Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Focus On: ClydeKellerPhoto

As photographers, our "eye", our "vision", our "perspective" is in a very real way a product of our life experience.   What we shoot is dependent on what what has come before; what we've done, what we've seen, what we've been exposed to...even what we've shot before.  Not only are we standing on the shoulders of those who've come before, but looking back on our own body of work, you might even say we're also standing on our own shoulders.  Our previous work is the lens through which we perceive and approach our future projects.

This week I'm sharing with you a conversation I recently had with Clyde Keller, of ClydeKellerPhoto.  Clyde has been considering the world through a lens, and recording what he's seen for a good number of years.  And in that time, as you'll soon see, he's had an opportunity to record some memorable moments in modern history.  And while he offers us a look back, he continues to look to his next exposure.

Steve:  Clyde, we've been following each other's work for some time now, and as you know, when I encounter images I find interesting, I'm curious to find out more about the person behind the lens. So, tell me more about yourself. Where do you come from? What was it like growing up? What were the forces that directed you to a life in photography?

Clyde:  I grew up in the Portland, Oregon area and have lived in the Pacific NW, so my images are drawn from this geographic area. 

I was drawn to photography at an early age. Both my father and grandfather used Leica cameras and presented slide shows of their Kodachromes on special occasions. Looking at their beautiful scenic photos, I got hooked. 

By the time I was in the third grade I learned how to use an adjustable camera to take pictures on a grade school field trip to the Portland Zoo. My classmates happily (and speedily) snapped away with their Brownies, but I struggled with measuring light, setting the exposure and learning how to "guessimate" the distance. That SLOWED me down, let me tell you! But I learned that it was worth it, and was thrilled to see my first efforts. By the 8th grade I had built a darkroom, owned a Pentax SLR and was heading towards serious work. 

It was the devastating Columbus Day Storm on October 12, 1962 that changed my outlook away from making traditional (camera club) pictorial imagery and into the realm of documentary reportage. I was completely drawn by the damage caused by hurricane force winds that had uprooted trees, downed power lines and damaged homes and buildings. My adult next door neighbor, Howard, was an avid photographer with a beautiful Ansel Adams grade darkroom who inspired me to do achieve superior results. He instructed me on how to use a densitometer, develop fine grained films and practice the zone system. That was a bit daunting, but these storm pictures represented both a technical and artistic challenge. So, off I went with rolls of 35mm Afga KB14 B&W film which were later developed in a German developer (cult status) called Neophine Blau. The results convinced me of an even greater potential that serious studied work could bring. But I opted out for the faster speed films in future work. I was leading myself into the realm of the photographing social landscapes.

After the Columbus day Storm, I became completely absorbed with "reality", and as an observer, began to explore historical and contemporary themes. This has continued throughout my life as my interests have expanded to include a variety of progressive issues centering around the human condition and advancement of human rights.


S:  Clearly, you've been honing your craft for some time, and I get the impression you've been making your living at it for a good portion of that time. Is that the case? And if so, what was your situation? Were you working for print publications, were you freelancing, were you a photographic gypsy, what? The reason I ask is that you seemed to have some extraordinary access, with your RFK series, the Richard Daly shot, the Ann & Nancy Wilson portrait, etc. How did you happen to be in a position to get these shots, and many others?

C:  Great question!

You might say I stumbled upon many opportunities simply by hanging out, being at the right place and the right time for picture opportunities. This penchant for timing really accelerated as my interest in politics and other subject matter grew.  

I chose to go to public events where I could slip in, and with very little trouble, fit in with the press; I just acted like I belonged there. In this fashion I gained experience, and learned more about the craft of covering an event. In all of this I was always looking for the revealing moment, especially with politicians such as Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon. These were not paid assignments; I was there because it was possible (in those days) to get very close to American leaders. One of my favorite portraits from 1966 is of Richard Nixon, who gave me a “look”, which was revealing of his darker more guarded side as he caught me peering at him with my Nikon camera at a political function.  That is not a commercial portrait, but one that has stuck with me and I believe becomes more interesting as we look at him as a troubled character in history. This was what became exciting to me. 

