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January 1, 1993
Press Articles :: Photographing in the Land of Enchantment

The Taos Hoop Dancer moved gracefully in the wintery air below the massive snowcapped mountain. Photographer David Michael Kennedy was shooting with a 2 1/4 Hasselblad camera, concentrating on those moments when the dancer's back curved like the hoops in his hand. This was Kennedy's second session with a Pueblo Dancer and things seemed to be going well. He had decided to shoot without a filter, despite his earlier success photographing a Buffalo Dancer from Tesuque Pueblo with a red filter. The palladium prints from that session were good material for the upcoming portfolio. Shot from a low vantage point, the Buffalo Dancer seemed airborne in a cloudy sky. High grasses softened the details of his feet, and the red filter had intensified dark areas on his skirt, feathers, and buffalo horns against the bright sky. It took only a small effort to imagine the figure as a buffalo lumbering across the plains.

In the darkroom, Kennedy watched the images of the Hoop Dancer emerge, and immediately sensed something was wrong. Over the next week he tried different exposures and chemicals, but finally had to admit the work wasn't up to par. It was a case of wasted money and time, and he was not looking forward to renegotiating with the skittish Taos governors. Still, he could and would get a better image of the Hoop Dancer. Kennedy occasionally retraces his steps, but he never veers from his path.

At forty-two, David Michael Kennedy has several lifetimes of photographic work under his belt. An independent, intelligent and imaginative artist, he is a remarkable mixture of New York tenacity and New Mexican frontiersman. In New York, Kennedy was awarded time and again for his album covers, posters, and editorial photo spreads for magazines like Elle, Food and Wine, New York, Omni, Time, Penthouse, Rolling Stone and Spin. His regular clients included Hasselblad Cameras, NATO, CBS News and The American Red Cross. A decade later, the freshness of this work still stops viewers in their tracks. His photographs of Muddy Waters surrounded by family or beaming in a close-up, simply makes you feel good. A bearded, saffron-robed Indian guru rises like a sacred mountain. Willy Nelson, Mickey Mantle, Isaac Stern, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and rock star Blondie each gave something special to Kennedy, who has a gift for making almost anyone feel at home. As writer Emily H. Simson remarked without exaggeration, "Kennedy's stunning assignment work could be viewed as comfortably on a gallery wall as on the printed page." At the same time that Kennedy was winning CEBA and CLIO awards for his commercial work, he was also cutting a name for himself in the fine art market, exhibiting work in the U.S., Britain and Europe.

Yet, after eighteen successful years in New York City, Kennedy knew that his life needed to change. In 1987, he, his wife Lucy and son Jesse, moved into a century old adobe house in the remote community of Cerrillos, New Mexico, and took up a lifestyle described by one reporter as "neo-unpretentious." Here, Kennedy was determined to satisfy his deepest desire to make personal photography of western lands and skies. If he had any doubts of the outcome, he didn't show it, despite the fact their income dropped some $200,000 that year. In an effort to give something back to his adopted community, Kennedy joined The Turquoise Trail Volunteer Fire Department, eventually becoming its Deputy Chief. Fires, wounded animals, car wrecks and even derailed trains in New Mexico's back country made his experiences in New York seem tame by comparison. He spent the rest of his time photographing.

Kennedy's hard work, combined with Lucy's framing skills, quickly resulted in gallery representation in and around Santa Fe. His palladium prints of southwest lands and New York celebrities immediately brought sales and recognition. People from all over the world seemed to agree that, compared to a thousand other images in Santa Fe galleries, Kennedy had captured what they had seen and felt in the southwest, and they were quick to purchase one or more of his images. The Santa Fe Photographic Workshop invited him to teach portrait and landscape classes, as well as a special one-on-one course in the palladium/platinum process in which a student lived and worked in Kennedy's home.

In the new and remarkably beautiful surroundings, Kennedy relished the solitude of New Mexico. He photographed constantly and quickly built up a large inventory. An isolated tree under brewing thunder heads, the empty dirt roads of Taos pueblo, an abandoned car baking in the heat, boulders sculpted by wind and rain, a nest of barn owls, the weathered innocence of a neighbor's face -- these and many other images captured the southwest's compelling intensity and wildness. Unlike the cool black and white values of silver print photographs, the rich brown tones of his palladium images, bordered by lively brush strokes, recalled turn-of-the-century sepia photogravures of Edward S. Curtis and albumen prints by William Henry Jackson. The similarity was more than visual since Kennedy laboriously made each palladium print by hand, using technical skills he had learned years ago at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California.

