Mona Kuhn: Artist Talk, Flowers Gallery, Chelsea

I feel very privileged to be able to share with you MONA KUHN's inspiring Artist Talk during a Gallery walk-through of her exhibition Native at Flowers Gallery, in New York's Chelsea art district. Follow her throughout her exhibition as she discusses her creative process.  

MK: Welcome! First of all, I want everyone to come close to each other because I photograph people very close to me, so it is very strange for me to be talking to people far away—you can even come closer. I want to thank you for being here on a Saturday. I just heard that the sun is shining—it is beautiful out there. I was talking to Matthew (Flowers Gallery Owner, Matthew Flowers) and Brent (Gallery Director, Brent Beamon) and I said I wanted to do an informal conversation to give you a little bit of my creative process of how the work became, how it all happened. I want you to feel free to interrupt me because at times I jump from one to another subject…it’s very improv—it’s not like I’ve memorized what I am going to tell you.

Just a quick background, my previous body of work was all done in France. It was done through the summers in a naturist community—I wanted to photograph the nude, I wanted it to be an authentic experience and when I found out about this place I felt very comfortable and very, in a way, also protected and welcomed to a place where people were already in the nude and I didn’t have to be the 70s kind of photographer with the long lens saying “hey baby, get naked” and all that kind of stuff. Even though I am very outgoing, I also have a shy side to me, and one of the things I don’t like is to ask someone to get naked because I’m not really interested in them being naked, I’m more interested in the body as a residence of who we are.

Reflection, 2006
Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

In that sense, my previous body of work was mostly done during the summer—there is a lot of sunshine, there is a lot of bright colored images. When I finished that it became a book, it became an exhibition…it was very welcomed… I was doing really well, but a little bit of me around 2007—towards the end of 2007—I was like, you know what, I need to do something different now—or I would like almost a little radical change. I wanted to go from the very bright and warm summers in France with the very impressionistic lighting it already has there and photographing the people that feel very comfortable—they feel very dressed in their own skin and they have a certain confidence.

from Evidence (Steidl, 2007)
Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

I went from there to my home country in Brazil, which I like to think it is a developing country, but many times is also a third world country, and I didn’t want to be in a naturist colony in Brazil—there are certainly enough naturist communities there, but I also didn’t want to be the naturist photographer. I wanted to photograph people; I wanted to find a thread of how to continue my language that I had started with the work previously. How I continue that, but in a different environment that would be challenging for me with a different kind of palette—a different view into the subject. So, I chose Brazil as my homeland—I hadn’t been back for twenty years. I came to the US to study and then stayed in the US. I got really busy—I went back and forth, my family is also in Germany…Europe, so I went back and forth in the northern hemisphere, but I hadn’t gone back that much to Brazil.

So. Come closer, it’s a prerequisite. [laughs]
I'm thinking, what are you going to do in Brazil? Brazil is a very photogenic country, it has great people, a good energy, but I knew I didn’t want to do the poor people in the streets. I also didn’t want to do the very festive beach images. I didn’t want to do a lot of the things that had been done before. So, I started thinking—having to do some personal homework and think okay—so, what else can I do? I’m sharing the creative process because I think that that part may encourage people to see it is one step at a time, that’s how things happen. I said I think it needs to be about me going back to my homeland, going back to my past.

"Old image of my mother and I on a Sunday at home with a little bird on her shoulder and I’m looking at the bird and I think...what if I was the little bird flying back home into the forest looking for the nest." Photo (c) Mona Kuhn

Next to my computer in Los Angeles there is this old image of my mother and I on a Sunday at home with a little bird in her shoulder and I’m looking at the bird and I think I’m like five or six years old in that image. And it’s a black and white image—it has always been there—and I start looking a little bit more to the image. I dusted it and I took all the business cards that I didn’t need put in the computer and all the paperwork around it—I put it all aside and I started looking at it and I said, you know, what if I was the little bird? It’s a little parakeet that we had in the house. On Sunday we would close the windows and we would let the bird fly inside the house and it was one of the childhood activities. I started looking at the bird and I said, what if I was the little bird flying back home and in the case of the bird it would be flying back into the forest looking for the nest—looking for your past…looking for the place where you come from. So that is what I did.

