The State of the Industry Interview Series: David Lykes Keenan
This interview was conducted over email, and given some edits by the photographer himself are entirely his own original answers and unedited to retain the interview’s integrity. David Lykes Keenan is a photographer who has put his hand to the plow for many years in various industries, he has managed to form a life that many of us dream of: he takes photographs simply for his pleasure and to make sense out of the world around him without the interferences of being a “commercial photographer.” Splitting his time between his home here in Austin, TX and living the “high life” in New York City, he has built up an impressive body of work that is being noticed in the industry by figures such as Eli Reed of Magnum Photos. In addition to his first published book “In The Gutter,” he is working on the release of his second visual tome “Fair Witness.” Both collections are worthy of a thorough perusal. Personally I am looking forward to the release of this second volume and I am very excited that he has chosen to participate in this interview. Please check out his site for more information on any of his projects or if you just want to find out more about him.
This interview series is organized into three parts: The Beginning, The Now, and The Future. This separation was to distinguish original influences and experiences in “The Beginning,” the to see what it’s it like currently in the middle of a hectic professional life in “The Now,” and to hear from one of the professionals who is shaping the direction of our industry on where we should be heading in “The Future.” Our hope is that these questions spur discussion, not just dissent or approval of one method or line of reasoning. Not only this, but this is a chance to get a glimpse into the history and life of a contemporary working professional photographer. Enjoy.
PC&V: There always seems to be a photographer somewhere or a particular image that we can attribute as the catalyst that allowed us to become consciously aware of the art of photography. What first photographic thing stirred something in you?
DLK: I’m trying to remember just what my catalyst might have been. I started taking pictures when I was a teenager in Michigan. My dad always had a camera or two around the house and my grandfather was a pretty serious amateur photographer.
Photography was really just a hobby for me back then. I suspect I was attracted to cameras then (as I am now) as cool gadgets. And since these gadgets took pictures that’s what I did with them.
What does a kid in the early 1970s who was completely oblivious to serious photography (Robert Frank who?) take pictures of? Pets, flowers, family vacations, neighbor kids playing tennis baseball, sunsets, fall leaves.
So, yeah, we all had to start somewhere.
We all seem to have that personal point in our lives when photography became something to us other than just a snapshot. What was your first photograph that you took that really made photography stick out to you?
I really have had two lives as a photographer separated by almost 30 years by something called a career. My career was as a software developer and small business owner. This is spurred on by my father’s directive to become “an engineer”.
My first photographic life was Dave the teenage nerd who ended up being on my high school newspaper and yearbook staff and who dreamed of becoming a sports photographer for hometown Detroit Free Press newspaper.
In answer to your question, if I had a single such photograph back then, I don’t remember it.
However, in my current life, in which I have been reinventing myself as an artist (notice there are no air-quotes around artist anymore) and photographer, I think the earliest picture that stands out for me is one I call “Bike Boy” which was taken in the Czech Republic in 2005.
It’s been published in a few magazines, my first picture to be so honored, and this photograph, more than any other up to that time, I think, awakened me to the idea that maybe I was pretty darn good with a camera.
Most photographers seem to have started out with an inherited or borrowed camera, but what was the first camera you had that was all your own?
Oh sure. It was a Hanimex Practica Nova 1B. It’s a pretty highfalutin sounding name for a very mediocre SLR camera made in Germany (East) as the country like to call itself. Even though it had a focal plane shutter, its top shutter speed was 1/500 of a second. Almost every other SLR camera even in the 1960s topped out at 1/1000 of a second. So much for East German engineering.
Interestingly, I found one of these cameras last year on the table of a Brooklyn street vendor near where I live when in I’m in NYC. It was in pretty good shape, even the meter appeared to work, so I bought it.
This camera bears the name Hanimex Practica super TL but I swear it is the same camera with the same grandiosely labeled Meyer-Optik Görlitz Oreston 50mm f/1.8 lens. What a mouthful. I guess the Communists wanted to make up what they lacked in quality with important sounding names.
You appear to have a heavily photojournalistic approach to your photography. What subject matter did your first photojournalistic project focus on?
I am attracted to classic black & white photography clearly more than anything else. I find black & white to simply be more expressive than color.