To make palladium prints, Kennedy brushes one or two coats of ferric oxalate, potassium chlorate (to increase contrast) and sodium chloropalladite (palladium and salt) onto archival rag paper. After drying, the sensitized paper is exposed in direct contact to the negative by either sunlight or a strong ultraviolet source. A saturated solution of potassium oxalate heated to about 120 degrees gives the tones of the image extra warmth. When the print is placed in the developing solution, the ferrous salts are dissolved, whereupon the palladium is reduced to the metallic state. After more chemical processing, the print is washed and air dried. A single print may take as many as fifteen hours to complete and, being handmade, is subtly unique from others. Kennedy restricts the reproduction of images to no more than thirty prints per negative.

In 1991, Kennedy began working on a portfolio of clouds entitled Cloudscapes of New Mexico - Ten Palladium Prints. For weeks he got up each morning and chased clouds, sometimes as far afield as Gallup, New Mexico. As twilight fell, he would often look up from his camera and wonder where he was. The edition of twenty portfolios, each containing ten 5 1/2" x 7" prints, was in its final stages when his daughter, Tymara Christen, was killed in a car accident. In his photographer's statement, Kennedy dedicated the portfolio to her. "When she died," he said, "I just felt this would be a present to her. May she ever be among the clouds."

In less than two years Kennedy had achieved his goal of supporting his family entirely on gallery sales. The few commercial jobs he continued to do were merely "gravy." Between 1987 and 1992, certain limited edition prints sold out and his galleries offered the remaining handful of artist proofs for sale. The Santa Fe Opera used his photograph of White Sands, New Mexico, for the cover of its 1992 program. Local newspapers and magazines frequently featured articles on his work, and students came from all over the world to take his workshops. In the meantime, Kennedy was embarking on new projects.

In 1989 Kennedy had done a photo essay on the Ojibwa Sioux activist Leonard Peltier, imprisoned at Leavenworth Penitentiary. Peltier's long incarceration for the supposed murder of an FBI agent has been the subject of hot debate for years. Kennedy had long supported Native American causes and his involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM) had grown into a commitment. His wife Lucy and son Jesse are part Native American. The session with Peltier fueled Kennedy's interest in Native American issues. In the summer of 1991, he drove to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Sioux Reservations in South Dakota to participate in a benefit for Peltier, and to photograph the Fancy Dancers at the Brotherhood Gathering. In an era when traditional regalia is giving way to commercially dyed feathers and store-bought fabrics, Kennedy photographed the authentic Fancy Dancers blurred by motion and energy, capturing the spirit of the dance rather than its outer trappings. In the dark and evocative palladium prints, swirling feathered headdresses transform the performers into something between human and animal -- reflecting the mystical tradition that the dancer becomes whatever he or she is dancing.

Back in New Mexico, Kennedy decided to produce a portfolio of Native American dancers from the eight northern pueblos: Tesuque, Pojoaque, Nambe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, San Juan, Picuris, and Taos. The portfolio would bring together all of Kennedy's talents; portraiture, motion photography, land and skyscapes, and the palladium process. His intention to give something back to the Indians was arranged whereby a percentage of any original photograph sold would go to the pueblos. Despite a reoccurrence of severe spinal problems in 1993 which put Kennedy into surgery and a lengthy recovery, he began the difficult process of convincing the governing body of the Eight Northern Pueblos that the portfolio would benefit them. His long-term plan is to continue the project with the Hopi, Sioux and Apache tribes, among others. Ultimately, he hopes to see a book of the photographs showing the living tradition of Native American dancing.

It came as no surprise to Kennedy that centuries of bad relations with "whitemen" have left a legacy of distrust and resentment. He was aware that individuals and communities of Native Americans have been systematically "ripped-off" by photographers selling unauthorized, garishly colored photographs in which attention to literal details eclipses the spiritual dynamics of the dances. To convince the Pueblo Council of the portfolio's value, Kennedy hired a personal contact from Tesuque and photographed him performing the Buffalo Dance. The resulting image was splendid. The governors liked the photograph so well that despite a tidal wave of resistance against non-Indians photographing sacred dances, they gave Kennedy permission to proceed. Kennedy, in return, gave the association exclusive rights to reproduce and sell the Buffalo Dancer image as a poster for the Annual Artist & Craftsman Show scheduled in July 1993. All proceeds from the poster's sale and any other reproduction of the image will go toward Indian scholarships and the arts and crafts fund.

The Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council must have sensed they were not dealing with an ordinary white man. Kennedy exudes a wiry energy and an iron-clad belief in himself. His chiseled features and elbow-length greying hair held in place with a headband, give him all the appearance of a renegade Indian these days. Working within the tight restrictions of the pueblos, Kennedy is currently making palladium print photographs for the portfolio. He has learned that if he wants to shoot the Deer Dance the pueblo may insist on the Hoop Dance, and that if he expects to shoot a solitary dancer the pueblo may insist he work with two performers. Respectful of their needs, Kennedy is persistent. After all, challenge seems to bring out the best in him and, as always, he is quite certain of his path.

© 1993 Elizabeth Kay