I started to plan out—I work very intuitively, I don’t have a necessarily a concept, but I needed a guideline—and the bird was my guideline. I went to Brazil during 2008 for three times—each time for about two months. The first time was me going into the forest photographing, re-analyzing what does Brazil mean to me, what does the temperature, the way people talk to each other, the street life—you just suddenly—the sounds, the smells, the noise of the birds if you go into the forest—everything is just so overwhelming and it reminds you of so many experiences, some good, some bad. It’s this love-hate relationship of going back home. My home is not in the forest, but this whole idea of, you know, if you are working with art, you abstract a little bit those ideas. So, I went back and stayed two months in the forest. I stayed in a little hut and it’s the rain coast—if Brazil is over here—you have a big coast almost like South America—a lot of the east side is a coast of Brazil, so a big chunk of it. The rainforest that everyone knows about is in the Amazon, which is on the west side of Brazil, but it extends all the way down along the coast and it is called the coastal rainforest. That is where I went.

A friend of mine was kind enough and she told me: “I know of this place, there is this little hut, there is someone who takes care of this property that you could use as a base and they have two dogs, you can go into the forest with the dogs,“ because it’s also a little dangerous. It could be a place where criminals hide, it could be a place—you know, the forest has a lot of fables, it has a lot of things—and in Brazil those things are actually a little more present and clear. Nothing ever happened it was all fine, but I needed to have someone with me—I am also carrying equipment and things like that.

Mona Kuhn explaining her creative process during her Artist Talk
Photograph (c) Elizabeth Paul Avedon

I went to this hut and I loved it. Because it was really humid and dense foliage. The first day that I was there I sat outside with a little plastic chair and I looked out. It was just insane because what you don’t see in the images is the sounds of the birds and the insects—and it is like a symphony so, so large and you can’t capture that on film—you could tape it—you could record it, but it is just so large that I was sitting and I was just in awe with it all. I was counting the different kinds of trees. I counted from my left all the way to my right and I stopped when it was a little bit past half point. It was over 150 different trees in my eyesight without moving. I was just like—haa, this is amazing!

Jungle Roots
Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

I photographed a lot. I went up the river, I did many different excursions, the dogs and I became good friends. I was feeding them—they were two Rottweilers, they looked really mean, but they were really kind of cute. I also would go on two-hour hikes, far away from places that maybe some other adventurers might have gone to. I have a Hasselblad—it is a medium format, handheld—I can also use the tripod. At the end there are some images that were done at night were I used the tripod…but mostly handheld. I was taking those images and the dogs would get so bored because I was in love with the foliage or a little detail here or there and they were ready to run, but I wasn’t. You just turn one way or turn another way and you see a completely different universe opening up in your lens—and how to photograph it in a way that is not just a flat, green-on-green. So many times when I came back, I looked at my film and it was just too flat. It is just so huge and then you look at the image and it is like—this is not quite what I had in mind. Like photographing the Grand Canyon—you can take slivers of it, but the experience of being there of course is huge.

Emerging Boy, 2009
While out photographing in the Brazilian jungle, accompanied by two Rottweilers for protection, Mona came upon this young boy, Leo, swimming alone with his brother. Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

At the end of the first trip, I met that boy [Emerging Boy, 2009]. His name is Leo. I was going up the river—this is not too deep, from my height the water was about my waistline. It was an area where the river formed a little natural pool. I was going down the river photographing things—at the time I was just thinking, you know, I want to do something different than before, so it was basically landscapes. I was inside the water. So, I saw him over there and at first I was like—oh, who is this? You see this foliage moving, you see people showing up and I wasn’t in an indigenous area it was just the forest, but you just get nervous, is it an animal, is it a person, is it a criminal? Who is showing up now? And it turns out that it was Leo with his brother and they looked at me and they got scared. And I got scared—we all got scared. And then I moved away from them and so they came out a little bit further, closer to the river and I moved further away from them because it is all body language. When you are in the forest your instincts are a little bit more heightened. His brother was bigger than him and eventually I realized that he is unraveling this swing from one of the trees. And that is what he wanted to do—this was his area, basically. This is the place where he wanted, with his brother, to swing and jump into the center of this natural pool. When I saw him doing this I said, why am I going away from him, I have to go back.

But I never really photograph people that I haven’t met before. But I said—oh, I’m such a loser. I have to go back. I go back and I introduce myself and I was like hi, how are you? I hope I’m not in your area…no, no that is okay—but very shy too because they also don’t know what my intentions are. I ask are your parents around?…And they are like—yeah, they are in town, far away…they are at church…and we come here every Sunday and we play…and I was like—oh, how nice. And I said—oh, can I just take a picture of you? And he is wearing shorts—you can see there is a bluish tonality there—can I take a picture of you? And they were by the water and I took two pictures of them and they are posing and I realized that the younger one, Leo, was really enjoying it and his older brother was like—now I think you should take a picture of him, enough with me. And I said—okay. So I took a few more with him standing, but it was also this typical image where there is a banana leaf around him and he is standing there and he looks like the old images—colonial images—so, it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted, but I had limited time there with him. I said—okay, I got it. I realized that was the extent of it—I didn’t want to overextend the situation…so, I’m like—okay, thank you so much. I got the information from him—I always send prints to everyone I photograph—in his case it was going to be a little difficult. He was telling me—I live on the third house of this town, something like that, but I wrote it down and I left.

