January 1, 2006
Press Articles :: On the Road with David Michael Kennedy
“Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy."
-- Jack Kerouac
In 2004 photographer David Michael Kennedy sold his house and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico and hit the road for a trip of indefinite length and flexible itinerary. His home for the next two years would be a vintage 1960 Airstream Travel Trailer. Besides cameras and darkroom equipment, Kennedy traveled with his dog, Henry Crow Dog. His aim was to photograph what is left of an America that exists quietly outside the frantic Zeitgeist of this era, where people haven't entirely forgotten that the principle business of life is to enjoy it.
Mostly Kennedy and kept to the back roads, following old two-lane black tops in search of unspoiled landscapes, and people who had fled from or been bypassed by the tentacles of interstates and shopping malls. Tucked away in small towns, truck stops, tourist traps, and trailer parks they found something definitive about America contained in the lives of moms and pops, iconoclasts and eccentrics, rabble rousers and nomads, gallery owners and artists, farmers and mechanics, evangelicals and hell-raisers, the places they call home, and the spaces in-between.
In his comprehensive, constantly updated web site, www.davidmichaelkennedy.com, snapshots and diary entries documented their journey, inviting viewers to come along for the ride as they stitched their way back and forth across the United States.
PALLADIUM AND POLAROID PRINTS
Kennedy shot most of the images on his trip with an old homemade 4x5 camera he had found years before in a camera shop. It was a strange looking contraption, especially after he had strapped it with black tape to stop light leaks. It combined front and back standards made from a regular 4x5 view camera attached to each other (so there were no bellows). It had a Polaroid 4x5 film back. Kennedy mounted a Helix focusing mount to the front lens board along with a 65 mm Schneider superangulon lens. Then he added a Contax 21 mm eyepiece to the top. It was designed to be hand held while shooting with fast film, though Kennedy used Polaroid Positive-Negative asa 25 film which, being extremely slow, necessitated using a tripod.
Taking photographs on the road everyday was not a problem for a shooter like Kennedy. But printing them in the Airstream required some ingenuity. He processed film a couple of times a week in the trailer's remodeled kitchen and bathroom. If there was a huge backlog of film he rented a motel room for the night or used a friend's darkroom. Once a month he made 4x5 palladium contact prints in the trailer darkroom, editioning them "APOTR edition of 15," which stood for "Artist Proof on the Road."
Culling from thousands of photographs Kennedy chose his best images to print in the palladium printing process from Polaroid Positive-Negative film, methods of printmaking that are rapidly vanishing as traditional photo technologies give way to digital. Sensitive to the edges of the prints, Kennedy was in the habit of using feathery dark borders around his palladium images for added impact. However, the dark, veiled borders on many of his photographs made on the road were a signature of the Polaroid Positive-Negative film he used. As always, his printing skills were meticulous and versatile. Wispy clouds were rendered with the delicacy of a watercolor. A glowering cloud bank was transformed into dynamic abstraction. The dusky, sepia colored images ranged from straight forward portraits of people and places, to moody, passionate responses to form, light and atmosphere.
TIME TO TIME THINGS CHANGE
Kennedy's seventeen years in Santa Fe had been creative and profitable. New Mexico's mesas, badlands, and summer thunderstorms were a tonic to an artistic eye trained in New York City to shoot album covers, posters and editorial photo spreads. In New York he had won enough awards to satisfy any artist's ego. But in 1987, urged by an irrational impulse for something more adventurous than Madison Avenue, he moved with his wife and young son to the remote village of Cerrillos, New Mexico (population less than 300) where he set up a darkroom, joined the local fire department, and learned to cook on a wood burning stove.
The southwest unlocked Kennedy's full potential. Over the next seventeen years he produced an intensely personal and captivating body of work that included limited edition photographs and portfolios of mushroom shaped storm clouds, juniper covered plateaus, portraits of gnarly locals in boots and cowboy hats, weathered adobe churches, still lifes of Indian masks, and a nest of round eyed barn owls living under a roof. Represented by Santa Fe's Andrew Smith Gallery, arguably one of the most successful photography galleries in the country, Kennedy's photographs stopped viewers in their tracks and fed something in their souls.
Kennedy made each palladium print by hand, frequently exposing his prints in sunlight. The warm sepia tones of his prints recalled the historic photographs of Edward S. Curtis and William Henry Jackson, but there was a fresh handling of form and space that appealed to contemporary collectors. Shows around the U.S. were followed by shows in Great Britain and Europe, accompanied by reams of press coverage. Students from around the world came to New Mexico to learn the palladium print process from its acknowledged master.
