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Interview: Mona Kuhn on Private

Interview Mona Kuhn on Private Mona Kuhn talks to Christopher J. Johnson about her book Private and the limited edition available exclusively at photo-eye.

Private by Mona Kuhn. Steidl, 2014.
When talking of work by Mona Kuhn, I’ve recently heard that she’s “known for her nudes,” that she “works with light,” or “often employs a classical theme.” While none of these things are untrue, they set her in a frame alongside countless other photographers, leaving her photographs largely to the imagination. It might be better to say that Mona Kuhn’s work explores the interaction of the human form and light, light that can envelope the body or surround it, eating at its edges like aphids on a plant. Her nudes are captured with a female-centric ease; a relaxed reality, as opposed to a posturing, of the body.

Kuhn’s latest series, Private, takes her known themes and applies another layer; the body as landscape, the landscape as a body, and the color palate of a particular landscape, the desert. Her work has never been so lyrical, so thematic and, yet, defiant of any narrative bent. Private is a field guide to the harshest environments: sand, rock, direct sunlight and our organic vessels.

On a sunny afternoon I called Kuhn to ask her about Private and the photograph included in the limited edition of the book.—Christopher J. Johnson

Private by Mona Kuhn. Steidl, 2014.

Christopher J. Johnson:     Tell me about the development of your work in the series and the book Private.

Mona Kuhn:     I usually work very intuitively. A way for me to start a series is to first imagine the colors as a way of limiting the palate. The colors that I first imagined for the series, colors that matured over time for me, were the sand tonalities — sand which at times resembles skin, the golden desert colorations and golden light and then the darker shades of brown and black — that was the palate that inspired me. I’ve been living out in Los Angels for quite some time so I was also very drawn to understanding the desert, as it was my surroundings.

So I started traveling more often into the Mojave Desert and started reacting to certain things that I was seeing and I started photographing, creating this kind of visual poetry about my surroundings and the people I met along the way, but also the people who came with me.

Private by Mona Kuhn. Steidl, 2014.

CJJ:     How did that natural landscape, the desert, coincide with the human body?

MK:     I think it came from an understanding of a body as a larger body. A good example is an image called Fault and another one called Desert Crest. Desert Crest is an image I took in Winslow, Arizona and it’s basically soft rolling hills going into the distance. They were formed a long time ago, geologically formed by the glaciers pushing that body, that volume, and creating those hills. In the image Fault there is a similarity in the bed sheets, where one body leaves a mark on another body. Obviously it’s just bed sheets, but they are a volume, a type of body.

Desert Crest and Fault from Private

This project was also interesting because I learned about geology and a little bit about the mysticism of animals that live in the desert and learned about their stories and their placement in tradition. It was really interesting to embrace so many aspects of the desert that I wasn’t familiar with, but [Private] was also a little bit about testing our bodies, their endurance in life.

When we go to the desert we’re typically tested by the conditions: the heat or the harshness or lack of water. We’re tested if we don’t pay attention. If you’re engaged with it, if you’re walking or camping and you’re actually in that environment, you realize how strenuous it is and how humbling, realize how fragile and vulnerable we are, and that’s the juxtaposition that I wanted to make. How we face what’s ahead of us in our lives without knowing what’s going to happen, the same way that we put ourselves in the desert, where we can be tested.

11x11" print included in Private limited edition
CJJ:     The print that comes with your limited edition of Private is a beautiful image and somewhat reminiscent of the book’s cover in the sense that we are looking through into a private space. What are your feelings of that print?

MK:     It’s part of a broader poetic series; it’s hard for me to pinpoint an image because they must speak so much for themselves and see what kinds of emotion they evoke because different people bring their own backgrounds with them when they look at it.

What I do like about that image is that it allows room for that. It has the golden light, the color palate and, like the cover of the book, it’s an image where the light enters so strongly into a private area that as it enters it is almost devouring things, rotting things. It’s an incredible force of nature.

In the print the light is a little softer than the book cover, but it highlights the body, makes it layered. It’s not really a portrait maybe, we don’t know, perhaps it’s more in [the model’s] mind than the world. It’s less the image of a person and more the image of a thought. You don’t know if what you are seeing really exists.

Available exclusively at photo-eye:
Private limited edition is presented in a slipcase with an 11x11" color C print, signed and numbered in an edition of 20 copies. Reserve a copy here