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John Kenny
John Kenny
John Kenny

John Kenny

Country: United Kingdom

In 2006 I developed my style of portrait photography within traditional communities, heavily influenced by the dramatic pictures of chiaroscuro artists. Chiaroscuro is an Italian term which literally means light-dark. Back then, at the very start of my Africa journey, I was buzzing with energy having met people of real magnetism just days into my trip. I was excited by extraordinary people and fascinating cultures and wondered how I could possibly communicate and express these feelings of excitement to friends and family back home.

The solution, I imagined, would involve abstracting the remarkable from the not so remarkable: put simply, I felt that the vibrant and intense individuals that I had met in traditional communities would best show their magnetism on camera when they were removed from the (often) dull and dusty backgrounds of their immediate environment. After a few days I started to imagine each of these people in front of me emerging from the nothingness of darkness, with no distractions, hoping that this would provide a real feeling of proximity between the viewer and the person in the picture. I made a conscious decision at that time to leave a more documentary style of environmental portraiture to others. Practicing this new technique in remote African villages in 2006 I had nothing but sunshine and a hut available as a great ‘open studio': so I used these parameters and started experimenting (I've never really liked flash anyway). So it's simply the illumination of natural sunlight, and sun on dry earth, that reaches into the darkness of huts and lights up these remarkable people. Sun and dry earth are the only ingredients required for the lighting in my prints. And of course, you also need to find exceptional people!

Falling in love with photography, and the origins of this series:
I first fell in love with photography around 2003. I had not been fortunate enough to receive an art or photography education, but I knew back then, when I picked up my first SLR camera, that I had found the perfect way to express myself. Every time I had the camera in my hand I was looking to improve, needing to know what everything and anything looked like once it had been through the photographic process. It was a bit like a mad pursuit of alchemy - throwing everything into the mix to see if any magic came out of the other side. The process of photographic learning is very rarely a simple one, but to me it remains beautiful: discoveries, experimentation and seeing for the first time how a camera distorts and enhances the world.
In Africa I seem to have made it my goal to travel through some of the remotest areas of the continent where the reaches of urbanisation and 21st century living are barely detectable. Looking back, this wasn’t my intention when I first arrived there in 2006, but somehow I keep returning to Africa to photograph because I'm fascinated to encounter societies that are able to survive in some of the most arid, isolated and difficult environments that people have settled in. If you haven’t visited these places then the reality of living is not nearly as romantic or idealised as one might imagine. Life takes place against a backdrop of very uncertain resources and enormous hardships, but traditions and hospitality towards outsiders remain intact.
I specifically chose to photograph the individuals that you see in these galleries because I had a very real sense of wonder when I met them. Each one of these people had something that attracted me, sometimes a piercing intensity, or an uncommon beauty, that I felt compelled to try and capture. It’s true that I photograph for myself, first and foremost, but a close second is my desire to show others this magnetism that draws one into the eyes of these fascinating people.
I have usually travelled alone or with a guide on these journeys, along the way walking and hopping onto overloaded vehicles of every kind to head to remote settlements. Often the destination is a transient, weekly market where hundreds of vibrant, colourful people assemble somewhat incongruously against a dull, dusty backdrop for a few hours. Later in the day they will all melt away with their animals and traded possessions, until the location is again a patch of bone-dry ground with almost nothing to separate it from the rest of the featureless land that typifies much of the African Sahel. It is fascinating to observe this process play out in almost exactly the same way across countless African countries, many of which are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles across this huge continent’s surface.
My favourite tools are sharp prime lenses and cameras that let you capture the tiniest pieces of detail: whilst these details may be insignificant alone, when aggregated I feel they help paint the picture of the environment and how each person adapts to theirs.