But for all his successes, fractures were appearing in Kennedy's personal life. His marriage of twenty-seven years was coming to an end, and his son, Jesse, was leaving for college. Running the business had become just a little cumbersome. And, Kennedy had to admit grimly, his creative muse wasn't as audible as she had once been. Something was gnawing at him. In 2003 he stopped for coffee in Colorado and caught sight of poster for Henry David Thoreau. Emotions and thoughts overwhelmed him. "What's happened to my Walden Pond?" he wondered. Somehow it had all gotten too complicated. It was time, he decided, to simplify.
"A trip, a safari, an exploration," wrote John Steinbeck, "is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike." A new era was about to unfold in Kennedy's life, bringing with it the chance at middle age to take his life and art in entirely new directions. He began the tedious process of disentangling from Santa Fe, selling the house and its contents, and finding and outfitting an old Airstream trailer into a living space and darkroom. His sense of adventure awakened, he accomplished it all within the year. "Time to time things change," he typed in his online journal. On a snowy Tuesday morning in early Spring 2004 he drove north out of Santa Fe with what remained of his possessions.
ON THE ROAD
His first year on the road Kennedy and Henry Crow Dog rambled through Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. They did a stint in Colorado and Wyoming, and by midsummer were fighting off bugs in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Late summer found them in Maine, before they began backtracking west to Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. They ended the year on the east coast.
2005 was much the same except that in June, Kennedy flew to Warsaw, Poland for an opening of his photographs at the Fabryka Trazciny Gallery. In Warsaw Kennedy was delighted to see that the city's billboards were advertising the exhibit with mammoth images of his early celebrity photographs of Debbie Harry, Rachel Rosenthall, and Iggy Popp.
Back in the States, despite record high gasoline prices, they resumed their travels, heading into Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Montana. In September Kennedy photographed geysers and wildlife in Yellowstone before turning back east.
Despite journal entries complaining of travel fatigue, breakdowns, challenging weather, nerve wracking traffic, and a dwindling wallet, Kennedy always managed to find a welcoming place at the end of the day. More often than not a stranger, friend or relative greeted them warmly and boosted their spirits for the next leg of the journey.
The Airstream gave people the impression that he was traveling for pleasure, and this made introductions with strangers relatively easy. But it also meant that if Kennedy spotted the chance for a good photograph it might be five or six miles before he found a place to turn his rig around. Sometimes the scene had changed and the opportunity was lost. Or, if the situation still presented itself, Kennedy had to negotiate the trailer off the road and screw up his courage to walk up to a stranger and introduce himself. Sometimes hour long discussions ensued about politics or the environment before Kennedy could even think about pulling out his camera equipment.
SMALL AND NOT SO SMALL TOWNS
At one time in America's history towns with grain elevators occurred every seven miles along the railway lines so that farmers who lived within a few miles of an elevator could make two trips a day to unload their grain wagons. Each small town was a unique culture, inhabited by people of various ethnicities who had immigrated from other parts of the U.S. or from other countries.
Today few can argue that the United States is rapidly losing its local color as malls, satellite tv, condos, and urban sprawl replace what is unique with "generic America." Small towns, once a repository of historic traditions and culture, are an endangered species, and Kennedy had to dig deep into the country's backwaters to find what he was looking for.
They were driving in the proverbial middle-of-nowhere when they came upon a sign for Emblem, Wyoming, population 10. Kennedy was filled with an irresistible desire to make a town portrait, an idea he took up with the local postmistress who agreed to get the word out among the locals. Kennedy printed up a flyer and soon a date for the shoot was agreed upon. A few friends and extended family members were invited. The photograph, Community of Emblem, Wyoming, portrays twenty-five smiling, salt-of-the-earth men, women, children and two dogs.
On November 16, 2004, under a blanket of white clouds Kennedy photographed Santa Rita Chapel, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, a private, homemade chapel perched like a doll's house on a rocky hilltop. In the photograph a dark cross, enlarged dramatically by the camera's point of view, dominates the foreground and conveys something of the formidable spirit of old world Hispanic Catholicism that characterizes northern New Mexico.
A diminutive trailer in The Shady Dell RV Park, Bisbee, Arizona caught Kennedy's eye on December 7, 2004. He photographed this smallest of dwellings ornamented with striped awnings and crowned by an impressive air conditioner. Printed in magical tones the vernacular scene takes on the quality of a fairy tale, as if Munchkins are living in Bisbee.
Coney Island Kids, Coney Island, New York was taken on August 18, 2004. A fake palm tree on the beach resembling a David Hockney drawing commands the center of the photograph. Children play in the sand beneath it, while in the distance a ferris wheel mirrors the wheel shaped palm fronds.
