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Witness Mark: Reviewed by Sara J. Winston

Book Review Witness Mark Photographs by Klea McKenna Reviewed by Sara J. Winston “If Klea McKenna’s spiritual practice is her creative work, Witness Mark, published by Saint Lucy Books, serves as a gospel for the ritual of process..."

Witness Mark By Klea McKenna.
Witness Mark
Photographs by Klea McKenna

Saint Lucy, Baltimore, MD, 2023. 230 pp., 8½x10½". 

If Klea McKenna’s spiritual practice is her creative work, Witness Mark, published by Saint Lucy Books, serves as a gospel for the ritual of process.

“I think that conceiving of art projects is a way to prescribe myself an experience that I need to have. I tell myself a thing needs to be made, and then the path to make it requires me to do something which is often strange or inconvenient. In retrospect, I realize that thing didn’t really need to be made, I just needed to do that activity. I imagine that for people who have gurus or listen to oracles, that they might be told: you need to go to this place, at sunset, and sit for this long and observe this quality, as a mediation. My art practice does that for me.”

Witness Mark catalogs a decade of McKenna’s camera-less analog renderings, from 2013 through 2023, taking readers on a journey through five bodies of work: Rain Studies, Web Studies, Faultlines, Automatic Earth, and Generations.

Intermittently there are images of McKenna, both in the studio and the field. To see the artist, who has powerfully dedicated her book to her “daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter,” absorbed in the act of the intense physical process of making, adds to the marvel and importance of her physical self in her creative process.

It is a wonder to follow the genealogy of McKenna’s making. To know McKenna’s work is to be aware of a beauty, technical sophistication, and complexity of seeing that is unlike any other. The language of silver gelatin prints, embossment, and rubbings holds distinctive memories that are effusive in their sensuousness — aspects of a print’s materiality that are hard to reproduce in a book become tangible in the way the book is assembled and sequenced.

Rain Studies’
images saunter across the gutter; Web Studies' go full bleed; an installation of Faultlines and Generations emerges as a delicious reproduction of a photographic relief seen beyond the book’s width as an unexpected gatefold. The surprises of the book's content pull the reader deeper into McKenna’s studio and psyche.

The materiality of each unique photographic object — often large-scale, embossed, silver gelatin prints, intended to be seen on the wall — would seem impossible to replicate in book form. Yet, through image, text, and a unique book construction, we are given a different vantage into the ways that these works convey the emotion of their careful meditative making.

The image reproductions are thoughtfully interspersed with insightful texts by experts in the field, including Corey Keller, Leah Ollman, Vanessa Kaufman Zimmerly, and McKenna herself. I find the artist’s own diaristic writing, Darkness / Light / Touch, to be most profound. The entries are powerfully non-linear in time and evocative of the emotional landscapes that underpin everything included in the volume. These pages are produced on a matte peach paper, in contrast to the bright white glossy paper stock of the rest of the book, and are situated nearly in the center of the volume. They call out to the reader’s senses, refusing to be overlooked.

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Sara J. Winston is an artist based in the Hudson Valley region of New York, USA. She works with photographs, text, and the book form to describe and respond to chronic illness and its ongoing impact on the body, mind, family, and memory. Sara is the Photography Program Coordinator at Bard College and on the faculty of the Penumbra Foundation Long Term Photobook Program.