Photo Journal: Karen Kuehn - Burn Notice

By Jim Colton

Karen Kuehn by Sidney ErthalBack in the day when magazine photojournalism was strong and assignments were plentiful just maintaining a visual presence and having a unique style got you work. We all know that’s no longer the case. In the 80s and 90s, Karen Kuehn’s credit line appeared in almost every major publication. Today, like so many photographers, she struggles finding the balance that will satisfy both her heart…and her rent.

Kuehn has a passion for making compelling portraits and telling stories. Her early years included an internship at National Geographic before spending 16 years as a freelancer in New York City and then moving on to New Mexico in 2001 after becoming a mom and wanting to raise her son in a rural environment.

She continues to take the occasional assignment when it comes in, but in the meantime, has immersed herself in a personal project that has consumed her very soul - Burning Man: the annual migration of spirited souls to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Her latest project, “Cargo Cult,” is a 200 page, 12x12 hardcover book illustrating the event with images and quotes. The book is financed by a Kickstarter campaign (see link below). 

This week, we enter Karen Kuehn’s world and talk about issues and events that took her from being a National Park Service Ranger to one of today’s most spirited and committed photographers.

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little about Karen Kuehn? 

Karen Kuehn: I am a passionate person about whatever I am doing…be it journalism, art concepts, family and friends, tending the farm, camping and so on…and the list is large! I am curious and creative. I can say that for the last 30 years I have made my living doing photography. I am grateful for all the assignments…they have sustained my life to date. I love telling a story with my camera. I say this humbly but I think I have been given an extra sense about things and how to share and translate a soul or place in one image or more. 

JC: What drew you into photography as a career? 

KK: I loved Yosemite. I loved the images of Ansel Adams and I rode my bike to Cypress College in California. It was there that I had my first introduction to B&W photography with a zone system class with John Sexton and Marshal LaCour. It hooked me right away and I took many more classes. I was an idea person and two of the instructors, John Wycoff and David Drake, took a liking to how I came up with so many ideas and they nurtured my processes. I was a skinny kid on fire in a class of very cool students. I was encouraged to go out in the world and make my way with photography. I was only 19 at the time so I applied to the Art Center College of Design and was accepted in advanced standing based on a portfolio of zone system finely printed images.

JC: Was there a particular moment that made you say, "Yup, this is what I want to do?" 

KK: Yes. I was getting ready to graduate from the Art Center and I applied for internships at Rolling Stone and National Geographic magazine. Three days before I was to graduate I got the news that National Geographic wanted me! Bob Gilka was retiring and Rich Clarkson and Tom Kennedy were to be the new directors. At this point I think it was my parents first moment to confirm that I was going to be a photographer with a paycheck. I don’t think I ever said this was my goal to be a photographer…I just did it. And I do it because I love it still.  

JC: Who or what were some of your earliest influences? 

KK: John Wycoff put influences in front of all of us. Hands down he was the best instructor you could have. The weekly slide shows and his words about the images and the psychology behind them that he shared made us all think about being unique and finding our own paths in our way of seeing and telling stories. Sure he fixed on time, light, space and getting all the ingredients like a cook…JUST RIGHT!

JC: What's on Karen Kuehn's bookshelf?

KK: I have a lot of books…many are picture and art oriented and spirited. One that is an old standby for creating is Barbara Walker’s Dictionary of Symbols. That is a good one! When I get a job and have to research who or what I am doing, I like to find some way to tell the story symbolically, so that has been a helpful tool. I also love the dictionary and thesaurus. I like “how-to” books a lot; how to prune a rose; how to maximize my Stilh saw. I find the art of doing many things to be interesting. There are tons of poetry books, children’s books and books on Buddhism that line my shelves as well.

JC: I've had the great pleasure of working with you at various magazines. In the "heyday" of photojournalism your credit was seen in most of the major publications. Can you recall a few of your favorite assignments from "back-in-the-day?"

KK: Portraits and stories: I love all of them equally. My very first assignment was working with mountain men in Alaska for National Geographic as an intern. I was a former National Parks Services Ranger in Yosemite and Glacier so you can imagine how amazing that opportunity was for me. I read all of John Muir and Robert Service’s books….so going to Alaska right out of school was heaven sent.  

In New York City, my first job was for New York magazine with Susan Vermazen and Laura Broadus shooting Nan Goldin in the Bowery, a rough area at the time. I went to New York City with $1000 in my pocket and New York magazine and Elle fed me jobs that entire first year. My second year, I got my first New York Times Sunday Magazine job and which led to a long relationship with them of about 15 years. Marc Ballet and Mark Jacobson also gave me a long string of fun jobs at Interview magazine. Later I got hired by Saturday Night Live to do their bumpers (promos). All the jobs from many great editors like you just fanned the fire and I kept doing what I loved…shooting and seeing in my way. 

At 34, I became pregnant and I worked right up to a few days prior to delivery. That last job was for Sarah Harbutt at the New York Times. I will never forget it. I was delivering our son and I turned to his dad and said…"OMG, did I get the job for the New York Times done right?" He couldn’t believe I was thinking about my last assignment! What can I say? They are all important to me. I still give all I have to the assignments.