As I was leaving—the water is high, so it was taking me some time to move—and as I was halfway away, he said—wait! Wait! And I turned around and he got into the swing and he was like—I’m here! And he was like this—hanging—and I said—wait, stay there! Stay there! And I’m going against the water. And that image, to me, means a lot because he gave the image to me. That moment was his moment. In the first trip he was the first person that I photographed. As I was trying to find my path…back, going home and dealing with those things.

I realized that I had to go back a second time, and I realized—you know what—I really love photographing people, this is who I am—I need to go back and I need to expand this body of work further. So, I came to the US, I processed the film. I love film, I know all about digital photography, when necessary I use digital—I don’t think badly of digital—I engage and I enjoy and I admire it and I like it, but for this project I wanted it to be film. I was far away, I was going places that didn’t have electricity, and to carry all this digital equipment is ridiculous. It doesn’t work and film to me—for your own personal project—I have a love relationship with it. I came back to the US, I processed all this film here, I look at it—and so the other thing is, if you don’t shoot digital you don’t see what you are getting. Which in a way is nice, it is almost romantic—you have to wait a little bit, it is like wine, you have to wait for it to mature.

So, I come back to LA, I look at the images, I see everything and then I pick immediately some images of landscapes that I like and there it was—Leo. Hanging out there in this loads and loads of images—I get proofs that are five by five—lots of images—and then Leo. And I was like—I have to go back. This boy. My love affair. I have to go back. I have to try to meet him again. So I try to meet him—couldn’t find him again. Although I did send a book and the prints to the address that he mentioned and it didn’t come back, so I sure hope that he got it.

But when I came back I also realized that I didn’t want to photograph people necessarily in nature—I didn’t want to be too pictorial about the work, I didn’t want it to be indigenous. I wanted it to be photographing people that could have been my friends would I have stayed in Brazil. Contemporary people that would be living there, that could have been my friends. The other puzzle that I was trying to solve was, in France, my previous work, I was working in a bungalow. People would come and visit and stay with me for some time. It was a place where art and life could come together, which I think is really when the most beautiful things happen naturally. I didn’t have that in Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is a 19 million inhabited city, it is huge, it is polluted, it is not necessarily beautiful—it doesn’t have beautiful lighting, it is mostly gray. I realized that I cannot carry a puzzle piece from one body of work and force it into another one. I learned with this process. I learned that I really needed to study the new place and have the emotions go through me as a filter and create visual images that are related to those emotions.

I started going out at night a lot and meeting people, friends and friends of friends. Brazil has a very lively, very bohemian side of it. People go out at night to a kind of tapas-style, a little pastao, a little cucina, and have beer after work, before they go back home for the end of the night. I was meeting a lot of people and they were saying—well, I don’t want to pose naked for you, but I have a cousin who is a little more of an extrovert. I could arrange for her to be here tomorrow night. We’ll meet again for some drinks and I’ll bring her over. And that is how it expanded. I photographed the cousin and the cousin said—oh, it was a wonderful experience, you should photograph my boyfriend. Maybe you should photograph us together. So it kind of evolved. There was this word-of-mouth, which is the way I prefer to work. I could always go to a model agency and say I have some books published, I am a fine artist, and I would like to photograph some people here. But it wouldn’t be legitimate, it wouldn’t be authentic, it wouldn’t have this specialness. I think it is like Leo—this moment where they really give something beyond the photograph. It is a moment in life where both of our lives come together and suddenly you have an image coming out of it. That is what I am mostly interested in.

But I still didn’t have a location. I didn’t feel like going to everyone’s houses because then it becomes a little too specific of their environment and their homes and more of a standard portrait. I really wanted it to be a little more magical. I wanted it to be a little bit more fantasy and a little bit more about a place that resembles the past, that has a lot of memory in it, yet with new people that I met along the way being photographed in it. On my second trip, I met a friend who had just gotten an apartment in Sao Paulo—very downtown Sao Paulo, a super-marginalized area that has not yet been revamped or gentrified…some drugs, some crime, some prostitution, kind of a whole mix. Next to her apartment there was an apartment that wasn’t open for 25 years. And she told me this on one of those nights. And I said—really… well, I haven’t gone back in about 20 years—this is interesting, this could make sense. She said—would you like to come and see it and I was like—I would definitely like to come and see it. When we got there, the marks of the tape were still there as it had been locked for some time. We opened the door and nothing was working that well—there was this electricity thing to pull—and then some of the light bulbs that were still around went on and the place was insane. The apartment wasn’t a big apartment—it was maybe the size of the exhibition area of the gallery, so it had maybe two rooms and a living room and a kitchen.

