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Front Window Spotlight: Jerry Kaufman

Our front window display now features the work of photographer Jerry Kaufman. His emotionally compelling piece “Eternal Spring” will be up until April 2nd, and we carry a full body of his work in our retail gallery. We also carry his book Renewal at the Place of Black Tears, a collection of Pearl Harbor images dedicated to renewal and reconciliation released for the 50th anniversary of the USS Arizona Memorial. Images shown here are courtesy of the artist.

Jerry Kaufman, Eternal Spring

We recently asked Jerry some questions about life and work as a photographer. Here is what he had to say:

Life as an Artist

You’re a third-generation photographer. How have the legacies of your father and grandfather shaped what the lens reveals to you?

I’ve always joked that photography must be in my DNA. My father, Stan Kaufman, was a photojournalist in the Midwest. His father, Edward Kaufman, was a business portrait photographer in New York City and Montreal. And I’m a fine art photographer. After returning from WWII my dad studied with the “father of photojournalism”, Cliff Edom, at the University of Missouri – home of The Missouri Photo Workshops. He was the only one of us formally trained. He was a good observer and master storyteller – stories from everyday life that connected emotionally. I was shaped through observation. Using a camera, we can each notice the world in our own way and experience the joy of discovering stories that matter to us. And just as important, another family trait is sharing stories that resonate with others.

I’m also a third-generation wartime solider. My father turned 20 on the Beaches of Normandy in WWII, my grandfather was gassed in the Argonne in WWI. I was a junior officer at Brooke General Hospital taking care of severely injured soldiers returning from Vietnam – most missing multiple limbs, some severely burned. Those were life-changing experiences that shaped all three of us individually and collectively as human beings. They also shaped the way we chose to look through the lens of a camera. A couple of related thoughts: only after his death did I learn that my dad was an Alpha Chapter member of Kappa Alpha Mu, the national fraternity in pictorial journalism. And, there are already two generations of photographers after me – each telling stories in their own way.

Have you always self-identified as an artist? Was there a pivotal experience that unlocked that part of your identity?

No. Two otherwise unrelated events changed that. The first was after a talk that I’d given at the Pearl Harbor Memorial on Memorial Day, 2012. The talk was about the making of my picture book Renewal at The Place of Black Tears. It was released to coincide with 50th anniversary of the Memorial. Daniel Martinez, Chief Historian, National Park Service at Pearl Harbor was leading the post-lecture discussion. He described me as the first to do an artistic interpretation of the oil surfacing from the fuel tanks of the sunken USS Arizona. I knew I was a photographer before then, but at that moment, I asked myself, “Am I an artist?”

The second moment was several months later, shortly after I was juried into the gallery here. I’d been told, “So here’s the facts, photography doesn’t sell in our gallery”. Even so, I was given a six-month trial. One day Barbara Center, who was then curating the display of artwork in the gallery looked me in the eye, and said something to this effect: “Your art is important; it’s moving and needs to be here. Your art has a healing, calming presence that I can feel.”

I thought to myself that photographers make pictures, artists make art. Here’s somebody telling me how my art makes them feel. Barbara was feeling the emotion that I was attempting to convey, a sense of healing and well-being. That’s the moment that I first self-identified as an artist.

Jerry Kaufman in his studio

The Artist’s Work

You have a distinct voice in your work, an indication that you know what you’re looking for when you raise your camera. Did that come naturally to you or is that something you cultivated over time?

What came naturally for me was curiosity, noticing and learning the technical aspects of making an interesting photograph – framing and working with the elements of light, color, etc. What was cultivated over time was getting the emotional element. Perhaps it was natural, but it took time to work out an art-making process before it felt like my voice.

For me it’s all about discovery. So when I raise my camera, even if I don’t know the exact what I’m looking for (and I usually don’t except in the most general terms), the lens I’m looking through is a lens of renewal, new beginnings, healing, and well-being. That was shaped by a 40-year career in healthcare with focus on improvement, innovation and organizational turnarounds.

If I take the time to notice, I’m confident I can discover what wants to be revealed to me. I call it my 3-“I”s process:

  1. Immersion: being in the zone
  2. Impression: capturing the moment
  3. Insight: telling the story
 What’s a ritual, however small or unique, that you have around your process that shows up just about every time?

Every once in a while a magic moment just shows up and I’ve got a camera close by and I’ve got a picture. However, most of the time I need to activate step one of my process, immersion. What that means to me is getting totally present (body, mind and spirit together at the same place at the same time). It’s a focused attention that gets me into the rhythm and flow of a place. My mind and breathing go quiet and deep. It’s sort of an altered state of consciousness where everything slows down. I’m totally oblivious to time passing – it’s like time stands still. It’s a zone, similar to what I experienced sometimes on long runs, even once in a high school basketball game when I scored 42 points. I can feel emotions with my whole body. There is a focus and heightened sense of awareness free from any stress or fear. While in that zone, I start exploring with the camera, anticipating shifting light.

