Kevin Franke

Interview from "SW!PE Magazine" (November, 2011)

Kevin Franke's photos are the result of his many wandering walks, much of them through New York City. They transcend the journalistic narrative often associated with street photography, becoming a primarily visual experience; relating to painting as well as photography. SW!PE editor Jason Eskenazi contacted him to discuss his life and work.

Kevin Franke in studio

Jason Eskenazi: When you switched to painting from photography and then back to photography what did one give you that the other didn't? Have any painters affected your photography and have any photographers affected your painting?

Kevin Franke: I was originally a painter and as such, I think painting has had more influence over my photography than the other way around. Painting is a slow and deliberate process—one has time to think and decide about all of the formal elements. And it is malleable; one can change it, rework it, change it back. What I learned about picture making from painting I brought to photography, but photography is instantaneous (at least the way I do it) and one must apply these things instinctively, which is a hit and miss proposition. My painting was getting more and more labor intensive in the nineties. I was spending weeks and months on a single image, alone in my studio. I was getting bogged down, loosing the fun and the excitement. When I went back to photography, I was suddenly dealing with hundreds of images at a time, and getting out of the house a little. It was exhilarating. And I found it more difficult and challenging, and therefore more interesting.
Contrary to what one might think, the push-button simplicity with which one can make a technically competent photograph is not what makes photography as an art form easy, but what makes it hard. If anyone can achieve technical proficiency that easily, then what must one do to make one's work personal and distinctive? Many painter's work is distinguished, at least in part, by some novel or unique way of handling the materials. Photography on the other hand, is all about concept and vision. I haven't really thought much about the cross-media influence question, but again, being a painter first, I think the influences go more from painting to photography. And, now that I think about it, I've always loved the Ashcan painters; John Sloan, George Bellows, William Glackens and the gang, and they have probably influenced my photography, at least subliminally. I love their urban street scenes and their focus on the day to day life of ordinary people. I think that the reality of the ordinary is in many ways more meaningful, more significant, and even more profound than depictions of extraordinary events or realities.

JE: Since your early days as a student, with Nathan Lyons, it seems sequencing and groups of photos were important. How do you create a body of work that fits together?

KF: My method is to shoot first and to ask questions later. I think a lot of photographers, especially young photographers, start out by defining a specific theme or project and then go out in search of the photos, or simply concoct the photos, that will fulfill their needs. To me this is putting the cart before the horse. I like to photograph whatever catches my eye and then spend hours examining the results and letting the pictures inform me of what it is that I'm interested in. I let the ideas emerge from the work and then group and sequence the photos into whatever form they seem to want to take. While the individual photographs may be complete in themselves, they also can function like a phrase or a passage in a larger body of work. Putting them together is more like writing poems or songs than it is like composing essays.

JE: How has the museum affected your work?

KF: I can't say that I'm aware of the museum affecting my work in any direct way. I've always loved the museum and resisted the idea of making it my workplace, fearing that the magic would be destroyed. It hasn't worked out that way; the museum is still a constant source of enrichment and inspiration and I suppose that that's the way it has affected my work. And while one can appreciate an artwork on many levels—for it's craftsmanship, it's history, it's concept or it's spirituality, or just for it's simple beauty, I always find myself relating to the artist, the object or picture maker who actually brought it to life. I like the feeling of kinship with artists from so many disparate times, places and circumstances.

JE: I see that advertisements play an important role in your photography. It seems that two worlds are coming into contact with each other: the lure of a better life and our daily existence. Are the advertisements pulling people into their world or is the real world showing us something about the commercial world?

KF: Both. In the urban environment we are surrounded by images of "ourselves", and they are mostly agenda driven advertisements for one thing or another. They turn up in street photography with some regularity, sometimes as a chosen subject and other times as an inadvertent intrusion or an incidental detail. They presumably depict who we are or who we think we are, or who we wish we were, or perhaps more commonly, what some other entity wants us to wish for or aspire to. My series "Image" is about these things. In the early part of the sequence, people are very much aware of the images around them and interact accordingly. But by the end they are completely oblivious and it seems as if the images have turned the tables and are now more aware, and even in control, of us. They shape our values and beliefs, and dictate our wants and desires. Indeed, we have created these images of ourselves, but in the end, they have also created us.

