On July 16th photographer Jeff Kauck will present a lecture on the subject of inspiration at the Chicago Apple store on Michigan Avenue. It’s hard to believe someone can reinvent the wheel and make artists’ inspiration sound less cliché. But sit and chat with the man whose passion is to solve the equations of his art, and you find inspiration that can assist you far beyond photography.
How did you start your career in photography?
“I started as a watercolor painter. I had ten plus years of watercolor training. At the end of (art) school I knew all the concepts, but my hand couldn’t keep up with what I wanted to accomplish. That’s when I picked up a camera and turned to photography as the solution.”
How has your watercolor background influenced the way you approach photography?
“With me, when you start with explaining my photos, you first need a quick lesson in painting. With most oil painting, you paint from the mid-tones down, meaning highlights are added at the end. With watercolor you must paint from the mid-tones up, guarding the light areas you have because there is no white watercolor paint, that’s it. Most photography approaches light similar to oil painting. For me, light and highlights become priority.”
Jeff, July 16th also marks an announcement for your fine art photography. Where do you draw some of your inspiration from?
“Photography, like most things, presents its own set of unique problems because there are many things I want a photograph to do. I get so many ideas on how to conquer these problems, which rarely get tackled by commercial photography. Most of the time you create a portfolio and clients want exactly what they see, no deviations from the main path. Nothing may ever come from these images or test runs, but sometimes solutions become personal work. It’s like if the Rolling Stones tried to play something new. People don’t want to hear that, they want to hear the old songs they know and remember.”
What sorts of problems are you solving in your latest fine art?
“I’m interested in exploring the atmosphere between myself and the object. People might argue images are out of focus, but to me there is more clarity and emotion evoked in those images. To explore magnificence in light, something not usually appreciated in commercial work…light is everything to a painter: the color of light and the movement of light. I want to tell a story with my photos.”
Tell me about the subject of your latest fine art photography.
“My wife and I went to visit my brother in Atlanta, and he suggested we take a long weekend on Cumberland Island. We stayed at a B&B, and there I fell in love [with the island]. Cumberland is about the size of Manhattan and has three ecosystems interacting with each other. The project is in black and white and so far, it has taken four months (three visits) to shoot. We plan to return in December.”
Why black and white?
“I had just shot in Paris, where that magic light and surrounding love is a real thing. I aimed to create impressionistic photography, and with that came color. I couldn’t capture it all in black and white.
“When it came to Cumberland Island, black and white made more sense. With B&W images you are immediately shifted to another place. Tonal photography serves as a gateway to take you to different places. It moves your emotions so much more.”
Part of what makes Jeff’s career so rich is the anecdotes he’s obtained from learning under the greats. No stranger to art school, he continues to make the world his university, taking workshops that in turn open doors to seeds of motivation and opportunities of a lifetime.
“Mary Whyte (watercolor painter) has a lot of workshops. What I always remember about her is she says don’t ask about the tool and technique, ask ‘why did you make that hand move that way? Why did you pick that color for that mood?’ For her, the value and the importance are the details in the image composition itself…what choices are made to achieve the highest emotional response.
“I took a workshop with Ansel Adams, a very nice man, who is passionate as the day is long. John Sexton, his last assistant, once came in to the workshop and said no one was working hard enough. Everyone began to complain they were in the darkroom from 9-5 every day. Sexton said, ‘Stay 9a.m. to 9a.m. the next morning in the darkroom and you will come in with the best print.’ From him I learned you have to go all the way through. It’s like what Arnold Newman (portrait photographer) once said, ’You’re making, not taking, a photograph.’
“I wanted to pursue a particular look for the Cumberland photos. I attended a workshop by George DeWolfe, an early student of Ansel Adams, and afterwards asked him to mentor my project, which he has ever since. He has a skill to get the edges to lift. Being his pupil is not easy. One time I had worked tirelessly over fifty images I then sent to him, all of which he rejected, saying the highlights were all off by one to two percent.”
How has your artistry matured?
“I believe in moving artistry. If you stick to something long enough you get to a point where you can make, in my case, the images do what you want them to do. You already have mastered the tools you have to achieve the photos you want. You are always striving for the fundamentals, but true skill comes from the content of a picture.
“To me making a powerful picture makes the viewer stop in his or her tracks. You cannot accomplish that with just technique, you have to do that with content. “
Walking away from this interview, can you leave our readers with some snippet of the inspiration to come on July 16th?
“Before you make a picture, sketch it out, even if it is a stick man. Don’t take the shot until sketched and [you have] thought every detail through. It is critical to slow down; the photographic process [is] in slow motion. Photographer Robert Frank took over 20,000 shots in one and a half years and walked away with only eighty-seven images. Really think and make your picture. You’ll know you’ve succeeded if it comes out the way you see it in your head.”
To visit Jeff's portfolio, click here.
Jeff is repped by Emily Inman Aritsts' Rep.