The Colorado Photographer Giving Ansel A Run For His Money: Wayne Keene. Part 1
“I am a man in love with nature. I am an eco-addict, consuming everything that the outdoors offers in its all-you-can-sense, seasonal buffet”
J. Drew Latham, a Black American author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
Interview of Wayne Keene with Photojournalist; Molly Triplett
MJ: Hello Wayne!
Thank you for taking the time to discuss your arresting and illuminating, black and white photography.
It is an honor to hear about your creative path, both personally & in service to so many.
You have quite a story.
When did you first dip your toe into the magical world of photography?
W.K.: First, let me mention that I don’t think I deserve to be in a sentence with Ansel! That said, he is one of my heroes. But to answer the question, I made a few photos in high school and developed and printed in my parent’s bathroom. However, it was in the Army that I was really inspired. I was stationed at the U.S. Army European Headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany. There was a crafts center for the soldiers, and since it was the H.Q. for all of Europe, it was very well funded.
There was a dark room with high-end German enlargers & Zeiss lenses, but most importantly, there was an instructor, Art Tkascz. He had a Master’s degree in chemistry and had fled Czechoslovakia when the Russians invaded in the aftermath of WWII. Unable to get a job in chemistry, he completed a German apprenticeship in photography, which was six years, to receive the title Master Photographer. Though he made his living as a photographer, the part-time teaching gig afforded some stability to his income. His photographic hero was Ansel.
M.J. And his influence on you?
W.K.: After working with him for about a year, he told me that if I was serious and wanted to get good, I had to stop buying and trading cameras and lenses. He wanted me to throw away the battery on my Nikkormat, which powered the light meter. He told me I should shoot one lens, one camera, and one type of film for a year. By the end of that year of shooting without a light meter, developing the film and printing the images, he said I would begin to learn to see light. It was a painful year. In the beginning, I would shoot a roll of 20 exposures and not have the correct exposure. Also, he wanted me to buy Ansel Adam’s 3 books The Camera, The Lens, and The Print.
M.J.: Those 3 Ansel Adam’s books are NOT light reading.
W.K.: There is so much content in each of those books! Art was a gentle man, fluent in five languages, and a serious student of the world’s philosophers. He never had harsh criticism of my photography. He would always say “Why don’t you try this?” and send me back into the darkroom. Maybe I would print a negative 10 different times, each improving on the earlier version. Then he might say, “You can sign this one.”
M.J.: He was teaching you a creative discipline. I can see why you are so prolific. After that photographic “boot camp” while in the Army, where did creative photography lead you from there?
W.K.: When I came back to the states, I enrolled at the University of Arizona on the GI Bill, completing a BS in Nursing. I’ve always had a passion for hiking, hunting & fishing, and in Tucson, I picked up birding and mountaineering. In my 60s my hunting is with a camera.
M.J.: What camera were you shooting at that time?
W.K.: I wore out a couple of Nikons in these days, and destroyed one in a climbing accident; I think I’m on my 8th or 9th Nikon. I produced very little black and white work in the coming decades because I didn’t have access to a darkroom. However, The University of Arizona is home to the Center for Creative Photography, which holds the Ansel Adams archives. I have seen over a hundred original prints Adams photographs, printed by the Master himself. I was able to view (and handle with white gloves in the “old days”) the portfolios of most major American photographers. I found time to hang out at the CCP a fair amount, despite the rigorous nursing degree program I was completing. And I have read extensively on photography in the years since.
MJ: What drew you to dive back into photography in the recent past?
W.K.: I quit photography for five years, thinking my photography had become boring, and I focused on ceramics. I bought a DSLR and a couple of lenses and started taking pictures again 10 years ago. Within 2 days, I made a photograph that I turned into a black and white that I shot out of a carpool van at 65 mph, and I was able to achieve a very satisfactory black and white photograph. I had discovered the digital darkroom, and I was hooked again! I could still “see” in b&w, and it was as though a switch had been flipped. The joy returned to my photography. Weston once wrote Ansel that any idea we have of abstraction in photography is illusory because the form already exists in nature. He said he wasn’t so much interested in SEEING as presenting the facts in a revelatory fashion that the viewer could share. I think black and white can do this amazingly well sometimes. Look at how black and white can render clouds so dramatically. The drama is THERE, b&w just reveals it. And also at times with form, pattern, texture, story, highlight & shadow, etc.
