This week we are pleased to feature the work of photographer Kerik Kouklis.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Kerik Kouklis. I am a fine art photographer from Northern California. I am 55 years old and have been making prints in a darkroom since I was 12. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area (mostly the East Bay). I’ve spent the last 25 years living in the Sierra foothills and working as an environmental geologist all the while pursuing a second career in photography and teaching. Early in 2015 I made the break from the corporate world and I have not looked back. It has been a busy and rewarding year. I’ve taught twice as many workshop students than in previous years, took a trip to Iceland in February with some of my best friends, had an exhibit at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel in May, an incredible trip to Mongolia in August and now I’m putting the finishing touches on a large solo exhibit at The Viewpoint Gallery in Sacramento that opens in November. No time for a day job any more…
How did you get started in photography?
When I was in 6th grade we had a student teacher that taught us how to make pinhole cameras and develop photographic paper negatives. End of story. The first time I saw an image emerge in the developer, I was hooked. My dad made space in our dusty basement and we set up a simple darkroom with a Durst M301 enlarger. I took darkroom classes at local camera store (we had those back then, kids). It was one or two nights a week and it was a class full of adults and me. I mean they were old, probably in their 30’s. I remember there was one guy who had gray hair who was a doctor. Throughout junior high and high school I worked on school newspapers, yearbooks, took pictures at concerts, family vacations, etc. I didn’t get “serious” about photography until my late 20’s.
Did you have a mentor?
There are a few people I consider mentors. The first would be the late Frank Espada. I took darkroom classes from him in the late 1980’s at the UC Extension Center in San Francisco. Although I had been a hobbyist all those years, Frank was the one who opened my eyes to what a great print was and how to make them and why print quality matters to the language of photography. As a very fine documentary photographer, Frank also opened my eyes to the influence of photography on social issues and its power to effect societal change. I stayed in touch with Frank over the years up until his passing in 2014. He always had encouraging and thoughtful things to say about my work. Do yourself a favor and look up his work on the web. Frank was a generous and inspiring teacher and a compassionate man who touched many people’s lives.
Other mentors would include David Bayles and Ted Orland. Through their joint and separate writings Art and Fear, The View from the Studio Door and Thoughts on a Western Landscape and through artist’s retreats led by them, they provide wonderful support and inspiration to creative folks like me who often find themselves working in a vacuum. Turns out we all share similar troubles and successes as we navigate through life as an artist/craftsman/maker/etc. Misery loves company as does triumph. Ted also curated the show at CPA earlier this year. I am happy to consider Ted and David very good friends.
Do you mentor?
I’ve been teaching workshops since 1997. Starting with platinum/palladium, then gum bichromate, and finally wet plate collodion. Over that time there have been a handful of students that continue to stay in touch looking for a little help along the way. I’m always happy to help those who’ve incorporated what they’ve learned from me into their work and show a commitment to the process for the long haul. And I often learn from them as they’ve tried different papers or methods in their own work.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
This photograph by Frank Espada struck me when I first saw it in his B&W darkroom class in 1988. It’s part of his Puerto Rican Diaspora series. About 20 years later, I was able to acquire a vintage print from Frank. I find it both haunting and beautiful. A prime example of a wonderful image printed masterfully, bringing out the emotion in the photograph.
If you could spend the day with another photographer living or from the past who would it be?
That would have to be Josef Sudek. I’ve been inspired by his work for years. Here’s a guy who lost his right arm in World War I, and then became a photographer. He used large view cameras despite having one arm. He made beautiful, poetic images in and around Prague. During WWII when it wasn’t safe to be out with his large cameras, he did a beautiful series of images of his garden through his studio windows. He also made wonderful panoramic images, a format I’ve used extensively as well. He’s a prime example of someone doing the work they need to do despite hardships.
What made you take the step to being a full-time fine art photographer?
Ha! Well, it was a convergence of things that made it happen. After 25 years working as a scientist for the same company, my work situation had become untenable. About the same time we got to the end of our mortgage and had no significant debt. My wife Carol and I agreed we could make it work with me spending all my time in photography. Coincidentally, my last day working in a cubicle was also my 25th anniversary with the company. That was nine months ago and so far, things are going better than we had planned. I feel lucky to finally be at this point in my life with a path ahead wide open to whatever opportunities come along.
Any surprises or lessons learned you would like to share?
The surprise was that things have fallen into place so readily. The lesson learned was, avoid the impulse to say “no” when new opportunities arise. Being self-employed has given me that freedom. The trip to Mongolia would not have happened if it had come up a year earlier. I was also hesitant at first not knowing what to expect having never been to that part of the world or on a trip to such a remote area. Now, if things go as I hope, I will be back in 2016 and perhaps again in the future.
When putting together image for a show or for what you would consider your top ten, what is your weeding out process?
Simply put, it’s a gut reaction. If the image still strikes the chord that drew me to make it and I still love looking at the print, it passes the test. Then it’s a matter of how images work together as groups. Editing is a skill that takes practice. I just went through this for the upcoming Viewpoint Gallery show which will include 58 prints and plates (if there is enough wall space!). It’s a retrospective show so I put together groups of images of the different series and methods that I’ve used over the years. The show will include work from 1992 up through today! I made a tintype portrait of my wife today I will likely put in the show.
Please tell us about the processes you use and why?
I am a sucker for a beautiful print. I started fiddling with platinum/palladium in the late 1980’s after seeing some Ed Weston platinums in museum show. I had no idea what they were, but clearly they were different and I liked them and I would have to learn how to make them. There is a softness and warmth to the process that appeals to me and suits they way I interpret the world around me. It’s also a fun and easy process to do, made even easier with the advent of digital negatives in recent years. I cut my teeth in the process using in-camera negatives up to 14”x17” and 12”X20”. Around 2000 at the urging of my good friend Stuart Melvin, I began combing gum bichromate with the platinum/palladium process and this is still my primary printing technique. Gum bichromate allows one to shift the color and tonality of the platinum/palladium print only limited by the imagination and available watercolor pigments. It also enriches the dark tones of the print giving a sense of greater DMax. In 2004 I learned the wet plate collodion process from Will Dunniway. This process took over my life for a few years. It turned me into a still life and portrait photographer, things I had rarely done on film before. In addition to the original plate, I also make prints of my wet plate work by scanning the plates and making digital negatives. The last couple of years I’ve stepped away from wet plate while working on other things. I’m feeling like it’s ready to make a comeback in my work.
I’m also working through learning the polymer photogravure process. My good friend Clay Harmon has got me started with the process and I love the results. The prints are rich and beautiful and I like the physicality of the process, inking the printing plate and cranking the etching press by hand for each print.
Persimmon Tree © Kerik Kouklis
What challenges do you face as an artist?
You have to get good at plate spinning. There always seems to be several things happening at once that need attention; prepping for a workshop, printing or editing for a show, answering questions, making travel plans, paying bills, trying to generate income, and most importantly, continuing to make new work.
What is next?
I am looking forward to opening the Viewpoint Gallery show in Sacramento on November 14. One week later I’ll be in Yosemite teaching gum over platinum for the Ansel Adams Gallery with my cohort, David “Ike” Eisenlord. We always have a good time in the Valley. In 2016 I plan to be back in Iceland and Mongolia. I’ll also be teaching in Michigan, Montana, Carmel, etc. And I am open to suggestions!
Thank you Kerik for sharing your work and your words.
To learn more about his work please visit his site at Kerik Kouklis Photography.
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