Kenneth ParkerNationality: United States
- | Annual International Color Awards, Photography Masters Cup Award
- | San Francisco Society of Communicating Arts, Art Directors Photography Award
- | Center for Photographic Art Juried Exhibition Awards
- | First Place, OCEANS ‘85 Exposition Film Festival, San Diego
- | CINE Golden Eagle Award for Cinematography
- | Houston International Film Festival, Special Gold Award for Cinematography
- | Northwest Photographers Museum-Juried Award for Landscape Photograph
- | Communication Arts, View Camera, Time, Oceans, Smithsonian, Natural History,
- | Pacific Discovery, many national newspapers and their weekly magazines
Kenneth Parker is a large format landscape colorist working principally in remote pristine wilderness areas throughout the world where he has trekked and kayaked extensively.
He is inexorably drawn to the elemental earth/ocean forces and their compelling magic, translating into arresting imagery the depths of these feelings, rich in power, radiant. His early experience as fine art color pioneer Eliot Porter’s field assistant helped to nurture a loving eye devoted to isolating and capturing the mysteries in nature that he struggled for decades to unravel as a research scientist in oceanography and global climate change. Paul Caponigro has also been a principal influence on his development as a consistent mentor to Parker since the mid-70s.
Most of Parker’s photographs are captured over the course of 5-10 day backpacking excursions hauling 75-85 pounds of large-format equipment as he becomes immersed in a profound sense of place. Often several days are spent contemplating the changing light and intimacy of a composition before completing a single exposure. Usually only a few distinctive images will result from one of these journeys. Over the past four decades, Parker has produced a body of work in solely traditional film formats that has been widely exhibited and published. While much of that time was occupied with his natural science career, he consistently maintained and exercised the creative passions that have now fully committed his life focus to photography. Paul Caponigro writes: Parker’s stunning prints have impressed me and will no doubt also impress you for their beauty of craft as well as content. Those who will give sufficient time to discover what has been wrought through his efforts will no doubt be rewarded. He has met and mastered the shape of his own passion and vision. And from the lips of the late great Ruth Bernhard at her home: Ken is my favorite color photographer. The way in which he works with light is inspiring. It feels as if he has an arrangement with God. Parker is currently completing a captivating new portfolio Big Sur ~ Gentle Fury with its intimate compositions of the rugged granitic pinnacles, wave sprays and tide pools along this magnificent shore where he resides.
And a major coffee table publication is currently underway of his multi-expedition imagery from the remote kingdom of Mustang on the Tibetan Plateau. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is contributing an introduction, has called Mustang "the best Tibetan Buddhism in the world". Together with powerful landscapes, cultural and enchanting festival depictions, the volume will feature the monumental 14th century monasteries lying at its heart, which have been the site of a decade of painstaking restorations on what are being recognized as the most magnificent Tantric fresco wall murals ever uncovered in the Tibetan world.
1. WICH IS THE CENTRAL QUESTION IN YOUR LIFE AS A PHOTOGRAPHER?
How to truly bring a pregnant and affecting moment of understanding to another. To so touch the heart of another affirms how all my struggles to find and capture these images are as worthwhile as what it means to me when actually venturing out in this magnificent wild world to do so.
2. WHO ARE THE PHOTOGRAPHERS / OR OTHER ARTISTS THAT INSPIRE YOU?
Since setting out to pursue photography as fine art in black-and-white for my first decade, I was principally influenced by my favorites of its giants: Edward and Brett Weston, Minor White, Paul Caponigro, Wynn Bullock, William Giles, Sebastião Salgado. Then later I appreciated a few more with color – which I believe to be more difficult – and whom I believe to be more rare: my cherished mentor Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, Edward Burtynsky, Charles Cramer, Dewitt Jones, Andreas Gursky (especially the scale). There are the arousing painters who teach me more about being a colorist: Picasso, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Dali, Monet, O'Keefe, Chagall, Bierstadt, Turner, Moran, Tavernier, Church. And then of course I must include the jazz greats who continue to inspire me since the beginning across so many tedious long hours of editing and printing.... Miles, Trane, Monk, Bird, Shorter, Evans, Jarrett, Corea, Tyner, Towner, Bley, Jobim.
3. WHAT MAKES AN EXCELLENT PHOTOGRAPHER?
Tenacity and vision, first and foremost. With enough time, care and practice and presence, one sees the purity and serenity of consciousness and culture forever etched into the very muscle fibers of the heart. A powerful image beckons one to feel immersed, as if compelled to climb inside its own special world and somehow inhabit it.
4. WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT DECIDING TO BECOME A FULL-TIME PHOTOGRAPHER?
Easy question. It was the momentous, life-changing and agonizing decision to completely abandon a PhD-driven career in oceanography for a life fully committed to art. I knew I was probably taking my vows of poverty, and so it has largely been. I also knew I was choosing one of the most physically and emotionally demanding routes that life could possibly require.
5. WHAT MOTIVATES YOU IN YOUR WORK AND WHAT IS DEMOTIVATING?
Above all, it is the light. Like something my old friend Galen Rowell once wrote, when the light is amazing I scramble about furiously in search of a composition. Certainly it is also when I come upon something singular and captivating – especially after a long hard hike (typically backpacking for days with a tortuous pack) just to attain it – where I will then wait praying for the light! As for the inverse, I'm afraid I’m one of these fellows who is rarely satisfied with anything... the color bores me, the light is unremarkable, the scene is just not interesting enough. The sky is too blue, foliage too green, sun too bright, shadows too dead, and most compositions are too cluttered. The older I get the harder it is for me to find a truly potent image worth bringing home to share. They are rare as angel’s tears. But when it is truly magical and mysterious I do not let it get away.
6. WHAT ARE THE MOST PASSIONATE MOMENTS IN YOUR WORK?
Whenever I am genuinely feeling what I see. My friends who know me well recognize mostly unbridled enthusiasm fueled by endless reserves of energy. Passion is everything, is it not? When immersed in the mystical, the mythic, the enchanting... is it not every bit as palpable and filling as a good meal and the cool clean slaking water we wash it down with
7. WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES IN YOUR WORK?
The biggest one has always been money. I'll cross the seven seas in obsessively relentless pursuit of the extraordinary – which usually breaks the bank. Shooting, processing and drum scanning large format color film – which to date remains my medium of choice – and producing the finest archival pigment prints with state-of-the-art computers and printers – it is all just so ferociously expensive. And then there is perhaps the most precious resource of all: Time, which there is scarcely ever enough of, especially the more I age. And I have learned the hard way that photography is anything but glamorous. It is bloody hard gut-busting work that incurs a great deal of tedium... demanding patience, keen attention, grounded calm.
8. HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR ARTISTRY?
My father bought me my first Canon and a cross-country family road trip changed my life. Later when I was kidnapped into a darkroom by a fellow high school swim team buddy, I was utterly smitten. I plunged headfirst into his workshop being led by a most heartfelt disciple ceaselessly channeling my first mentor William Giles, himself the former private student of Minor White, and at the time directing the University of Rochester's photography department in my home town. Taken with Adirondack and Catskills field trips, this experience was seminal and I've held Giles close to my breast ever since. On an extended leave of absence from pre-med at Penn, I built a darkroom in Utah and in my second and last workshop tackled the zone system with John Telford for a full summer intensive. Immediately after, I manifested a solo field apprenticeship with the great color pioneer Eliot Porter who developed my ability to discriminate composition and color, to which I became a total convert. I hungrily absorbed his fearless and peerless view camera technique that I've yet to forsake. It was my great privilege to have assisted three masters: Giles, Caponigro, Porter. I'm convinced they were key in finding my own voice. With Porter it was mostly a silent apprenticeship with someone who hated to teach. He never pulled me aside to provide any sort of speech, direction or instruction. I learned by observing, carefully and quietly. I'd study his subtle flow, his unobtrusive process, his nuanced timing... it was the best training I could have possibly had.
9. WHAT IS YOUR MAJOR PERSONAL LEARNING IN PHOTOGRAPHY THAT YOU WOULD CONVEY TO A "NOVICE"?
Faithfully opening your mind and heart toward the all-essential and meaningful learning to see. It is the beginner’s mind in Zen, slaying preconceptions and mind-eye conditioning, truly getting out of your own way. We must find windows that can bring the spirit and awareness of a keen visual language to the innocent eye. When teaching, I feel responsible for this precious bit of someone’s heart, having lit a little fire there, and am so profoundly grateful when it happens. You simply want to tend that spark passing along... instead of what most of our communication winds up being throughout the mundane banality of life, really mostly words. You can capture it with camera clicks, but it really doesn't exist. Just photons striking artificial surfaces, elevating craft to the level of art. Yet the images created can be so profoundly tangible, so powerful.