My favourite series of work remains the Northern Kenya series which involved 6 weeks of intense travelling with my guide, Mo, across remote areas without a vehicle and often without any semblance of an idea how to get to the next tiny settlement. The trip was full of unique encounters in locations that seemed to be famous, to me at least, as places where no transport seemed to be heading. On one particular occasion we came across a lone Moran (warrior) emerge into the dawn light, miles from anywhere. He seemed like a mirage: a vibrant vision in pink cloth and bright colourful jewellery, and more acutely so when set against the hazy yellow monotone of land that he emerged from. Even for Northern Kenya, I thought he seemed to be in a remote, featureless location: devoid of any water, and within an hour it would again be blistering hot. Despite these uncomfortable realities - which clearly weighed more heavily on my mind than his - the warrior seemed confident of his bearings and stopped for a moment to exchange pleasantries with Mo and I. A couple of minutes later, after sharing cigarette with my guide, he purposefully set off walking again, to God knows where. This place that looked barren and foreboding, to me at least, was clearly his home.
 

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Michael Ackerman
Israel/United States
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Infinity Award, Young Photographer, International Center of Photography, 1998. 2014 L’intuition – A projection in collaboration with musician Vincent Courtois, curated by Christian Caujolle. Performed In la Friche Belle de Mai, Marseille, 4 Fevrier Le Lux Scene national de Valence, Festival Banlieues blues, Paris and Rencontres photographiques d’Arles SUSPENSION Noun: Suspension, Verb: suspend: “To cause to stop for a period, hold in abeyance; suspend judgment.” In Michael Ackerman's work, documentary and autobiography conspire with fiction, and all of the above dissolve into hallucination. The particular journeys of his book Half Life encompass New York, Havana, Berlin, Naples, Paris, Warsaw, and Krakow, but the locations aren’t necessarily recognizable at all. Michael has been moving towards this erasure of geographical and other distinctions in his photographs for some time. It hasn’t become dogma - the Smoke photographs shot in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown remain a beautifully regional document, but they document a neighborhood as a particular dream state rather than a set of facts, and the photos could wander easily into his other bodies of work. In all cases, there is surely a trajectory away from the constraints of a traditional documentary mode towards a very different way of getting at the world. Some notes about particular photos in Half Life: A family, seen on a decaying porcelain tombstone portrait - solarized by decades of exposure - is falling apart, as families do, is holding on together, as families do. The shape of their little monument is uncannily like that of the Hotel Centrum on a later page, where such a family, had they existed in the same era, would not have been able to stay. The Centrum, a modern Polish megalith, floats absurdly in the frame, freed from all scale but heavy on the page. A naked man kneeling on a bed; we find him in supplication or some unspecific bondage. He is trapped, caught between stations, and the terrible but accepted scratch lines on the negative make it feel like TV or video, as if the man is seen through some screen, receding. It’s no longer a portrait of a particular person. It seems as if the man has become some vague entity, a sick feeling, a migraine headache, I don’t even know. A man goes up stairs or an escalator and his hand is ridiculously long, maybe like that of Nosferatu in Murnau’s silent film. The stairs begin in Lodz but, according to the next page, pass a landing in Havana. Suspension... A woman, naked, holds her arms against her torso. She looks up, somehow in simultaneous surprise and recognition. I can’t say if her face shows love or sadness or fear, but there’s something inevitable in her expression. It’s strange how she seems so caught in flux, while her shadow, so dark on the wall, is just the opposite, permanent.* * * In the early stages of his building the Half Life book, Michael and I talked about where to put the series of pictures taken from train windows, mostly in deep winter. At one point they were scattered throughout, at other times they fell together in a bloc, but in any case, the body of work, and the book as a whole, started to feel to me like they ran on rails in the snow, and the places and people within them were stops, things seen or felt in passing. They’re encountered, drift away, are longed for, returned to, left behind again. If Michael’s work is sometimes tough, the landscapes remind us back to a balancing delicacy, a faith in beauty. Michael deeply loves the snow trains that cut archaically through Europe, especially through Eastern Europe, especially the overnight trains which he and I share as our transportation of choice. On these you travel but are nowhere for the