LAND, SEA AND ROADSCAPES
Driving across country many of Kennedy’s worst fears were confirmed. Between Denver and Colorado, instead of the empty land that existed only a few years ago, he found mile after mile of half-acre plots with enormous new houses crunched against each other. In the middle of Iowa brand new communities comprised of two thousand wall-to-wall homes built out of ticky-tack had sprung up on what was recently farm land. He was always relieved to leave the nightmare of homogenization and get into the back country where a flaring sunset, an empty rain soaked highway, or the iconic power of a solitary buffalo in the badlands could be transposed into photographs.
One evening in Colorado Kennedy saw the potential for a dramatic photograph of car lights flashing under low, illuminated clouds. This became the photograph, Car and Rain on Highway 34, Yuma, Colorado.
Road, Abilene was taken in a featureless part of west Texas as swirling white clouds hovered like a monstrous space ship over a sickle shaped highway.
Lower Antelope Valley, Page, Arizona looks like pure abstraction, until one mentally shifts the undulating forms into water carved rock walls.
In Crawfish Boat going down the road, Buller, Louisiana Kennedy’s camera followed the tracks imprinted by the ribbed wheels of a covered vehicle as it slowly traversed sandy bayou country.
In Maine the spectacular, rocky coast of Acadia National Park inspired the photograph, Thunder Hole Large Rock, in which a seething ocean reflects ragged, backlit clouds. As in so many of Kennedy’s images, the irregular border around the Polaroid Positive/Negative film acts as a window into the scene.
Kennedy's technique for finding people to photograph was relatively straight forward. If he spotted someone who looked interesting he pulled up, climbed out of the trailer, and sauntered over. Rail thin, with silver-gray hair flowing down his shoulders, he might have come off the set of Easy Rider. A brief introduction went along the lines of, "Hi. I'm a photographer. Do you mind if I make your photograph?" Questions followed, curiosity was piqued, and mostly folks were flattered. Expecting a two second snapshot people became slightly unnerved when Kennedy began pulling out his tripod and professional camera equipment, but virtually everyone agreed to be photographed. Sometimes after the photos were made, Kennedy and Howard were offered an ice tea or a beer. Hours, or even days later they drove away, having made new friends and added another fascinating encounter to the project.
On September 7, 2005 they pulled into the Kamp Katie RV Park in Jordon, Montana expecting little more than a good night’s sleep. Instead they met the park’s owner, a cordial, white haired woman named May Billing who shared slices of her interesting life with them. Billing had written extensively about growing up on a Montana ranch. She still ran a ranch, along with operating the RV Park started by and named for her mother. Although she had no reservations about living alone and cooking on a wood burning stove, she felt a little shy about being photographed. Kennedy’s portrait of Rancher/Journalist May Billing, shows her seated in the yard with her arms cradling her body and her long legs crossed, looking both friendly and nervous.
Sculptor Lightnin’ McDuff, of Amarillo, Texas looked intently at the camera when Kennedy photographed him amid the pack rat clutter of his yard. Below his bandana is the serious countenance of an artistic man who has gone his own way in life.
Kindness and graciousness are conveyed in Kennedy's photograph of his parents, William and Elizabeth Kennedy, Easton, Connecticut. Very advanced in age, each supported by a shiny handled cane, the couple stands on a dappled, sunlit lawn, holding each other tenderly as they smile at their son, the photographer.
They had just passed three people on horseback herding cattle near the Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming when Kennedy realized this was something he really wanted to photograph. By the time he had turned the Airstream around the riders were in the distance near an old cabin. Kennedy walked down a dirt road to them and introduced himself to Wayne Barnnet who owned the cattle ranch, and his workers Carrie and Clint Besaley. During the long conversation that followed, Kennedy learned that Clint was a cowboy poet and songwriter, and that Wayne Barnnet ran his operation without much in the way of modernization. Barnnet and his crew spent every summer running cattle high in the mountain pastures, living in rustic cabins. Taken in 2005, Kennedy’s photograph, Ranchers Carrie and Clint Besaley and Wayne Barnnet, looks like it could have been made in 1880.
Kennedy has always had a penchant for people living outside the mainstream. Each spring and fall during his many years in Santa Fe, he often caught sight of a homemade caravan being pulled by four burros along the shoulder of Highway 285. Kennedy was always too busy to stop and meet the old driver. But on his road trip their paths crossed again in southern New Mexico where Kennedy visited with Traveler/Survivalist Bob Sundown, Deming, New Mexico. In Kennedy’s photograph the gentle old man hugs his dog next to the handmade contraption that transports him each year between Arizona and Montana.