Even though I’ve been shooting digital images since 2006, I still shoot like I used to shoot film, one click at a time, never a rapid burst even though the camera can. Sometimes I move in and out of a scene; sometimes I walk; sometimes, I stand in one place. I rarely use a tripod: I need freedom to move. These in-zone experiences can last a few minutes or a few hours. That’s why I’m usually alone. I’ve only tried to consciously replicate this experience when working with a camera. I’ve never used any recreational drugs so I have no reference points to that experience, but I do get an internally-generated high.

Twyla Tharp talks about focal length as an aspect of our individual creative signature, like a creative fingerprint. Up close means we’re attracted to details. Zoomed way out means we are into the big picture, the composition of many elements. How would you describe your particular focal length?

My signature artwork is an impression (step 2 of my process): I photograph in the spirit of the Impressionists. For me that means light, color and emotion. Only rarely would I strive for the the tack sharp image. I’m going for a feeling or moving emotion. I most often find the emotion in a slightly softened focus, giving a painterly feel to an image. I’m willing to zoom in or zoom out to find the story. I’m more likely to focus on a tree rather than the forest or a close up of the bark even though I’ve done all three. My impressions are usually vignettes that I’m inviting the viewer into, only part of the larger scene.

How do you reconcile what you expect to see and what shows up? How often are you surprised by what is captured?

As I move into immersion, I try to be open to whatever shows up and I’m able to capture as an impression. I’m always searching for the renewal/new beginning/healing/well-being story. It’s that impression that I bring back to share with others. Most of my released limited-edition images are surprises. I only wish I could capture more surprises to share. Winter Rower (shown above) is an example of a surprise. I was about two hours into immersion when I looked up and saw this rower coming towards me. I only had one click and then I had to get out of her way (I was on her boat dock). It was handheld at 1/30th of a second, cropped in the camera using a wide angle lens. Being in the zone, in this case for a couple of hours, allowed everything that needed done to capture this impression to be completed in less than two seconds.

Artists frequently have to practice detachment to avoid getting too precious about their work. How does that show up for you?

I’m anything but detached as I move the immersion, impression and insight process. My time in the digital darkroom with an image is brief (that’s a carry over from my photojournalist dad). Once the image has the look and feel I want; I stop. The Winter Rower was one click on location and one click in the digital darkroom. It doesn’t usually happen that quickly, but I do not obsess or go through multiple iterations.

When I decide to release an image, I begin to let go. That’s when I move into collaboration with my printmaker, Carl Cooper at Color1 in Seattle. We talk about materials and presentation options. After that point, I really let it go. I trust him implicitly to make the print. I’m the impressionist. He’s the perfectionist. I trust him to get it right. If necessary we reprint, but that happens only very rarely. I decide where I’d like a piece or body of work to go, but that too is a collaborative process with gallery and store curators and owners. I got over the fear of rejection personally and artistically a long time ago. Of course, I’d rather the marketplace say “yes” than “no”. It’s my responsibility to find the best match to get to “yes”.

Is there anything you’re experimenting with that hasn’t made its way into work you’re showing?

Yes, I’ve been working on a series of portraits using a concept inspired by the Irish poet John O’Donohue and his book of the same name, “Anam Cara,” Gaelic for soul friend. I did show one briefly. At this point I don’t know where I’d show that work if and when the time comes.

Jerry Kaufman in his digital darkroom

Experiencing the World as an Artist

Louis Pasteur said, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” As an artist, what are you always prepared to observe?

With my camera in hand I’m always prepared to discover the untold story through the lens of renewal/new beginnings/healing/well-being. Often it’s a surprise. In my book I quote another 19th-century scientist, discoverer Albert Szent: “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

What fragments of daily life do you notice and collect in some way?

I take special notice of the way light strikes everything. I notice little, budding vignettes all around me especially on my daily walks, whether around the neighborhood or in a national park. I look for reflections in and movement of water. I notice negative space and work to visualize stuff in that space. I love negative space and use it whenever I can in my art.

Is it fair to describe photography as meditation?

Yes. It can be. It certainly is for me – during each step of my process. For sure, during the discovery step of immersion, and at the art making moment when the visual and emotion merge into an impression. Even during the last step, when insight comes, it is a meditation, as well. The bonus meditation experience for me as an artist comes when I’m sharing meditation space with the viewer as they complete the art for themselves in conversation with me. They take me to some wonderful places in imagination as they share.

What’s something amazing you’ve learned that you could not have possibly known when you were a beginner?

What’s amazing to me is just how transforming, renewing and live-giving making art can be for both artist and viewer.

Story by Andrea Lewicki.

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Permanent link to this article: http://arteast.org/2017/03/front-window-jerry-kaufman/