duration of the trip, floating through whiteness if it’s wintertime. This nothing in which things float is echoed in his prints, though the white is sometimes heavily vignetted, as if darkness wants in. Alternately, the backgrounds can be of total blackness, and then the subject radiates like a candle. But back to the snow trains, which often run through the most ignored and beautiful parts of cities, where commercial facades drop away like forced smiles into debris and frozen mud and warehouses, which then give way to fields. Riding on one of these trains outside of Katowice, Poland en route to Paris, Michael spotted in the distance the warped row of dead train cars seen in the book. Desperate to photograph them, he guessed at their location and eventually returned. He got off at the closest stop, trudged through the snow, and found the trains, but approaching across a frozen field, camera in hand, his legs suddenly plunged through a chasm in the whiteness, a missing manhole cover. In what he referred to as a “rare case of quick thinking,” he stuck out his arms, breaking the fall, and managed to pull himself out. No one knew he was there, and if he’d perished, it would’ve been for the love of trains, and of wreckage, and of course, of pictures. * * * Many in the panel of men at the beginning of Half Life were photographed in bars. Some were found in a bar in Paris where the old and ageless proprietor became one of Michael’s favorite people, not just in the city, but in the world. Her bar was a special refuge, and though she was difficult, she truly took Michael in. This tiny bar remains a constant, a place of return, but many of the regulars he’s met over the years are now gone. For some moments however, they drew, or seemed to draw, terribly close, with alcohol as glue and pictures proof -- but of what… mutual need, eventual isolation, or the pendulum swing between the two… A bar is something like the center of an hourglass: at the top is time disappearing, and at the bottom, time spent. But to those in the place, the regulars, the middle is the only thing apparent and there time has stopped. (An interesting circumstance for others in the time-stopping business, and not just still photographers. The phenomena is beautifully understood in Daumier’s paintings of drinkers or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son). It is illusory, of course; the people are held in that place where, like the proverbial cartoon character who’s gone off a cliff, they just don’t realize the ground has dropped away beneath their feet. Once again, suspension. Which also has a musical definition: The prolongation of a tone in one chord into the following chord, usually producing a temporary dissonance. This prolongation of tone, an ongoing search, gives the work continuity, as does the dissonance, which can be restlessness or loss. I won’t talk much here about the emotional drive behind the work, or the personal ramifications, but that’s my hesitation, not Michael’s. There’s a picture in Half Life of the photographer and a woman, both with shaved heads, a troubled mirroring, a last strange union. The photograph is a pact: see you now, see you later, so long... In the last few years, such goodbyes have given way to a series of welcomings, explorations of the concrete changes and dream states of immediate family, wife and child. These pictures, deeply caring but by necessity fearless, reverberate with bluntness, warmth, shock, matter of fact erotics, and of course love, which when regarded honestly, includes a steamer trunk of contradictions. So, there is fear mixed in with the fearlessness, the joy includes some trepidation, the innocence is utterly real, but tangled and fleeting. How disappointing it would be if a photographer so open to the wrenching truths of the world would suddenly pull all punches when faced with the most intimate situation of all. How unfortunate it would be, for all of us, if investigations of intimacy were left to the whitewashers and the advertisers, the puritans and the pornographers. And so, in the recent work, new tightropes are stretched and new risks are taken. But in looking back at Michael’s work as a whole, I’m reminded that one of the great challenges artists face is when to pull back from the proverbial edge - those addicted to pushing the envelope sometimes fall into a negative trap which has its own complacency. A kind or subtle or purely beautiful image might actually be the risk that they can’t seem to take. The walking of tightropes has always been integral to Michael’s work, but I don’t see him falling into that dark trap, which is why the work is thorny but never cynical, heavy but also sweet. Beyond all of that, I still don’t understand how the pictures happen, how he gets them. It certainly isn’t about the equipment, the cameras come and go, sometimes literally broken but still pressed into use. I think Michael feels that taking pictures and taking chances should be kindred enterprises. I’ve met few artists less uptight about the technology and intricacies of gear and production, though he does of course become completely intimate