Woodshop Talk: Kevin Michael Klipfel

Kevin Michael Klipfel is a photographer and
winner of the Inkslinger Award in visual arts for Issue No. 8
Here we chat with him about his process and his art.
This is Woodshop Talk.

Woodshop Talk

BUFFALO ALMANACK: We’ve referred to your photography as being representative of the “aesthetics of everyday life.” What is it about an ordinary, inanimate street scene that calls your attention? What makes a key drop box worthy of a photo?

KEVIN MICHAEL KLIPFEL: I don’t mind that description at all; I’m very interested in creating images that highlight the interestingness of everyday life. I spent a lot of time at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up, and they have one of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can paintings in their permanent collection that I used to look at all the time. I always thought it was really cool that something like that could be art, and I think this is probably the central lesson of Warhol for me: that the ordinary stuff of everyday life is terribly interesting, even if many people don’t necessarily see that.

People will sometimes say stuff to me like “Oh, these flowers are so beautiful, you should take of picture of that!” and for the most part that doesn’t really interest me. But last night I was at a Krispy Kreme, and I was sitting there with my fiancée, and the sun was going down, and the light coming through the window was just amazing, and I was blown away by the greens and reds on this Krispy Kreme box. I just thought it was so beautiful and I pulled out my camera. That process, in the moment, is a completely emotional one: I’m just really moved by these little concrete details of my experience, and it’s hard to explain why.

Photography is a very therapeutic means of expression for me. It’s something I love to do and it makes the difficulties of everyday life more bearable to me. A friend of mine came across this Van Gough quote and sent it to me recently: “Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony, and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.”  I think that summarizes things for me nicely.

At a more intellectual level, there’s that famous line in Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners where she’s talking about William James and she says that it’s the aim of fiction to reveal mystery through manners. I take her to mean that what fiction does is start with the senses, by describing these little concrete details of our lives, and through these empirical realities we can develop some kind of understanding of the way we live, and what it means to be a human being. I think that’s probably the closest objective statement you could give of what makes a U-Haul key drop box worthy of a photo. It says a lot more to be about my life than the Ansel Adams landscapes they showed us in art class in high school.


BA: Many of your photographs — particularly the Happy Garden shot — have an off-kilter, impromptu composition. Is this something done intentionally as you take the photograph, or do you shoot more at a snapshot pace?

KMK: You know, that kind of subtler, snapshot style of composition was very carefully calculated in these pictures. I had previously been interested in a more rigid, geometrically precise composition, doing that whole Cartier-Bresson thing where you turn the picture upside down to see if the geometry’s right and all that.  I was trying to move away from that a bit here. In an interview in the new edition of Uncommon SpacesStephen Shore talks about the idea of being “consciously casual” in terms of photographic composition. What I took from that was an interest in a kind of visual organization of the elements of a picture that appeared as “everyday” and haphazard as the subject matter. Could I compose a scene in such a way so that it didn’t particularly look artfully composed, so that it seems like a natural extension of everyday life? The irony I suppose is that doing so, in fact, requires very careful composition. I see that “casualness” at work in all the photos here.


BA: The one person who makes an appearance in this collection has her back turned to us. Are you deliberately avoiding face-to-face interaction with live subjects, and if so, what value do you see in that approach?

KMK: That’s interesting, I had never really thought of it that way. Now that you ask that, I recognize that when I photograph people, I do have a tendency to approach it obliquely, whereas a lot of “street photographers” tend to be more interested in capturing people more directly. What’s going on there, I’m not entirely sure.

Maybe part of that has to do with the fact that I view my work as more of a personal record, so I don’t take too many pictures of strangers. Because of that, I suppose I’m always trying to capture different ways of photographing the same person (usually my fiancée). But part of it must also be that at some level I just find that approach more interesting. There’s a Cartier-Bresson photo, for example, of his wife Martine’s legs that I’ve always absolutely adored: you can’t see her face, but the geometry and the composition are really wonderful. William Eggleston does this a lot, like in that famous picture from Los Alamos Revisited of the girl at the ice cream counter with the red hair covering her face; or on the cover of the original Los Alamos book of the girl in the skirt where just her legs are showing; or the two teenagers sitting in their car eating at McDonalds where their faces are kind of partially obscured by the windshield. A Stephen Shore photo from Uncommon Spaces of his wife in a hotel pool with her back turned also comes to mind. I like all of those pictures a lot, probably more so than their straight-up portraits in most cases.

In terms of that particular shot of mine you mention, though, I wasn’t really thinking anything.  It was just an emotional response to all the compositional elements of the picture, the way her hair looked, the soft pink on the shirt, that particular blue of the sky and having a sense from previous experience of how the Portra would end up rendering it, the strange geometry of the Sierra Nevada being a little too high in the frame, just a very quick intuitive response to all of that. But that intuitive response is also the result of a larger process of having taken thousands and thousands of photographs and having spent many hours looking at the books of established photographers and painters I love. So a lot of deliberative practice and hard work goes into that kind of spontaneous, snapshot quality!


BA: Can you describe your post-shoot process? Do you edit using Photoshop or other software?

KMK: The post-process can depend on whether I’m shooting film or digital. One thing I like about film is that there’s almost no post-processing required on my end. When I make physical prints of my work they are always done straight from the negative. Making scans from film can be a little more complicated. The most I ever do is use Lightroom to make the scanned image look like the little 4×6 print I get back with my negatives. If I’m shooting 35mm (as opposed to medium format) I just get my film developed at Costco since they do a good job and it’s the only place where I live that develops color negative film without sending it out. I own a pretty cheap (Epson Perfection V550) film scanner that scans film negatives but I can’t even be bothered to scan the actual negatives most of the time. Instead I just put the 4×6 print I get back from Costco on the flatbed of the scanner and scan it in full auto mode with no color correction or anything like that. If the scan doesn’t look like the Costco 4×6 I may make a couple adjustments in Lightroom but mostly that’s not necessary. So basically what you get is whatever Costco has their developer set to in conjunction with the characteristics of the film I’m using (either Kodak Ektar 100 or Kodak Portra 400). All the images published here were shot on film.

I never crop images in post. The compositions are always exactly as I shot them. If I didn’t get it right, oh well. I try not to dwell too much on any individual picture. There are lots of other pictures to take. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important to me: I just like to take pictures.


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