work a lot with brushes and textures, so there is an opportunity to use pixels like paint. I think this is the frontier, where the next great discoveries will come from. What I do is not really photography, and often I feel awkward calling myself a photographer. The word Photographer means something particular, and I am not that and I have no interest in violating that. I use a camera to gather things I can use to make a picture. I can’t wait for the day when I can work on the screen directly with different pens and brushes, that I can work standing up at a wall-sized monitor that I can build images directly on and paint and layer at full scale. That day is coming. I saw a 24” version of this kind of monitor at Tekserve in New York last spring.

It Was Rained Down Upon Us -- Bear Kirkpatrick

AK:     Can you share a story about making one of your photographs?

BK:     I can tell you about when my father modeled for a photo we shot in the Florida keys, and since I knew he would refuse to be naked I came up with a place he could be mostly underwater. I wanted him to have just his head showing, and I found a place where there was a small mangrove bush in the water that I thought he should be near, facing out, like he was guarding it. It has some echoes of his Vietnam experience I think, and when I showed him the scouting shot and told him about my idea he said sure, which I think really surprised my mother. We drove to the location at sunset and he got a little spooked because there was this old man there, pulling his fishing boat in. This place was at the end of a long dirt road and there was never anybody around when I has scouted it, and now here was this old guy who spoke no English and who could not understand my Spanish. I told my dad to forget him and he mostly did but the old fisherman stuck around to watch because we had lights and stands and battery packs and all that. My 70-year-old mother was my assistant and I had her stand in water over her waist and hold two light stands with lights and softboxes from blowing over because it was breezy. It was a little dangerous because the power cords to the lights went straight back to shore to a Tupperware container that held the batteries, and the container was in about six inches of water. The mangrove bush was a little too far out for my lights to reach so I had to move the lights out into the water as far as I could. I set up the tripod ahead of the lights, so I am standing up to my chest in water, the camera a foot above the surface. And my father wades in carrying a broom handle he brought from the house so that he could fend off any alligators. What a scene that was. Why was there nobody there to take a picture of this? We shot for only about ten minutes because I knew that my father was going to get grumpy if it went any longer, and it was getting dark and his concern about alligators was growing. He was farther out than either me or my mother so, yeah, he would have been the first one attacked for sure. So that was it. We got some good shots and nobody got bit or electrocuted. We packed up and by that time the old fisherman had already left—I didn’t even hear him go. We got in the truck and drove back to the house and made margaritas and laughed like goofballs.

Kirkpatrick finishing prints for The Nude exhibition
But that’s not the end. I put the image together when I got back home, and it I took a little while because water can be hard to stitch together, and then I sent the picture to my sister and my brother and my parents. My father didn’t say anything, but that’s not strange. My sister thought it was hilarious—and it is—but my mother on the phone with me started to whisper. She said, you know, I look at that picture, and that is your father. You can see part of him, his seriousness, his strength. But you cannot see the rest of him. The rest is a mystery. I liked that—I like that she saw that. It was one of the first pictures that I made that became a portrait.

View Bear Kirkpatrick's portfolio

A selection of Kirkpatrick's work can currently be seen as part of The Nude on exhibit at photo-eye through April 20th and features the work of fifteen photographers. Two portfolios of work from the show can be viewed here.

For additional information about Bear Kirkpatrick's work or to acquire a photograph, please contact the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202 or by email.