(All the New Yorkers in the Gallery laugh as this sounds like a huge apartment in NYC!)

MK: No, it was big—[laughs] but it was this place that this women lived a parallel life. She was 92 years old. I never met her, but this is the story about her that I found out because my friend bought this place. She had a very upper-class life, but she had a second parallel life that she never shared with anyone. We don’t know exactly what happened, but one day—she had this apartment downtown for whatever reason…which is also another question mark—but for one reason or another one day she got out of bed and never came back. However, the property taxes or whatever were still being paid, by—I don’t know—her business manager…so the apartment remained, but she never went back. Nothing in the apartment was touched for 25 years—there’s still the socks hanging, drying in the laundry room, the bed was still unfolded, you know, someone walked out. It was un-believable. But the important part for me in this place was that the walls were the palette that I wanted to work with. In the back of my mind I said, in a perfect world, I grew up with three colors that made a lot of sense for me and I wanted to have those colors in this new body of work—and it was green, yellow and a little bit of pinks. And as we entered the apartment we had those beautiful things that show time—there was a painting on the wall, but now it is not and you see the dust around it. It was filled with those moments throughout the apartment—there was a very old, golden, almost rotten—already eaten up—curtain that looked like the very colonial, European-influence. Brazil was colonized by Portugal, the monarchy lived in Brazil for some time, so they had traces of European influence, they had traces of Brazilian...modernism in some of the light fixtures. Two rooms were green colors, variations of green, one room was pink and the curtain was yellow. In a way I just threw myself out there without knowing how this was going to come together, but I was open to certain things and it did come together.

So that is when I mentioned to her—may I use this place? And she said—well, I bought it, but now I don’t have money to actually revamp it, so you can do whatever you want. It will make me happy to see someone do something with this property. It was at the very center of Sao Paulo, so I rented a little car because I have to go in and out of the center and I stayed there for two and a half months and I got a little fold up bed. I wanted to live there—I wanted that to be my past—I wanted it to be this abstracted, created idea of my past. I wanted it to be my little atelier, where so many people could come and we could work and collaborate together and see what happened. So there was this fold up couch…the kind that you can open up and sleep—it becomes a one-person mattress. In between—they had taken all the clothes and stuff out. By the time I got there all of her furniture was all gone…there remained two chairs--I brought the mattress—the curtains and the light fixtures stayed. The wallpaper stayed. I came in and we cleaned the area, just to make sure it didn’t have animals or something. We cleaned thoroughly—I wanted people to feel comfortable, but I also wanted to use the scenario.
I started then telling some of my friends throughout the time that I have an address, I have a place, I am staying there—would you like to come over? Will you come and stay a day. Just come on over and let’s see what we do together. Now, the one thing that I also think is important is whenever I was meeting someone who was interested in working together—I don’t pay people to be in the photographs because that brings the wrong chemistry to it. I like to work with people that also want to create something together. If I pay them, then suddenly they show up in the apartment and feel that they need to perform for me or that they owe me something—and they don’t owe me anything—I want the beautiful magic that happened with Leo now to continue in this environment. So what do I do? I trade prints. I show them the proof sheets. I think it is important when you are photographing nude, it is important for me for the nudes to look natural, to look comfortable, for people to look comfortable, to look respectful and dignified in their own body. I like to photograph people in the nude; I don’t like them to be naked. There is a difference for me. Sometimes if you are overly exposed when you are naked—you could be naked and still feel very comfortable and that is what I call the nudes. So I wanted them to be in the nude—almost wearing the nude. So what I did before telling them where the place was—we would meet and I was giving them a little bit of my story, where I am coming from—because for them, in Brazil, they have a lot of fashion magazines and they have Playboy magazines that is their idea of beauty. So, I was like—okay, this is a little bit of my background, where I am coming from, the things that interest me and they are—oh, this is interesting and we would talk about artists, we would talk about paintings…we would talk about where my mind was at—I would expose myself to them, in that sense, and they would understand and feel a little bit more trusting and feel that they could disarm, let go, that they were in a place that there is trust and mutual respect.