with what he needs in order to get at what he feels. Once I heard him suggest in a Q & A that he just doesn’t care about technique, but knowing the time and tortures he’s given over to darkroom work, I thought that was a touch disingenuous. He meant that technique and technology are never the core of the matter, and that he doesn’t like to be precious about them. And he needs accidents; they might reveal something, break something open. Sometimes they might go too far and the image itself is obliterated: again, necessary risk. I’ve seen him photograph without putting the camera to his eye, as if to confirm that what he was after wasn’t primarily even about seeing. (That too is deceptive; with time, some photographers know what the camera is getting, regardless of where it’s held). Maybe I mean that compared to many other photographers, Michael’s work isn’t so concerned with sight itself. If he could have been a writer, painter, or a musician, that might have worked too. In any case, the results speak for themselves, and the results are often kind of insane. Sadly, because of the madness of these photographs and the digital times we’ve entered, people increasingly assume that certain pictures must be computer manipulations. Michael is no purist, but that simply isn’t what is going on here. Do you see how it matters that even if these are accidents of light and the distorting lens, they are things that somehow happened, that were? They come out of the real; however unlikely or impossible, they are measurements - not constructions. They are measurements, but in the end, of the interior as much as of the world. But like I said, Michael’s not a purist, and in his impure searching, he occasionally walks a thin line between accepting pure actuality and giving it a nudge. We argue about it. I don’t know what to make of the picture where someone else’s old portrait of Anna Akhmatova is held up and rephotographed. I guess Michael wanted to invite her into that streetscape, felt she was part of his history or emotional landscape; maybe he just loved her profile and wondered, what the hell, why not? Sometimes the work is funny. The absurdly mismatched nude couple in the book aren’t funny but they are, as is the man who wears a monocle made of smoke. The Coney Island hotdog signs reading ‘Franks’ and the American flag they stutter towards comprise a whimsical tribute to one particular, beloved photographer; first name - Robert. Occasional whimsy aside though, Half Life is a rough ride through damaged places and situations. And what’s it like to be with Michael when he’s photographing such things? Well, it isn’t necessarily comfortable, or easy, or pleasant. Sometimes artists push their work, and their luck along with it. Sometimes Michael just plunges in. I was crossing the street with him on the Lower East side once when a woman suddenly appeared, coming towards us in the intersection. Something in her presence struck us instantly with force -- she might have been beautiful or she might have been mutilated -- we had no time to register anything; but he lunged and got off one picture as I stood by and winced. I doubt she noticed at all, but what if she had? (The picture is in Fiction; it appears to be of a ghost in a miniskirt, perhaps with a black eye.) Such pictures do not come out of discretion, or delicacy, or fair exchange. In many of Michael’s pictures mutual understanding simply may or may not have existed. There is a harshness to this observation; it troubles me, and yet I can say that Michael’s pictures are always, deeply made without judgment, in total acceptance. That in itself is a kind of love. And the subjects obviously extend him enormous trust. (Well... except when they don’t. Walking with Michael on a street in Krakow, he photographed another approaching woman, a middle-aged matron. She yelled angrily at him in Polish; he kept walking but yelled back, in Polish: “You’re beautiful.”) It is probably no accident then that the gesture of the embrace recurs again and again in Michael’s work. Which leads me to what may be my favorite set of pictures that Michael has taken, of the couple on the stairs: To what do we owe this strange and tender record ? And what is the record of? An older man and his young girlfriend collapsed in drunken surrender… or perhaps a father and son broken together on a subway staircase ? Who is holding who up? Was the man once a boxer? If the younger one is in fact a woman, is she his lover? The stairs are at once unyielding and rippling, bending and unbending. This couple, whatever their relationship and circumstance, are attended to then in a series of photographs, equally harsh and gentle, unwrapped over time. But what time is given - minutes, hours, or an unending day or an unending night? You can just about hear the tinny loudspeakers in the background of the train station, and thinking of stations, I am reminded that the 13th station is the descent from the cross. The actual circumstances, the truth of it, the year and the gender, hardly matter, don’t matter at all. At its best, the work speaks past such details, and even beyond photography.