I wish I could say that I was into and studied the great photographers of the black & white, Life Magazine era before I embarked on my software career (and pretty much left photography in the rear-view) — but I didn’t. The thought never occurred to me and, perhaps more sadly, no teacher ever suggested it.
“I find black & white to simply be more expressive than color.”
Though any specific memories are lost, I probably would have recognized the names of a few of the sports photographers at the Detroit News or Free Press . Otherwise, I don’t recall any major influences in those days except for my grandfather whose Leica M3 kit I deeply admired but whose (mostly vacation) Kodachrome slide shows I dreaded.
In those days, the idea of photography as art was a relatively new concept in general, and as a sheltered, naive teenager in a Lilly-white Detroit suburb, it was virtually unimaginable. None of my entries in the school photo club contests did well so that didn’t encourage the concept of my photographs as being artistic.
Sure, I printed a few pretty pictures (some even in color since I mastered the Unicolor system in the sanctuary that was my darkroom) and hung them on the wall — but this was hardly art. Art was something important people did and it was in museums, not in suburban split levels in a kid’s bedroom.
So, as a photographer for my high school newspaper and yearbook, I think I was by default a photojournalist. My dreams for the future had me working for daily newspaper photographing sports. Tri-X, Acufine, and telephoto lenses were my essential tools at time and I suspected they would continue to be a newspaper.
Whatever I might be as a photographer nowadays came from those essentially photo-journalistic roots. Although, I’d never describe myself as a photojournalist now.
The question that burns on everyone’s mind, even though it doesn’t make up who you are as a photographer; What equipment are you currently using?
I walked by a guy in east Austin a couple of days ago who looked like he as just coming off some assignment. He had at least two Canon bodies hanging off his shoulders, one of them with some honking big-ass lens (one of those annoying beige colored jobs that Canon guys are so proud of), and he was throwing other stuff into the back of a mini-van.
I remember clearly thinking how glad I was that I wasn’t that guy.
He was schlepping around SO much stuff… I hate even carrying a camera bag.
I usually have one camera and one lens with me. If I leave the house with a second camera, I usually regret it and it is just in the way.
Because of eBay, I’ve been fortunate to have access to just about every kind of camera imaginable. I’ve bought (and then resold) so many cameras and lenses since returning to photography in circa 2004, I’ve lost count.
But my grandfather’s influence on me is unmistakable. One of my first eBay purchases was a Leica M3. Although I’ve totally tricked it out with more modifications (with parts from both M2 and M4 models) than could ever be financially justified (I now affectionately refer to it as my FrankenLeica), it came to me originally because I wanted to recreate my grandfather’s kit.
Since then, despite all the other choices and cameras I’ve tried, I am a Leica guy. I love rangefinder cameras. In fact, right now other than my Hanimex and Nikomat FTN (my original second camera after the Hanimex), I do not own an SLR.
So on a given day, I will leave the house with one of my four Leica cameras and (most likely) a 50mm lens over my shoulder. Three of them are film cameras, a IIIf, the aforementioned FrankenLeica M3, and a recently acquired MP. The fourth is the digital M9.
My other options are a Hasselblad Xpan, a panoramic film rangefinder that may as well be a Leica, a Fuji X100 digital that is so similar to a Leica rangefinder in style that is cannot be an accident, and a Rolleiflex T medium format twin-lens reflex.
This will probably change when the next exciting new model camera from so-and-so comes out but I’m pretty satisfied with my options right now.
The majority of your subject matter in “Fair Witness” appears to be documentary. A theme appears from looking at your body of work that surrounds the notions of what it means and feels like to be American and how broken we really are as a society. How did those motifs come about during the development of this body of work?
That’s a very interesting question and observation. When you say “what it means and feels like to be American”, it really strikes a particular chord with me. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this question was a plant…!
I have a crazy, grandiose, and impossible goal that I have somewhat secretly (until now obviously) set for myself with FAIR WITNESS. In my fantasy, FAIR WITNESS will be thought of and discussed along with another book about what it is to be American from an earlier era– a book which, coincidentally, was first published just a few years after I was born.
I’m referring to The Americans, of course, by Robert Frank. Anyone who is familiar with photography books knows instantly that there is no way I could have set the bar for FAIR WITNESS any higher — Frank’s book is pretty much universally considered to be the most significant book of photographs ever published.