JE: I see a lot of structures and constructions in your photography. What role does chance and chaos play?

KF: The dichotomy of my approach is that I love pictorial structure; I am a formalist at heart. Yet my method is to work very quickly, like I'm photographing glances, trying to work in the space that exists between recognition and understanding, and trusting my instincts. I am interested in the things you catch a glimpse of out of the corner of your eye, and then they're gone. I don't like to obsess or analyze things too much when I'm shooting—I'll do that later (much later as it turns out). And when I do, I love it when I am surprised by something that I don't even remember. Sometimes I'm not sure if I actually saw the thing I captured, grabbed it and quickly moved on, or just got dumb lucky. But I'll take it either way.


Notes on "KEVIN GOES TO THE MET" (November, 2011)

"Kevin Goes To The Met" was photographed in 2000 and 2001 and was never conceived of, or intended as a project of any kind, but rather, grew into one organically, pretty much under it's own steam. I was actually just experimenting with a digital camera which, compared with the digital cameras of today, was nothing more than an expensive toy. It had an optical viewfinder that compares with those found on disposable cameras, and a small LCD screen on the back that you could not see outdoors or in bright light. It had a shutter lag close to half of a second, which means that you were never capturing the moment you wanted, but rather a moment in the future that you hadn't even seen yet. And it was so slow that normal room light was a problem. It was a far cry from the 35mm rangefinders that I was used to, and totally unsuited to the kind of street photography that I'd done in the past. Nevertheless, it had been quite a while since I'd done any serious picture taking and I was somehow compelled to try to do something with it, so one day I took it up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw the Museum as a closed and protected environment, it was indoors but still had good light, and I figured that if the camera wasn't nimble enough to photograph things that were moving or changing much, I could always photograph the sculptures and the galleries. So off I went. It turned out that I quite enjoyed myself that first day, enough so that I returned a second time and then a third. I learned to work around some of the camera's shortcomings and went on to visit the museum once, and sometimes twice a week for a period of a little more than a year, amassing a fairly substantial number of pictures. I still didn't think of it as a project, I kept going back simply because I was having fun, I was just amusing myself. Eventually though, I decided to try to make some kind of sense of it all and started editing the pictures into groups and pairs, seeing similarities and contrasts, patterns and relationships, and finally, themes and ideas forming, and, after an extended period of time, a book emerged.

Without a project intent, there was no agenda or thesis to test or prove. What I had was just a collection of encountered observations; more of a love letter than a manifesto. I shuffled and reshuffled them into ten general themes and then, rather than break the book up into chapters, sequenced the themes into one long whole (the length of the book was determined by the number of half letter size work prints would fit on a four by eight foot piece of homasote), with the ideas flowing one into the next. Although the themes are somewhat broad and malleable and there are (mostly) no sharp lines dividing them, I'll give you the working titles (from my notes):

  1. 1. Kevin Goes to the Met
  2. 2. Looking and Thinking
  3. 3. Looking at Paintings
  4. 4. Light and Space
  5. 5. The Visitors and the Collection
  6. 6. The Collection and the Visitors
  7. 7. Sculpture in Context
  8. 8. Abstractions...Hallucinations...
  9. 9. More People at the Met
  10. 10. Enlightenment and Reflection

The book itself took the form of a unique artist's book of original prints. I showed it around to friends and acquaintances but made no effort to publish it, or to create an edition as it was still something I was doing really only for my own personal enrichment and amusement. Now more than ten years have passed since I shot the photos and more than six since I put the book together, and I've decided to post the sequence on my website, as true to the original form as is possible.

Hope you enjoy it.