 Native. Published by Steidl 2010

When I came on Thursday I saw Brent and I said—wow, this is amazing because it is exactly in the way that one of those rooms was. For example, Veronica [Veronica, 2009] is from Rio, she lived in Rio for a long time. Sao Paulo, the city where I was, is a financial and industrial center. There are a lot of people who come to Sao Paulo because that is where work is. She was born and raised in the biggest slum of the Rio, which is called Rocinha. A gorgeous woman. She left Rio at age 16 and started working in Sao Paulo as a receptionist. But she was gorgeous, she would come over and she would say—hey, Mona…how are you…? Like, she was floaty, she was always floaty—she was incredible. She came over and I told her the place and she rang the doorbell, which is cracky-cracky-cracky. And I open the door and Veronica came in and I was like—Veronica, where would you like to start? And look at the place and tell me, if you lived here what would be your room? Which is the place you feel most comfortable and then we’ll start there…so give them space to collaborate to give their opinion, to be a little bit more understanding, a place that is comfortable for them to start. And then from there I will say okay, now that we have photographed this, let’s try this room, or let’s try this area. Let’s have a break, let’s have a glass of water, let’s hang out—are you hungry? Let’s have lunch, then we’ll come back, then we’ll do a little more…it was a whole involvement, a whole engagement of getting to know each other and shooting here and there and really creating this together. Really, step-by-step, doing things together, which I think is the most magical and also is what makes me happy about doing the work. It is almost like the image is what remained, but the specialness was the relationship.
And sometimes when I send the images to the people in the photographs they are like—I don’t want a picture of myself, it was fun being with you, it was fun spending the time with you, getting to know you and I was like—listen, just take the picture. Give it to your kids. You will enjoy it later.

Guest: Is it all natural light?

MK: All natural light. I like natural light—I like being with the people, being close with them. Even sometime the tripod bothers me. I want them to forget that I have a camera with me so most of the time I am just handholding the Hasselblad…if I have to put the tripod I get a little annoyed, but I don’t let them know. But bringing light and assistants is definitely a no-no because then you don’t have the intimacy. All of that disappears with the whole production thing. So, I really spent one-on-one time with everyone.
Then this image—this image was Paulo [Doppelganger, 2009], this is Paulo, but also at the very end of the gallery you see Paulo over here…

Gabriel, 2009 on the right (photo from AIPAD 2010)

Guest: May I ask you a question—your subjects don’t smile…is there a reason?

MK: Right. Yes, yes—they smile a lot—a lot of fun people…when I am looking at the images in the editing part—editing for me is also very important and when I am editing I really want the sequence of the images in a way that constructs a certain poetry. Certain sentences that lead to another sentence…and sometimes a smile becomes too much a portrait of that person and I like the images to be a little bit more pensive. I like it to be moody, a little bit more emotional. The smile you can pinpoint—that is the smile. Then you know, it is a smile… here [Veronica, 2009] it opens up a question—what is she thinking about? Who is she? What is going on? The audience could project more, in my point of view, or try to find out more about her. If anything, I would do a Mona Lisa smile, like a half a smile…a hint of a smile, but when it becomes too much of a smile then it’s—I do have images in the proof sheet where they are having—you see the proof sheets and there are lots of images that are very smiley and those are the images that they choose for themselves. But in a way they don’t make too much sense in the sentences that I want to build. So it ends up ending differently then they would.

The image Doppelganger, 2009 for me is really interesting because it’s a standing figure with a reflection of the standing figure in the mirror together with a refection of the shadow. So in terms of having almost simulacra—it’s almost like trying to go to your past, but not being able to reach it because it became memory and it became a memory of a memory. A lot of times I am looking around in the area and seeing things that are happening naturally. And I might say—this is great, your position—stay there. And then I go, because it was a reflection, so I’m trying to position myself away from the mirror. And I might say, just don’t do anything…move the hand a little forward… the other hand is a little odd, make it disappear behind you. I might fine tune a little bit, but I try to use each person’s own body language. So I might fine tune just so it fits on the frame, but I try, at first, just looking at their own positioning…or I pretend that I’m not paying attention and I look away…let’s have a glass of water and I come back and suddenly—naturally—they are already in another position that I am able to direct as well, because they know themselves the best. It’s psychology. For me, nudes there is a lot of psychology involved… a lot of respected each other, trying to work, but not overly…

MK: I’m always standing close. I use an 80 lens—that’s why I said everyone has to be close, I need you close because most of the photographs it’s an arms length. Like Veronica, I’m like this distance from her and she is sitting right here… and I cropped her leg because I am so close… so most of the time I’m very close—with Gabriel [Gabriel, 2009] I wanted to be close-up…maybe on the floor, on my knees. I wanted a very bottom angle on him.