Frank was an outsider, an immigrant from Austria, who came to America after World War II and eventually set out to discover and photograph the United States as he found it. Frank was a Jew, a European, and maybe a Communist for all anyone knew, and at first no publisher in America would touch the book of photographs he created.
There was no Blurb, Lulu, inkjet printers, whatever, in his day so a main stream publisher was essential. The book caught the attention of Robert Delpire, an editor in Paris, and the book was published in France in 1958 as Les Américains. A year later, someone at Grove Press must have risked their career because after some changes, mostly to the original book’s text, The Americans was finally released over here.
The Americans was a controversial, even subversive, view of American life, its politics, racial attitudes, the south, created by an outsider of questionable virtue. Lots of people hated it, most did not see even see the greatness of the small photographs, many of which were blurry, dark and grainy.
So, anyway, fast forward… Just how crazy am I? Count the photographs in The Americans. There are 83 of them. How many photographs are in FAIR WITNESS? I’ll give you one guess…
“The things other people simply took for granted like close friends, intimate conversations, holding hands, romance, dancing, sex, close family ties were mostly off-limits for me… because of an immense internal conflict, I couldn’t participate.”
While I was born in America, I have always felt like an outsider. There is no one to blame for this other than myself but, for most of my life, I’ve always felt like I was on the outside of everyday life looking in.
The things other people simply took for granted like close friends, intimate conversations, holding hands, romance, dancing, sex, close family ties were mostly off-limits for me. It was (and still is to some extent) like these common experiences were what normal people just naturally did — but because of an immense internal conflict, I couldn’t participate. It was like some overwhelming force demanded, “Dave, you just stand over there and watch, this is not for you.”
What am I then if I am excluded from what normal people do?
Anyway, I wouldn’t use the word “documentary” to describe FAIR WITNESS or my street photography in general.
The heavy themes such as racism which Frank addressed in The Americans is not found in my work. FAIR WITNESS is, however, still a particular view of (mostly) America photographed by a self-identified outsider who, in taking pictures, is trying to make sense of things and establish some connection with everyday life. I photograph little moments that people may not even be conscious of — fleeting moments taken for granted by most people but bits of humanity I often felt were denied me by some ruthless force of nature.
A Series of Images from the Fair Witness project and Several of His Published Images
You currently primarily take photographs for yourself rather than taking on commercial gigs to support your work. Do you see that changing at all or is this just a passionate pursuit that cannot be maintained through a “photographic career”?
Fortunately the time between my two lives as a photographer was good to me financially. Unless there is some major calamity, of my own making or otherwise, I will not have to have a real job again. This gives me complete freedom to do and photograph whatever I like and nothing that I don’t.
Anyone who has followed along this far probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I have no interest in commercial gigs. That requires SLRs, honking big-ass lenses, stuffed camera bags, and a mini-van. No thank you.
Over the past few years I have been living part-time in NYC. There I have some exposure to working with models in more controlled environments then I’m used to.
If I found the right situation and group of people who appreciate my existing style and/or would be tolerant of some on-the-job experimentation, I could see myself enjoying photographing setups that might be considered more commercial. But no art directors allowed.
But I could never be that guy loading the mini-van.
What does your workflow look like as a film photographer? Do you get a lot of your film developed through professional labs like ours at Precision Camera & Video, or do you soup at home often?
I use a film camera at least 50% of the time. In my mind (and hands) nothing compares to the feel of classic analog camera. The fewer buttons and controls on a camera, the better. Leica get that with the digital M cameras. No one else does — even Fuji with the recent X-Pro1 failed in that regard in my opinion.
Anyway, I have used Ilford XP2 black and white film for most of my film photography over the past eight years. It’s what’s called a chromogenic film, similar to color negative film, so it is developed in the same C-41 chemistry.
Precision has developed many rolls of XP2 for me along with a lot of medium format film when I have ventured out with a Diana, Rolleiflex, or one of the other medium format cameras I’ve owned at one time or another.
Recently I’ve begun to photograph more color, I love Kodak’s new Portra 400 film especially in medium format, and when I need this developed, it comes to Precision too.
I do have all of the necessary equipment to develop traditional black & white film and have developed more than a few rolls in my kitchen. But with the time I’ve spent in NYC and other places outside of Austin recently, it is simply easier to have the store’s lab do the work for me.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part about your work? Just knowing it’s accomplished? Putting it up in a frame on a gallery wall or in a friend’s house? Something else?