Chien-Chi Chang
Taiwan
1961
Chien-Chi Chang is a photographer and member of Magnum Photos. Chang was born in Taichung, Taiwan. He received an MS from Indiana University, Bloomington and a B. A. from Soochow University, Taipei. He joined Magnum Photos in 1995 and was elected as a full member in 2001. He lives in Taichung, Taiwan and Graz, Austria. Chang focuses on the abstract concepts of alienation and connection. The Chain, a collection of portraits made in a mental asylum in Taiwan, was shown at Venice Biennale (2001) and the São Paulo Art Biennial (2002). The nearly life-sized photographs of pairs of patients chained together resonate with Chang's look at the less visible bonds of marriage. At São Paulo Art Biennial he was involved in the Thomann controversy. Chang has treated marital ties in two books: I do I do I do (2001), a collection of images depicting alienated grooms and brides in Taiwan, and in Double Happiness (2005), a depiction of the business of selling brides in Vietnam. The ties of family and of culture are also the themes of a project begun in 1992. For 21 years, Chang has photographed and videoed the bifurcated lives of Chinese immigrants in New York's Chinatown, along with those of their wives and families back home in Fujian. Still a work in progress, China Town was hung at the National Museum of Singapore in 2008 as part of a mid-career survey and at Venice Biennale (2011) as well as at International Center of Photography, New York (2012). Chang's investigation of the ties that bind one person to another draws on his own divided immigrant experience in the United States.Source: Wikipedia Chien-Chi Chang has always been fascinated by the human conditions of alienation and connection. Both are in evidence in his signature work, The Chain, which is a collection of portraits made of inmates in a mental asylum in Taiwan. The subjects are people who have had their bonds to the rest of society – family, community – servered. And yet, as part of their treatment, they are chained to one another, physically linked in pairs throughout their days and only unlocked to sleep. These powerful photographs, nearly life size, have been exhibited at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (2001), La Biennale di Venezia (2001), and the Bienal de Sao Paolo (2002). Less visible bonds were the subject of another project: A jaundiced look at the ceremony surrounding the union of two people. When his parents began pressuring him to marry, Chang responded by making pictures at weddings in Taiwan. The images are hardly festive, rather emphasizing alienated grooms and lonely brides. They have been collected in the book, I do I do I do. This meditation on the nature of the ties that bind a person to others and to society is a natural outgrowth of Chang's own experience of the divided life of an immigrant. The son of working people in central Taiwan, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Soochow University in Taiwan in 1984 and a Master of Science degree at Indiana University in 1990. He then became a staff photographer at The Seattle Times (1991-1993) and The Baltimore Sun (1994-1995). Over the past decade, he has worked in New York's Chinatown, documenting the lives of immigrants there. These pictures of illegal aliens stranded on an island within an island have appeared in National Geographic magazine, as well as The New Yorker, TIME Magazine and German Geo. The series earned Chang first place in the category "Daily Life Story" from World Press Photo in 1999. That same year, Chang won a grant from the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund for humanistic photography and was awarded the Visa d'Or in magazine photography in Perpignan. He was named the Missouri/NPPA 1999 Magazine Photographer of the Year.Source: artasiamerica Chien-Chi Chang’s photography and films explore the abstract concepts of alienation and connection. His investigation of the ties that bind one person to another draws on his own deeply divided immigrant experience, as he explores the contrasting themes of hope and darkness, restriction and freedom. Chang’s long term interest in the manifestation of restriction and freedom was explored in his project on North Korean defectors. From 2007 to 2009 , Chang travelled with North Korean defectors to document their incredibly harrowing journey escaping to China. Between 2008-2012, Chang worked on a project called Jet Lag, which explored the globalised disconnect of the “jet-setting” lifestyle, culminating in a book of the same name, published in 2015.Source: Magnum Photos
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