JC: You moved out of the Big Apple many years ago and now live in New Mexico. Why New Mexico and what's life like living and working there?

KK: New York City was a hot bed of assignments for me. I moved to New Mexico because I had strong feelings about our son growing up rural as opposed to urban. Now 13 years on our small farm and the kid is thriving! My goals were achieved for this move…for family. Work in New Mexico is less abundant so I have to hustle hard.

Oh New Mexico…It’s impoverished and if you’re rich, move here…if not, say your “Hail Marys” daily. It is the workshop state. We love the Santa Fe Workshop and I also do one-on-one workshops for those who really want to get from A-Z quickly. I moved here pre 9/11. I love living here and I wake up to roosters and warm weather more often than not. 

I miss the jobs of New York City…and my friendships…and the food you can only have in a town that amazing. Los Angeles and San Francisco are probably similar too. I miss the really pro lifestyle I had in New York City…my loft was always busy with shoots and crews and it was the life to live as an up-and-coming shooter. I was really blessed and am grateful for those years experienced.

Motherhood and having an outdoorsy life steered me to New Mexico. I was inspired by other friends here to move and that it would be a more rustic lifestyle. And it is…we have chickens and livestock and I grow a lot of food and roses. Farm life is pretty cozy and homey and I have space to go outside and create random images. 

The world is different now for photographers and with the paradigm shift of digital versus having to really know what you’re doing…everyone is a photographer! When I teach, I really aim for the students to get it right in camera rather than post like so many do. 

Work in New Mexico is random too!  Most of my larger paying jobs come from outside the state and we love our New York City clients. I am thankful that they have a client base that is willing to invest in images and content more than regional clients who have to sell that idea more. I have to hustle more now and I have used all the sites and swag. Sometimes you’re hot and sometimes you’re not. I believe I have a unique way of seeing…and it’s great when the art directors, editors and art buyers see it too!

JC: I've always seen your strengths through your portraiture. Why portraits as opposed to documentary or fine art or some other field in our business or do you feel you actually dabble in several genres? What's the key to making a memorable portrait?

KK: I would like to start with this quote that was so graciously given to me and is linked to my archive site. (See link below) 

“As a photography editor, I find myself tempted to put artists into slots. This person is a portraitist. That person works in black and white. This photographer shoots musicians. That photographer does documentary work. I simply can't do this kind of thing with Karen Kuehn's photography. She is able to drop in and photograph truck drivers, artists, kids, and CEOs with equal grace. She moves effortlessly from color to black and white, and when and why to use each. Most important, she comes back with images that have both surface richness and a real depth of emotion. “

David Schonauer
Editor in Chief - American Photo    

I have a knack for portraits for sure. I don’t know why, but I can see in, out and around the box about people. I can actually tell you a lot about souls in images and I can tell you about artists -- and the art they do -- to extreme facts.  I can read art and images so that is also part of how I do a portrait as narrative. If I have to do one shot and tell a story, I try to hone it.   

I love larger stories as much as I do portraits…in the context of telling a story with many images. I would welcome more opportunities to be an asset to magazines. I love National Geographic and I hope to make my way onto their pages more often in the future. My son is grown now and that would be a huge blessing. Mind you, I’m hopeful.  

JC: Having a personal project to work on has always been beneficial, perhaps not financially, but for the soul. Do you feel this is true? And if so, what projects have been near-and-dear to you over the years?

KK: Seems the answer is YES! And yes there have been a lot of great people funding my projects over the years. In 2009 I decided to go to Burning Man. I never got a book deal ever so I felt I was OLD and had to just jam out some project to get that first break.  Well I did two print-on-demand books; “My Eyes are Burning,” and “Catch of the Day.” (See link below)  

Burning Man sort of captured me while I was witnessing the goings on in my burner community. You hear a lot of things about Burning Man and what I can say is that all things possible occur at a rapid pace there. This event filled with art and music and love is to be experienced more than imagined. It’s not so “hippie dippy” but rather one has to be a radically self-reliant camper. After attending several burns you can’t help but be more realized as a human. My first 12 days on the playa was more creative than living in New York City for 16 years! I never would have dreamed it possible. It’s like the most creative people all migrate to one spot for a week of incredibleness to witness and partake.  

JC: You have a new book "Cargo Cult," that you are trying to get published with the assist of a Kickstarter campaign. (See link below) Can you tell us a little about the long you've been working on it and what can the viewer expect?

KK: Cargo Cult is yet another big book project. I make big projects; 200 plus pages, 12x12 in hard back. I am tired of print-on-demand books and no one can afford those expensive prices. My goal is to raise enough money so pledges can have a copy for less. This is not just a picture book. All subjects contribute quotes and some thoughts about art and the interesting people that it takes to do this event. This year’s question was:  “What one concept would you bring to a new world to better humanity?” The answers are varied and you can open this book anywhere and get emotionally evocative feelings. Wow is always a good goal…so when you view this book I would love that you said, “Wow! They made that? Or, he or she said that?” 