I had several opportunities to have prints on the walls of coffee shops that I hang out in. It’s particularly pleasurable to sit there like a fly on the wall and watch people as they look at my photographs. Which ones do people linger in front of and which ones do they not?
I also enter my photographs in a lot of competitions and have some success at that. In particular, my favorite photo magazine is B&W (which as the name implies is all about black & white photography) and they hold two competitions each year. Two or more of my photographs have been selected every time I’ve entered. I keep aiming for the bigger prize of one of the “spotlight selections” where a profile and mini-portfolio appears in one of their regular issues – but this has eluded me so far.
Finally, I’m getting into books. FAIR WITNESS will be pretty big deal, I hope, and will come out probably in early 2013. In the meantime, I’ve just finished a smaller book entitled IN THE GUTTER. Your readers can find and order the book here (www.in-the-gutter.info) if they are interested.
It’s pretty exciting to see my pictures in book form.
IN THE GUTTER was inspired by a photographer named Daniel Milnor who I met at a workshop a few months ago. Dan works for Blurb now and sung the praises of on-demand self-publishing very effectively. After hearing him speak and seeing his highly regarded little book entitled ON APPROACH, my attitude toward self-publishing did a 180.
While I’d love your readers to buy IN THE GUTTER, I also strongly suggest they hit up the Blurb web site and order Dan’s book. It’s very different and “does everything wrong” to quote Dan but the continues to win accolades many years after he put it out.
I’m so excited about books that I plan to turn IN THE GUTTER into a series and already have two other photographers interested. So getting into publishing photo books for others is a definite possibility for me right now.
The developments of the last few years with the partial demise of Kodak, the loss of so many great films to simplifications of most of the major manufacturer’s lines, and now the resurgence of cool-kid photography with Lomographic Society and the like seem to be sending mixed signals to the photographic community. As a film photographer yourself, do you think that film will be fading into oblivion eventually, that it will become more of a niche activity, or that it may have a booming renaissance (or something completely different than these suggestions)?
The loss of some films is rather disheartening to be sure. Particularly the end of the line for Kodachrome was an international news item. While other films have come and gone, Kodachrome had such a storied history and had such a unique look that no other film can ever truly match.
Another irreplaceable losses are the Kodak infrared films. High-Speed Infrared was a black & white film and Infrared Ektachrome was a color transparency film. These films originally had practical commercial and military value but we co-opted by regular folks who used them to create beautiful surreal and artistic works. I’ve got about 50 rolls of IR Ektachrome in my freezer right now but some of it is more than 10 years expired — I’ve got find something to do with it before it truly expires.
But to more generally answer your question, I think black & white film will always be around.
If Kodak stops making Tri-X, for example, someone will buy the formula being out Three-X or something like that. Look what has happened with Polaroid SX-70 film. A group in Europe, the Impossible Project, bought a functioning factory and built a new business around making this film after Polaroid gave up on it.
And there are small companies in Europe, such as Foma in the Czech Republic, that survive now as niche players and I think can continue to make black and white films well into the future.
The future of color film is less certain. It is more complicated to make and much more easily replaced by digital imaging. Color slide films are fading fast. Color negative film will have longer legs, Kodak recently came out with the new Portra 400 formula that I mentioned earlier, but I can imagine the big companies, Kodak and Fuji, getting out this business in the course of this decade.
Hopefully there will be other impossible projects for some of the color films when that time comes.
What things – culture, technology, or otherwise – would you most like to see develop in the photographic community over the next few years?
In general, I think that photographic community is on a very positive path. The various manufacturers seem to be enjoying healthy demand for their products — even Leica is back from the brink and doing well now. Of course, Rosemary and Jerry (Sullivan, owners of Precision Camera) could speak more authoritatively about that but from a consumer’s point of view the market is ripe with choices.
What I’d like to see, technologically speaking, would be significantly more analog-like digital cameras. Leica clearly has lead the way on this front with the digital M rangefinder cameras. They have the cleanest button and menu arrangement of any digital cameras I know of. But they are priced way out of the ballpark for most people.
“I think that photographic community is on a very positive path.”