...My brother lives in Brazil. My parents are separated. My mother lives in Brazil and I have seen her during those 20 years, but not alone. So it was also going back to Brazil in a way that was about going back to your homeland, going back to your motherland… seeing my mother, spending time with her. She was very nervous about me staying in the apartment. She was like—I don’t understand, why can’t you do this work here at home? Home is too comfortable, you can’t really create that much. I don’t necessarily have a very comfortable house, but it is true, I wanted to abstract the ideas to create something. I didn’t just want to document something. You know how a lot of times when people are looking into their past they go into their attic and they open all these family albums and they do a sepia tone reproduction of their grandparents? I am like—okay, I am not doing that. That is not what I want. I want to be inspired by the past to create something new. That was the point.

Caco, 2009
Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

That is another image [Caco, 2009] that was in the forest. That was the second time that I went with Caco and he then said—okay, this thing about you being in the forest alone, I’m not sure if that is a great idea, why don’t I come with you? So, it happened that I said—you know what, if you are coming along let’s do some images here. But I love the intensity of his eyes—his green eyes. The image [Jungle Dew, 2009] on the right side, the thing that I didn’t realize is the in the rainforest the trees are really high up and I was going into the forest and I said—I’ll come back around five or six… it is springtime, so sunset is around eight. Six o’clock, I’ll come back and have dinner and then I’ll go out again. I didn’t realize—as I went in and in and in and in and then three o’clock came and suddenly three o’clock in the rainforest—you don’t have light anymore because of how filled it is with foliage. So this image is actually around three thirty, on my way back—a little panicky because another half an hour and it is pitch black. I was just like—uh-oh, this wasn’t very smart of me. But at the same time I am rushing and going back and you have roots coming up and of course I didn’t have a flashlight—because I didn’t think it was going to be this dark. Suddenly I need to go back because of the roots and I’m like even if I find my way back I am going to be stumbling and I have my equipment on me, but at the same time I couldn’t stop photographing. I would see things—delicacies—in the forest and I was like—I have to photograph this. There are a couple photos in the book [Native] that go really deep and those were all from my walk back from that day.

Guest: Is he [Caco] that intense in a normal setting or is this a reflection of where you are…

MK: No, no, no—he is very intense. And I think working in Brazil gave me a great chance for expanding the kind of people or the ethnic backgrounds of people I was photographing. In France it was mostly, French, Dutch, and Germans—in Brazil I was really interested in working with people who had a little bit of a historical background in them. He has Brazilian-Indian and Portuguese mixed. In Brazil, the largest indigenous group of people are called the Tupi and they have a certain look and certain cheek formation and he has that. And very black—very dark—black hair.

Night Clearing, 2009
Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

Now this image [Marina on White, 2009] was one of those days—first I met this boy who is sitting in the back there…Ian is his name and Ian said—I want to introduce you to my bride. I went to the Amazon, I was on vacation with my guy friends and I was just not thinking about anything, I just wanted to have a vacation from work and suddenly I ran into this woman and immediately fell in love with her. But the vacation was over and I came back to Sao Paulo—and it is really far away, it’s a five hour flight from Sao Paulo to the Amazon. Brazil is a very large country—it is the size of the US without Alaska. I fell in love, but I couldn’t figure out if it was just the vacation or what it was. I came back to Sao Paulo and realized that I couldn’t live without her and there are no phones or emails or any ways of contacting her. So two weeks later he flew back to the little town where he met her and looked for her. It took two days and he found her and said—listen, I am marrying you. Let’s talk to your parents because I need to go back to work in Sao Paulo and we need to get it done soon. And she had fallen in love with him too and she said—okay, that sounds great. When I photographed them it was the first month that they were living in Sao Paulo and she was amazing. She is on the cover of the book because she has this incredible, very natural beauty, but also you can tell that she is just so new into the situation…at the same time a little careful…something that I cannot really quite touch. I think it is precious. We spent two days together and photographed mornings and afternoons and night. They were so amazing I could just do a whole body with just them. I called from Germany and said—Marina, you are going to be on the cover. She just came to Sao Paulo and now she is naked with her newlywed on the cover of this book. But she is an incredible person, she just told me—Mona, you better come back to Brazil. I want to go to the airport and I want to see you and I want to bring some flowers and I want to thank you so much for putting my image on the cover. You see—so the relationship with the people is what really stays in my heart. It is incredible and I am very fortunate to suddenly expose myself to a situation where I also didn’t know where it was going. But in this unknown territory suddenly all these beautiful things and all these unpredictable things start coming in together.

Guest: In your work in France did you build the same sorts of relationships with the people—or was it different?