This book will have lots of good thoughts and is in the edit and fund raising mode now. We need more pledges so please like and share and help it make its way to the pressing world. I have not had the luck to have a publisher open the doors to my books yet, but being me…I will do it with my community of artists. I welcome photographers too and I understand that our industry is struggling so if you’re able…please pledge! I list the photographers and their websites with gratitude on Facebook and I share with and support my peers a lot. I love photographers that are secure in nature so please pledge for one big book and you too will add Burning Man to your bucket list…unless you hate dirt!

JC: As someone who has transited the analog to digital change in our industry, how has it affected you? 

KK: It is love and hate.  I love the texture of the old school silver printing and its craft and archival content. Whereas I feel that digital is so instant and so easy to do…it feels disposable to me at times. Yes you can print on amazing papers and digital it is easier to shoot in many situations. I love digital but I have collected silver edition prints my entire career. I have digital prints from friends but what lines my walls are silver or platinum. 

JC: Have the editorial assignments diminished? How have you re-invented yourself (if you have) to find other avenues for your work?

KK: Just pick up any magazine at the market and you tell me? Yes…and sometimes you feel like it’s the definition of insanity. I think many can relate to that idea in this market place. In that sense we are not alone. I am doing it right now, just raising money to make this book fly…I wear many hats…But I believe that the project is of value…so I keep on plugging away. 

This is the largest fundraiser to date. Pressing books in America is expensive. I have bids from 30 to 47 grand for this project. I have to staff folks to help with design, retouching, and rewards for pledges must be made. I have to pay for all those items…and shipping, handling and staffing as well. It adds up and it’s not adding up in my pocket. Each time I swear to myself that this is the last one. My job right now is making Burning Man book projects. I have had a few sweet jobs since last summer and I might be in New York City in March for a sweet one, but I don’t want to jinx it!  

JC: What's your take on where we are today? 

KK: I am an optimistic person but there is not a plethora of work in a market that is not spending a ton for images right now. With digital, everyone is a photographer so we have over-saturation. Make yourself valuable to a few rather than the masses…develop personal relationships and do images for people you love. Help their companies with imaging.  

If you’re not a trust funder, you have to work really hard to get noticed. I have…yet…still sometimes I swear I am invisible too! My super-duper New York City career took a nosedive when I moved to New Mexico but my art projects have grown and some amazing clients have used those images to sell me to their clients to get me as their shooter on new projects. It is tough…but look at what is out there…and just find three things you’d like to shoot and then go after them.

I have dreams and stories that I want to do. I am going to do some one page write ups and see if I can get my projects aligned with the right magazines, clients, publishers and museum spaces too. I think that in a climate that feels so dry we have to make things we love and hopefully we can get a paycheck at the end of the day. I just want to say that many photographers have no work…so it’s not you! Working a job that isn’t in photography to pay bills is not failure. Just getting a job is a full time job for a big percentage of people now. I don’t have an answer…if I did I would be everyone’s hero. Be kind to yourselves and be the best you can be for those around you first and foremost.  

JC: Lastly, what's on the horizon for Karen Kuehn? Any last words or parting wisdom you can share with some of the younger readers who are contemplating a career in photography?

KK: I can’t lie and when I teach and think of all those professors at schools like Art Center and Brooks whom I’ve asked for a position, I think about that question exactly…and I think HOW can they send young people into the world now? What do they tell them?

I do not have an MFA. If I did, I could teach a benefited job to college photography students but alas all my 30 plus years and continued working, I am not of worth to that system of teaching. No honorary MFA for me from Art Center to help me out either….so here’s what I would say to kids. Get the MFA, get a job with benefits and put money into a 40lK. My age group is suffering from this one right now. I wish someone told me that early on in my career.  

I worked hard and have had an amazing career in photography. Pick a region where work is thriving. Where is that today? I still feel New York City is it, but alas I am not moving back anytime soon. All the agency lists and swag are nice but being there increases your odds of being awarded jobs. We all find our own way.

I think Sally Mann in Virginia is a good inspiration for art…and a few ad shooters seem to be doing well and tooting their horns loud on Facebook! Rather than looking at that in a negative way, I say hey, “How is that person doing it?”…and find some inspiration. Being a photographer is super but being humble is a bit more attractive to me.  

I need more work too…I’m no different from the rest of you. I’m just trying to make my point of view more unique so I can have more projects to explore. I wish you all abundance and I mean it. We are not the Teamsters so some of us make more than others and some less…whatever the market will bear. Hang in there and just don’t give it away. Value yourselves more than dollar stock and doing it free because you can. Shoot free for causes not celebrity. Find out who you are and what you believe in and find your path based on your values and personal beliefs.  

Where can I help in my community? Especially if you’re not working…go out and find something close and feel good for the gift you can give with your eyes and heart. It may turn into your next big gig or project. I can’t wait for a publisher so I am trying to make it happen for many. You make it happen! Wait for no one if you know it’s good!