Chicago Mayor RICHARD J. DALEY

As I gained experience and confidence, I was able to find freelance assignments. But even in “work-for-hire situations”, I always made it clear that I was to retain the original film materials.  With this freedom I continued to be on the lookout for the extraordinary moment knowing that I could possibly use it later on down the road. Also, I chose assignment possibilities with an eye on history or on themes where I reserved rights for possible future use. Although I am known for my iconic images of such greats as Robert Kennedy, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley or Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, I have pursued documentary projects concerning poverty, agism, migrant labor, land use, nuclear power, war protest and other influences that shape the face of our culture and landscape. 

The RFK photos are quite special because I worked directly for the Kennedy Campaign with Pierre Salinger and others.  This was a lucky break that resulted when I sent the Kennedy folks a small portfolio of about two dozen B&W prints; and, to my surprise, was invited to join in as their official photographer for the Oregon Campaign. I was given complete access to Bobby, and was able to get almost any picture that I requested. Since then, U.S. politics have permanently changed; today, the kind of access and photographs I was able to get just aren't possible. 


There will probably never be a man like Robert Kennedy in American politics again. Much of my interest in human rights comes directly from his influence and his unwavering advancements for world peace, nuclear disarmament, and for ending the cold war.  So, although I have made a living as a shooter over the years, I have always had a personal, almost autobiographical interest in the subject matter I covered. Now, several decades later, it is amazing for me to realize that I have been a witness to some major events in history. I really can't claim to be a gypsy, but will happily claim to be a free spirit, still actively engaged and inspired by contemporary events in this most lively of arts.

S:  Tell me more about the photographic themes you're interested in. Over the years you've spent a good deal of time persuing political and cultural themes and events; what sort of themes are reflected in your work today?  When you go out to shoot just for yourself, where do you go and what do you look for?

C:  I am an observer, often without any concrete plan, especially if I'm “out and about”.  I tend to carry my camera with me to be ready for that special impromptu moment. In this context everything becomes personal. 

Themes vary. I keep an open mind for picture possibilities. Sometimes I encounter a chance picture situation and then revisit older film or digital archives to work with both older and newer images thematically. One of the newer rediscoveries are from my “Doubles” series which began as a lark but have continued to sustain my interest over the years. I extended the scope of this subject to include double entendre, portmanteau and concurrency. This opens up a world of possibility; I just wait for situations to present themselves, and snap! Also, I like surrealism! Add to that anything with visual punch; in these difficult times a little satire or irony can help sooth the psyche!  These can end up getting worked into my "serious" body of work. 


In 2003 we moved to Bend, Oregon to take care of my terminally ill father. The area agreed with us so much that we decided to make it our home. I have lived in both Portland and Seattle, but up here my interest has turned to the volcanic landscape, with a focus on superwide and widefield panoramas utilizing stitching software. 

At the moment I'm quite busy with new projects and wrapping up old ones. I'll be working this Fall on a new book which features my documentary images of Robert Kennedy with my friend Terrence Paupp. We are drawing from my archive of original original film materials and then making film scans and are engaged in preparing these images for print. It is very much like a video or film production with an intense and demanding schedule, leaving me with less time than usual for other photographic work. Even so, I have been assisting Canadian director Dan Forrer with his wonderful documentary film project on the birth of Hip Hop music, which will use some of my vintage images. Highlighted among these images is one of Rosey Grier, who has a strong connection to the birth of Hip Hop. 

I'm also preparing for a photo show in Portland this November as part of the publication of a new book on Ken Kesey, for which I have provided a cover and the photos inside of the book.  Also, I'm thrilled that my portrait of Warren Beatty [Cover Illustration for Peter Biskind's biography, "Star"] is going into paperback through Simon & Schuster, UK,. It will be appearing in bookstores worldwide in January 2011. This is an exciting period!


S:  Talk to me for a moment about equipment; digital or film, where do you stand?

What do you carry in your bag? And, taking money out of the equation, what would you add?

C:  I forgot that this question of whether shoot with film or digital might still be a consideration or of interest for some photographers. 

I've been shooting with digital cameras now for almost ten years. Rather than take a stand I'd simply say I'm comfortable with both with the provision that if the situation arises where quality is sacrificed or pictures cannot be obtained because the medium can't "deliver the goods" then by all means consider the alternative. For example, if you need high ISO for reportage photography at night or possibly in darkly lit interiors then a D3 Nikon or other high ISO digital camera is a logical choice for shooting color or B&W.