With their X series, Fuji is making a go of it with analog aperture and shutter speed controls — but there are still an annoying array of buttons and dials on the back. Despite the coolness factor and amazing image quality of the recently released Fuji X-Pro1, I ditched it because the buttons simply got in the way of efficient picture taking.
Please, someone, preferably Leica or Fuji, give us a digital rangefinder style camera with no LCD screen, analog controls, and an on/off button. I promise I will be able to figure out how to use it.
I know, dream on.
There are always aspects of our industry that we yearn to change. If there was one thing you wish was different about the photographic industry right now, realistically or unrealistically, what is it?
I think I may have inadvertently answered this question already… I’ll repeat my thoughts about this in a more summary fashion.
Cameras are too complicated. There are too many buttons and too many options. In an effort to make a given camera infinitely flexible and configurable, the manufacturers have created monsters that few people completely understand or care about.
That’s true both for me who had a hard time with some unfathomable options Nikon built into its D700 DSLR that I used to own, and true of my mom with her $100 point and shoot camera.
We used cameras for decades with four basic controls: aperture, shutter speed, shutter release, and film advance. When built-in light meters came on the scene, there was one more to set the ASA (now ISO). This worked perfectly for amateurs and pros alike.
Then along come digital cameras which are basically computers with a lens. And all of sudden every single camera manufacturer is offering cameras with a gazillion programmable options.
It’s my belief that the answer is simply “because they could” not because they necessarily result in a gizmo that takes better pictures. I believe engineers, not photographers, are designing all the new digital cameras.
Slide film is all but gone, cameras are in the hands of the masses, and it seems like the art is withering in the face of over-consumption. Photojournalism appears to be at its knees and major news networks are canning most of their field photojournalists claiming that they can still deliver the goods and do it better with locally-sourced (and often unprofessional) media. DSLR video is on the rise and there is plenty of talk of doing away with taking still photographs and just pulling them out of a high-quality video stream. Over the last decade, so many aspects of photography have changed and so rapidly that there is almost no forewarning. What is one thing in photography that you hope never goes away?
For me it would be the physical pleasure of being able to hold a fine object that is either a classic camera or strongly suggests a classic camera in its design.
The tactile pleasure I enjoy from just holding a holding a Leica film camera is hard to describe. Maybe it’s like holding a perfectly sized polished stone. I want to feel it this way and that way, rub it with my thumb, then turn it over, feel the odd impression on one of the edges. There is something immensely satisfying in the stone just being what it is. The same is true for finely crafted cameras whether or not it is ever used to take a picture.
Leica’s are the cream of the crop in this regard but the tactile reward from even some of the contemporary cameras is pretty high as well. The Olympus Pen digitals are very solid, the Fuji X100 has much of the classic feel if not the heft.
I always carry a camera with me when I’m out and about so my cameras get handled a lot so my tactile enjoyment is pretty darn important.
Finally, I just want to thank you again for participating in this interview and also give you an opportunity to share any last words or parting thoughts that you may have for our readers.
Heck, Christian, this has been an honor. Thank you.
I fit squarely (hmm, roundly?) into the emerging artist peg and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the thing I love the most, photography, and to maybe pull myself another rung or two on the ladder of success, whatever that might end up looking like.
I would like to say one other thing… Somehow I’d like to start a campaign in the photography community to eliminate the words “shoot”, “shot”, “shooting” from the vocabulary of photography.
This is not my original idea having first heard this sentiment from Steve Anchell when I attended his Greenwich Village Halloween workshop a number of years ago. His aversion to using gun-related terminology when taking about taking pictures strongly resonated with me.
I admit using “photograph” as a verb instead of “shoot” sounds awkward at first but I think that it’s a worthy change and one that anyone can get used to.
At the risk of being lampooned by the PC police, when taking a picture, we do not shoot people, we photograph them. Crazy people go into movie theaters and Sikh temples and shoot people.
If one person buys my IN THE GUTTER book or one person drops gun terminology when taking about photography then I will consider this interview a success.
Okay, that was a joke…
Seriously, fair reader, if this makes sense to you like it does me, please be more conscious of the words you use and how the message they can imply in the most innocent of situations.
“Hey, mom I shot dad today for a school project!”
“Hey, mom I photographed dad today for a school project!”
Just think about it, please.
Thanks again, Christian, for this opportunity.