MK: The work in France took longer. The work in France was about twelve years of going back, it was only during the summer, so I go back—the place exists, but it exists during the summer, but it doesn’t exist during the rest of the year. It is very minimal there—it is very egalitarian, so everyone lives in the same small bungalows close to the beach. The reason why they are naked has a more philosophical twist to it. After World War II, there were three families—a Dutch, a German and a French family that decided to buy a piece of land there that wasn’t expensive—it was very cheap. At the time no one was paying attention to that side of France. It is on the west coast of France below the Gironde River and they bought the land and they said—we would like to do this experiment. We would like our families to come together in a way of healing from the war and all the things that have happened in Europe. We would like to be naked as a way of being disarmed. So, the nudity for them meant something different—it also meant equality, it meant I’m not wearing status symbols. You cannot really place me on anything—you don’t wear jewelry, you don’t know if I am cool or not with my jeans. So that was like three generations ago and it was the first naturist place in Europe. Now from then it has changed and I have been to some that were a little bit more sexualized or so…this one is very family-oriented. I still have my mobile there and I still go back. It has become my life. Like going back to Brazil, I would definitely see all of them, we’re in contact…via email…they receive books. They send me long, long emails talking about how they perceive themselves in the book, how it was… they go on and on about the experience of working together. And they have words—just beautiful words—that in my day-to-day, my rushed environment I have almost forgotten to use. So it is nice to see how it continues, the creating of a body of work…it becomes more, it becomes part of my life.

Now, the work in France was maybe the last twelve years, this work, the most recent work—it is the most abstracted—it is about my first twenty years.

MK: Questions? Questions? Questions?

Guest: Do you reference and think about nudes—historical nudes of the past—when you do your work?

MK: Yes, yes, I do. A lot. I really think that you need to educate your mind. It’s funny because I have artist friends of mine who live in Europe, they really believe in research and in the US, for some reason—or maybe I am not hanging out with the right people—but they are like—no, I have an inspiration that comes from the clouds and I just know what to do. I love researching. I love art history. I like books—I am a bookworm. Where I live in Los Angeles there is a research center for humanities and the arts—the Getty Research Institute and I spent quite some time there looking at what has already been done, so what I am creating—in terms of the editing and the language, whatever it is that you want to say that you are saying—you are contributing at least a little bit to something that hasn’t been done. I like the idea of educating yourself, so I am able to recognize certain moments. So it is almost like you are feeding your mind and then suddenly you can jump—especially in photography, being a fast medium—it is really about that moment. It is about creating an environment and it is about the moment. I think photography and the kind of images I do are about the relationship with the people, creating the environment and then knowing—when is a pose interesting? Also letting go—I’m controlling too much, I’m trying too hard. How do I make this work? Let’s relax. Let’s get up. Let’s move around and we’ll continue it. Knowing how to be a little less controlling and a little more fluid. But all of those thoughts came from looking at really good work.

Guest: I have two questions—I am curious to know, is this on purpose, or was this a happy accident? The out of focus Livia and Renan, 2009?

MK: Out of focus first started in my work when I wanted to control how much the viewer gets to see. They know they can trust me—I trust them, they trust me, but sometimes I feel that full on nudity for the audience it is almost—do I want everyone to see? Those are in the end my friends and people that I know and I care about. So, the out of focus started initially as a way of showing a little bit, but not too much. In this case it is mostly out of focus, but I like the idea of this person approaching her, and the floor and the images and her being comfortable, lying down. I didn’t feel that there was a need to have a focus on his shoulder or his butt—then he would almost lose a little bit the romanticism. So at times it is just an optical thing and optical trick, in a way, for me to romanticize a bit or abstract it a hair more. If I had focused on let’s say, in this case, you could focus on the girl or you could focus on him and the girl is there in bed, naked, nude—we have seen that. So those thoughts come to mind when I photograph and I focus on him—on his butt? What am I trying to say? Why should people be looking at his butt? I want equal attention to everything and I think that the colors here are gorgeous and that is what is important. And I tried—I don’t go too out of focus, you know, I don’t want it to be too abstracted…just colors. And this body of work, in the book too, you see there are some images that are a little bit of shadows passing by it was this like—did it happen, did it not happen? The idea of memory…am I remembering correctly those things from my past or is this something that now I think I remember in a certain way, but maybe it didn’t happen in that way—how memory is a little bit unpredictable, it is not precise. So that is where the softness in some of the images makes sense.