In my view it gets down to choosing a medium that one feels comfortable with. Unfortunately the film chemical world has been in decline for the past 50 years in many critical areas. This nudges us on to consider the options available within the newer digital medium.


I've been using Nikon cameras since 1964. So, as you might imagine I've picked up quite a few lenses over the years which can be utilized on both of their film and digital models. A firend recently emailed me asking what new lenses I had bought-- sorry to say, nothing recently. But, I've been thinking of getting a fast 400mm telephoto. 

I have owned many other film cameras including a Pentax 6x7 and Rollei TLR. The Sinar 4x5 is a great studio camera- and can be made to work out in the field. At one time I enjoyed using a 4x5 Crown Graphic. They're all fun. I also made a camera using a German Tessar lens that produced circular photos. This camera featured removable backs. Another “camera” I made used large sheets of lith film which were exposed to shadows [At Night] that were cast upon interior walls. The shutter was the lid of the box which was removed for several seconds to make the exposure. The lith film could be developed under a red safelight by inspection. Contact printing produced prints. With this series I used multiple toning techniques to expand upon the tonal range. They were a kick!

S:  You know, Clyde, I don't think the film question is a point of any real consideration for most photographers today; there are of course the die-hard purists, the toy camera and Holga shooters and those that swing back and forth depending on how they feel that day. Personally, while I regret that the day of film is all but gone, I embrace the digital side, in spite of, and because of, the ease of processing as well as the "instantness" of the medium. I miss the smells and the arcane nature of the old school, but not so much the stained fingers or the mixing or disposal of chemicals. It's a dual edged sword.

The reason I asked is that I, for one, was curious how someone such as yourself, that has spent so many years learning about, using and perfecting the analog medium felt about the digital side. That you land with one foot squarely in each camp, depending on whichever can "deliver the goods" makes perfect sense.

Impromptu moments notwithstanding, do you ever get the itch to just go shoot? If so, what do you do to scratch it?


C:  Well Steve, I share your enthusiasm for the medium and love just about all aspects of photography; it has been a source for immense pleasure and discovery for many years. I must confess that when digital was just breaking on to the scene in 2000, I was quite skeptical. At the time it seemed ridiculous that a less than 3 meg five thousand dollar camera could be taken seriously. But the new medium has proven itself and opened up several doors which were being closed, especially regarding making fine art prints.

This afternoon I took my camera with me to our local International Day of Peace which took place here in Bend, Oregon by the Deschutes River in Pacific Park. I held peace signs and took photos from our local "Peace Bridge." This is a typical example of taking my camera out with me; the resulting photos reflect my interests in World Peace, and I ENJOY taking photos. It doesn't take much of an itch when the subject matter gets close to my key interests. You'd have to drag me to go to a football game because I'd rather go to a music festival, especially a World Music Festival such as we will have here this weekend. It's our own version of Seattle's Bumbershoot...and its free!

S:  Which photographers do you most admire? Which do you suppose have most inspired you?


C:  It was Eugene Smith, the esteemed photojournalist, who's brilliant documentary photography inspired me in my late teen years. I was fortunate enough to have been able to take a workshop from him in 1966.  I was able to learn from from him directly about his struggle to get his photographic work published intact. Smith fought the editors at Life magazine and quit twice over arguments that arose over the selection of imagery for publication of his photo essays. Hearing the recounting of these battles with Life magazine made me realize that great work could come at tremendous personal cost.  He was absorbed in getting at the “truth.” As a philosopher he discussed how he would agonize and be tortured by the challenges each assignment presented. Prints were very important to him, especially in context of their use in a magazine layout. Before Smith came on the scene, the photo essay did not exist. Photos were reproduced at the same smallish size, bullet style. No weight or emphasis were given to individual images. His contribution changed the face of magazine layout.  He argued successfully for using larger images to achieve greater impact, elevating story telling to the level of art. What we now take for granted, he pioneered. His now famous essays such as “Spanish Village” dramatized everyday life in a way the world had never seen.

I love the 1960s documentary work of Sam Haskins, who's seminal publication entitled, "African Image" is a benchmark for me, and a work of true photographic genius. Although well known for his art photography of beautiful women, this beloved South African fashion photographer [now deceased] astounded me when he published his homage to African Tribal Life and Art. His lasting contribution was to link both art and culture in an amazing construct of large scale images that would be presented in pairs across two opposing pages.  By celebrating tribal life in documentary form and then contrasting those pictures with studio photography of  Native Art, he created an astounding visual experience. Because he relied on black and white for both the on-location and studio photography, they,became inseparable in layout form.