10. WHICH ARE THE DRIVING FORCES FOR YOU PERSONALLY AND IN YOUR WORK?
I want to do something as good as my heroes have done. First I need to believe in who I am and in what I am doing, that it is important and worthy and beautiful. It needs to make me stop and want to drink it in. Few things satisfy me as much as when I am also witness to that in another whose eyes I may have spurred to open – that affirmation in someone else enjoying something enough to want to take it home with them. It is such a satisfied feeling. You're fighting with every ounce you have, eyes wide open with every step and climb and technical mastery you can possibly fathom, with all your heart and soul, to make sure that you will love it forever. And when it doesn't quite turn out that way it is painful!
11. WHICH FEELINGS DETERMINE YOUR WORK WHEN OUT IN THE FIELD?
Amazement, reverence and pure delight. Literal rushes of excitement and happiness. When I really do come upon a marvelous thing of beauty, or sheer poignancy, it commands my attention with an all-abiding effort to capture it like a rare shimmering butterfly (I am also a lepidopterist). It is about attaining a deeper sense of place. With the right concentration, it sometimes seems as if we can create the very light we are looking for. But it happens best from a stillpoint, the calm center of ourselves, that place the Buddhist mind must ultimately come to occupy within our own hearts... indeed when we surrender to grace itself flowing through us. I relish working at dawn. It is the time of traditional mysticism and spiritual practice, when the land is quiet and I can hear the inner music through a spiritual crack where the light is let into the soul. Photographs can be such precious little marvels of seeing, can they not? "Dreams locked in silver", as my cherished friend Caponigro likes to say.
12. ON WHICH CRITERIA DO YOU JUDGE YOUR OWN WORK AS SUCCESSFUL?
The primary question for me to satisfy is whether the light, composition and resolution were sufficiently exquisite and satisfying to warrant the protracted effort of printing it. Is it visually and emotionally compelling? Is it singular and arresting? I am always in search of the mysterious, the elusive, the evocative. As for the printing itself, I feel well aligned with Wynn Bullock when he wrote, "I don't want to distort the reality of the image, but I don't want to distort the reality of my feelings for it either. The two go hand in hand. I have no qualms about altering the image by burning and dodging. I'm not a purist in that way. I am a purist in that I don't want the manipulation to show. As soon as it does, the magic is destroyed."
13. YOUR PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK AND THE BEAUTY OF OUR PLANET, NATURE: WHAT CONNECTION DO YOU SEE?
Wilderness landscape is relentlessly authentic and restorative. It will outnumber you and it will humble you. The mystery, vastness and fear of untrammeled wildness comes from infinite detail that invites inspection from any direction and at every scale. Some exquisite paths cannot be discovered without even getting lost. As photographers we sometimes feel like the seismographers of life, and this awareness, and the health of the planet. As purveyors of beauty and perception, we then have the audacity to call it reality! But we are beholden to struggle quite hard to protect this astonishingly beautiful, fragile and mesmerizingly sublime little ball. I believe we should thereby help shoulder the responsibility of preserving it by sharing our precious hard-won visions with our fellow inhabitants.
14. ASSUMING YOU WOULD HAVE 15 MINUTES ON A TV BROADCAST AND PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD COULD LISTEN AND UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WERE SAYING, WHAT WOULD BE THE CORE OF YOUR MESSAGE TO THE PEOPLE?
We need to appreciate and hold sacred this magnificent Mother Earth and are place upon it. The Tibetans, the Burmese, indigenous first peoples... I've been present to their profound heartfelt emotion when the truth of a moment is reflected in the eyes as an expression of their souls and hearts, hearts that are so warm and loving, eyes buried deep from their doing. Irrespective of the imperatives of technology and cultural advancement, I personally see no conflict between such a naturalistic worldview and the artistic imagination. I used to toil in physical science which gave me solid grounding in the importance of evidence and critical thinking, with extreme and tireless attention to detail that also serves me well in photography. But I still always had to think creatively to progress, in order to come up with new hypotheses and experiments to test them, and at the same time to ceaselessly respect the environment we are so blessed with. There is simply no other way but for us to finally set aside our petty differences of race, culture, politics, resources... and finally become responsible stewards.
»When I really do come upon a marvelous thing of beauty, or sheer poignancy, it commands my attention with an all-abiding effort to capture it like a rare shimmering butterfly.«