In these images [Secret Spot, 2009; Night Clearing, 2009] there is a lot of—you know when you are in the forest by yourself there are a lot of fables and stories that come up, and I’m also thinking as a kid you go to the forest and you hide, or to play or to disappear, or sometimes to create your own universe or your own tree-house. It is like your private space, in a way.
Secret Spot, 2009
Photograph (c) Mona Kuhn

Guest: And I also have a question about these [Secret Spot, 2009; Night Clearing, 2009]… there is light, but it’s dark…

MK: Right. I had a tiny light with me that I left on and it is a long exposure, so those were on timer and it is maybe a half an hour exposure and then the light picked up more than I thought. It picked up a lot in the trees. What I didn’t realize is that there was a little bit of wind and so all of them were a little bit—almost too much out of focus—actually four of them ended up being images that worked out…that I wanted. But again it is experimenting and processing the film back in the US. I don’t know if it is working, but that is the beauty of it. I know enough, technique to say—okay, this should work out. It is nice not to have too much control. So when I came back to the US and I processed them and I looked at them I was like great—they worked out. That is fantastic.

Elizabeth Avedon: It is a very rich black in the printing.
MK: It is a little bit thin, the negative, because it is one of those that you leave in the camera for so long and all this stuff, but in printing it was fine. It was fine. It takes some doing, but it works. And, you know, in it, a little bit, some parts of the apartment—towards the end of the book there are some images that are missing from the exhibition that suddenly, for me, suddenly it was like—nature, human nature, how we then bring nature back to our lives in this apartment…how it came back as a pattern. And you know, how it mirrors…inside, outside, private, public, nature, human nature—as I was going back editing, suddenly everything started making more sense. Now, this body of work I also wanted to be a little looser than the previous one. The previous one was all about photographing lots of people over and over again—a very figurative body of work. This one I wanted to open up and have the landscapes, have the apartment—open the vocabulary a little bit more.

Guest: One of the things I noticed about the book…I sort of fell in love with the story hearing that they were just married…it just makes the story that much richer, but one of the things…I wanted to crawl into every picture, which was just so interesting to me…I am buying one of your pieces, but I wanted to buy another and another to complete the story…and Evidence—that was different… you didn’t need to tell a whole story with those two books, but with this one you want to complete it…I wonder if that is true…

MK: No, it is true. It is almost like there is a portrait on the landscape and the landscape on the portrait, and the empty environment suddenly also has the people…or it has the missing portrait, you know, so they really communicate a lot more with each other. When I came back I was editing, it was difficult for me. I was looking at all these images and I was like—oh my God, but you can—when we were doing the sequencing in the book—like you said—you can rearrange the sequence and it is still a great—it still communicates so many different messages. So it took me eight months to come up with the sequence and I was looking at it—I had it on my walls—changing it almost everyday. I wake up, have a cup of coffee, look at it—I don’t like this anymore. Even if it is a great image after two weeks you are like—there is no mystery, it is solved, there is nothing to imagine on this one—I’ll take it off of the wall. And then some that were maybe more of a quiet image that I didn’t think so much…you know what this would be great next to it…this now suddenly makes more sense…it is a bit of a gut feeling—when can a painter say, okay, now it is finished, we don’t know, but it feels right. When it doesn’t feel right it really doesn’t feel right. So for eight months I was trying to figure out and then after eight months I was like, okay, this is done now.

This transcript was provided to me courtesy of Flowers Gallery. I edited it very minimally. Thank you to Mona Kuhn! And Matthew Flowers, Brent Beamon, videographer Ben Porter and Andy Adams. Flowers Gallery, 529 West 20th St, NYC. Photographs of Mona Kuhn (c) Elizabeth Paul Avedon


Unknown said...

Wonderful pictures - especially the first one!
Kind regards from Steven D!


WONDERFUL PICTURES an excellent work of a very special photographer. All the text is very inspiring, telling about her work, step by step, SHARING HER EMOTIONS WHILE DOING HER WORK, is just unbelivable, a real SUPER ARTIST all the way, thank you for showing her work to me.

Kristin H said...

Wonderful post! Very inspiring, fantastic that you got the transcript:)

Julie Anne Rhodes said...

Thank you so much for taking us with you to meet Mona Kuhn, to climb inside her mind and creative thought process, and to watch already potent photographs become still more so. Fascinating journey!

Aline said...

Thank you so much for sharing all of this. Mona is one of those incredible and special people that is as beautiful on the inside as her photographs are on the outside.

Anonymous said...

I loved Mona Kuhn's latest work Native, and this post just amplifies the admiration for her. There's something about Artist Talks that always has me sit up and listen...thanks for sharing!

Aaron Nutter said...

Interesting work

Z said...

I got inspired after reading this! Thank you

Danielle Voirin said...

It's rare to get such depth and insight into someone's creative process. Mona is so generous and open. Many thanks to you, and to her, for sharing this talk, for those of use who didn't have the luck to be there.

Susan May Tell said...

this is great!!