Another 1960s photographer, William Klein, was quite influential by his unique and personal vision of urban life. Klein had the ability to thrust himself into the center of crowded street scenes and reveal a coarse rendering of reality that subjectivity bristled with kinetic energy. His work still “blows me away” by his inventive techniques. "TOKYO" is a fine art photo book that demonstrates such an intense visuality that it still takes my breath away 43 years later. He shot entirely in black and white with Nikon 35mm cameras and lenses. His work was often grainy. He relied on high contrast; tonal subtlety apparently holding little interest for him, and he sought subject matter where his unique approach came alive. I marvel at his ability to marry form and content into a seamless graphic presentation as he explored the themes of urban life. Others apparently think so as well with selling prices soaring into the thousands of dollars for this oversized gravure printed picture book. 

I also have to mention the work done by photographers during the Great Depression, especially under the direction of Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration. When we think of the images which defined that era, the work done by such greats as Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans come to mind. I traveled to the Library of Congress in 1976 to look at the wealth of images that came from the work of the FSA and was profoundly impressed by the variety and scope of these important documentary images. Sadly, this effort was to never be recreated. In this country we never have had the equivalent of the Canadian Film Board whose efforts have supported contemporary documentary and publishing projects similar to the efforts made by these great artists during the Depression. Nonetheless without the work of such gifted artists as Dorthea Lange, we would not have an interpretive photographic record that put a human face on those who struggled sometimes under very adverse conditions.


S:  Considering the breadth, scope and depth of your experience and career, your answers to my questions have offered an unique and rare perspective on photography, photographic technique, the advancement of photographic technology as well as an almost interactive view of several contemporary historical figures and events. I'm curious, what would you like to go back and do again? What would you like to go back and "do over" (yes, there is a difference!)? And, what were you not able to do that you would like to go back and take a shot at?

C:  I've been “knee deep” in similar questions posed by my friends about revisiting the past, such as you raise, for some time now, especially after our domestic financial crisis has continued to devastate so much of  the economy.  With that in mind, I am not inhibited creatively by these troubling times. In fact, when viewed in a totality, these are the best creative times for me in my life. It is the culmination of the entirety of my past experiences that now nurture me. In essence when I revisit my old documentary work or creative projects they are “old friends” that enrich and can still be reborn into new forms reflecting a lifetime of experience. It is this infusion of experience that augments the creative process. To be in the “now” is to live in an energetic personal creative world of unlimited possibilities even under the shadow of these far from perfect times.

S:  To be in the "now" is a very healthy perspective, indeed!

Clyde, I want to thank you for taking this time with me; I've truly enjoyed it!


PhotoGrunt is Steve Raley, a photographic documentarian from Seattle, Washington.  He captures images wherever he goes, and he  frequently even uses a camera.  His work can be seen on his websiteblog and his Etsy shop.


Nakedeye17 said...

Steve, you've featured somebody this time I've admired for ages, it seems. A person could study Clyde Keller's work for a lifetime and still keep learning - and experiencing that sharp intake of breath that comes in the presence of unaltered truth. Can't wait to actually READ the interview!


Julie Magers Soulen said...

Steve this is easily hands down the best interview I have read on POE. I have been an admirer from afar of Clyde Keller's since I "discovered" his work. It was fascinating to follow him on his journey to photographic maturity and to find out what piques his interest leading him to fabulously revealing portraiture. Thank you both very much!

Julie Magers Soulen Photography

Leovi said...

I really like the composition of lines in the photo of the railing.

TheEye said...

big fan here...
I love his work.

What a fantastic interview Steve.

Briole Photography said...

This was a very enjoyable read. Thank you both for sharing!

brandMOJO Images said...

Back in the day, Clyde was a client of mine at Pro Photo Supply in Portland, OR. Not only is he a great and stunning photographer, but he is really a genuine and down to earth guy. It is nice to see him featured on here.

Great job, Steve!

brandMOJO Images said...

Back in the day, Clyde Keller was a customer of mine at Pro Photo Supply in Portland, OR. Not only is he a great and very talented photographer, but he is a kind and down to earth guy. Great interview of a great guy.

Nice job, Steve.