In September 2005 Kennedy and crew met and subsequently spent a week with Elijah Cobb, a one-time New York City photographer who lives at the foot of the Yellowstone outside Cody, Wyoming. Cobb asked Kennedy if he would take a picture of him with his mother who had just died and Kennedy obliged by photographing the longhaired, bearded and shirtless Cobb holding his mother's ashes in his cupped hands. Resembling a medieval Christ, Elijah Cobb with his Mother's Ashes, Cody Wyoming, is a powerful and unconventional Pieta.
Characters who might have come out of Faulkner's or Welty's imagination were irresistible to Kennedy. Sister Reiddie Harper, a ninety-one year old Pentecostal Preacher living in DeRidder, Louisiana, fed Kennedy and Howard frozen pizza, smoked chicken, and the Word of the Lord. Kennedy captured her determination and luminosity as she stood before old barn with an open Bible in her hands.
SKULLS AND BRAVADO
Something defiant emanates now and then from Kennedy's photographs; an edgy, restless energy that relates to Kennedy's gypsy impulse to wander about the country searching for something elusive.
Sundance Skulls, Crazy Bull's Pickup, Coralles, New Mexico is a jarring, grisly photograph of a truckload of cow skulls bristling with curved horns. These skulls aren't for the tourist market, but will be used by Kennedy's Indian friends in the painful, trance-evoking Sundance Ceremony on the Rosebud Reservation in North Dakota in midsummer.
In Longhorn Head, Liberty, Texas, the fender shaped horns of a young steer fill the foreground of the photograph, defying Kennedy and his camera to come any closer.
Full of devilish bravado, the photograph Alabama Bound, Boligee, Alabama shows an attractive, longhaired woman with mile-long legs standing on railroad tracks, her skirt uplifted by the breeze.
TOURIST TRAPS AND FOLLIES
They had driven for hours over interminable bridges to reach a pricey RV park in Key West, Florida. At dusk they wandered with other tourists along the lamp lit avenue overlooking the ocean. A street performer dressed as an angel made Kennedy pull out his camera and take the haunting photograph, Angel, Key West, Florida.
Next to a three story farmhouse in Fairfield, Connecticut sat a sculpture of a giant baby wearing a diaper and lifting out its arms, as if anxious to be held. The Paul Bunyan sized baby is so convincing that Kennedy's photograph taken at close range gives the impression that the baby is real and the house in the background is a miniature.
The Wigwam Village Motel, Holbrook Arizon a is just the sort of western folly Europeans must love to photograph for their friends back home since it is so absurdly American. Kennedy was lucky the day he arrived. A Chevy Impala parked in front of the tourist trap added its sharp tail fins to the cone shaped teepee hotel units.
BACKBONE AND SOUL
Kennedy is not the first photographer to wander around the United States documenting his reactions to a strata of life often overlooked by a culture obsessed with technology and moneymaking. Not surprisingly, his photographs inadvertently captured many of the worthier qualities still embedded in the national psyche: strength of character, love and knowledge of the land, whimsical creativity, and a satisfying, non-materialistic approach to life. Photographer Robert Frank was also drawn to the commonplace, though he portrayed a country fragmented by social and racial disparities. Robert Adams described its brutalized and broken stretches of earth. Richard Avedon, in his In The American West project, removed working class people from their environments and isolated them against bare studio backgrounds. Lee Friedlander continues, after fifty years, to produce views of an asymmetrical and disjointed United States. Kennedy’s work has more in common with Laura Gilpin, who became friendly with the Navaho Indians in the early 1900s, gained their trust, and photographically documented their lives with warmth and intimacy over decades.
Kennedy may not have lost all his cynicism about the direction the United States is headed, but on the road he was surprised by how many people with backbone and soul he encountered with whom he felt instant kinship. His camera was not used as a psychological barrier against life, but a means of celebrating it. Compositionally, the people he photographed are almost always centered in the picture frame, squarely connected to places they live. Most of them are smiling. The warm brown tones of the palladium prints soften the scenes, remove them slightly from the present tense, and set them gently within a framework of history.
It is paradoxical that Kennedy’s restless, rootless energy connected him over and over again with people who lead settled lives. Even the nomadic Bob Sundown and his team of mules migrate from state to state with seasonal regularity. Inbetween homes himself at the time of his project, Kennedy was looking hard at what constitutes a good one, be it created by the manicured yard people, the hinterland hermits, or the deep South mystics. All give the impression, through Kennedy’s photographs, that they belong here, bound like that lone buffalo in the badlands to their rightful place on earth.
©2006 Elizabeth Kay