M.J.: I’m glad you made your way back to the craft, embracing the new technologies that are available to photographers. It’s incredible what can be done now, and there is room for all forms and types of image-making. Who are some artists who have been inspiring to you?
W.K.: First, let me note that it is easier to make a fine black and white photograph today than it was in Ansel’s day. And while will some sniff and say “a digital print can never compare to a finely printed silver gelatin print”, I just disagree. Calibrating for the zone system, developing each negative for a planned zone contraction and expansion, that requires such discipline and time. But I will say even in the digital era, it is 10 times harder to make a good b&w than a good color photograph. My artistic inspirations include Ansel, Edward Weston, Vivian Maier, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Georgia O’Keefe, Ed Mell, Maynard Dixon. And Beethoven for the quote: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets for it and knowledge can raise men to the Divine”. And as a ceramic artist, Nampeyo and the anonymous artists of the prehistoric Hopi pueblos. I cannot separate these influences from the philosophical influences of Soetsu Yanagi and Ananda Coomaraswamy.
M.J.: I have heard that you do not sign your prints.
W.K.: Coomaraswamy says that in traditional cultures, it isn’t WHO says something with art, but WHAT is said. Yanagi and Coomaraswamy both say that the finest art is produced by anonymous artists working in a powerful spiritual tradition. Art is simply the proper way of making things, whether a photograph or a piece of pottery. Coomaraswamy notes the great spiritual traditions of the world understand that creativity doesn’t originate within the artist, it originates outside the artist and passes through the artist. I am less interested as a photographer in the immature notion of finding “my voice” than in maturity finding “THE Voice” in “my” photography. I will note that when I stopped signing prints and pottery, the paradigm for my work changed. One does not need to be frantically waving their hands and hollering like a 4-year-old “Look at me, look at me!”
M.J.: What lenses are you using for these grand sweeping landscapes?
W.K.: I shoot probably 98% of my black and white photographs with a Nikkor 70–200 f2.8 E lens. The rest are taken with a Nikkor 24–70 f2.8, and a Tamron 15–30mm f2.8. I know landscape photographers who shoot mostly wide-angle. My experience is that I might see a scene and make one or two compositions with a wide-angle. By standing in the same spot I might make half a dozen or more different compositions I like with my 70–200. For the Grand Canyon, the rarely use a wide-angle. I know most will disagree with me. It’s just how I see.
M.J.: What time of day do you head out to shoot?
W.K.: It’s not so much the time of day for black and white. I do like the slanting light of morning and late afternoon & evening. Whereas midday may be cursed for color photography, the contrast can be good for b&w. If I have rapidly changing light at midday, that is, partly cloudy with the wind blowing the clouds and rapidly passing shadows, that can be ideal. Blizzards can yield a delightful level of abstraction for b&w. Fog too: a tip from a photography instructor I met in the field about overexposing one f-stop in the fog was a good one. Torrential rains, clearing storms in the mountains . . . it seems to me those lingering patches of fog/clouds make the mountains larger, or maybe it just yields an honest scale. Inversion layers, lenticular clouds, horsetail clouds, thunderheads, Mammatus clouds, all these excite me as a black and white photographer. Heavy overcast days can be tough. Revisiting time of day, it is much harder to guess if the light will be good in the morning because you may be making the decision in the dark based on a weather report on whether to go out photographing or sit at home and drink coffee and flirt with your spouse. Around 4 pm I often have a good idea if I might capture some dramatic lightning. I have the luxury to live at the base of Mesa Verde National Park and a 13,000 ft range of mountains are within 30 minutes. A beautiful 9700 ft mountain & range is 5 minutes away. Arguably, the most spectacular of the sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado are the San Juans, which are an hour away.
M.J.: It sounds like the ideal place for you to live and shoot.
We will pause here and continue tomorrow. Thank You, Wayne!
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