Photographer trespasses into our real world
June 13, 2001
Karen Schafer
Staff Writer

Submitted photo

Kim Kirkpatrick ventures into places "where nature and man meet." This color photograph, "Rockville," is a study in color and dramatic shapes.

In his 20 years as a photographer, Kim Kirkpatrick has had no interest in taking pictures of people -- other than the snapshots this househusband-by-day, photography-professor-by-night takes of his young daughters.

Kirkpatrick shoots landscapes. Instead of garden-variety sentimental sunsets or misty mountains, though, Kirkpatrick ventures into the region's construction and industrial zones to take photos, always ignoring the "No Trespassing" signs.

"I take pictures where nature and man meet, where one is taking over the other," he explains.

It's a world most people regularly pass -- and choose to ignore -- on the way to work or the store. He seeks beauty of a different kind: a mysterious meter box sticking out of some freshly bulldozed soil; a muddy puddle cordoned off with plastic ribbon; two blue stakes laying claim to a scraped-clean hillside.

Kirkpatrick gets annoyed when people label him a "construction site photographer." The place "isn't the point," he insists. "People will latch on to it. These images can be found behind the school, anywhere. You grow up thinking you have to be somewhere else to create art."

The 49-year-old Annandale, Va., native now lives in Silver Spring has watched the region change.

"I can remember before the Beltway was built. How do I stay sane in this landscape? I don't go around with blinders on," he says.

Even so, Kirkpatrick says, please don't call his photos political in nature. He prefers to talk about the photographic process. And his representative, gallery owner Sally Troyer, stands by that assessment: "I don't see it as political. It is glowing red dirt."

Troyer is a photographer herself and in her 19 years in the gallery business, she has "never seen work so sensitive to light and color. The light is luminous."

Kirkpatrick's cumbersome viewfinder camera, made famous by Ansel Adams, makes these high-resolution photos possible. Standing under a dark cloth, it takes at least five minutes to take one 8- by 10-inch negative. With such a large negative, the image "never falls apart, even when you get closer," Kirkpatrick says, explaining, "I want the detail that people miss."

Working in the early morning, when the light changes in a matter of minutes, patience and the willingness to return again and again is mandatory. In the decade Kirkpatrick has been photographing a cement factory, he has found only two images he likes.

Light, color and form aside, Kirkpatrick admits his work is "fairly radical" and "it is very difficult work for the average person to embrace." Still, he continues with optimism, "people like the poison ivy shot."

Shimmering orange against a wall, the ivy photo could be considered mainstream. Nevertheless, Kirkpatrick says, "I couldn't have shot the picture if it was just ivy. ... It must have an edge to it. I don't take trash out. I can shoot some pretty nasty stuff."

Troyer appreciates Kirkpatrick's exploration of this overlooked environment, mentioning a photo of a simple strip of construction metal that, in the right light, has been transformed into a luminous object.

But Troyer is also a practical businesswoman. She knows many people might like looking at atypical subject matter, but when it comes to pulling out their VISA cards, the pretty landscapes sell.

Fortunately for Troyer, in each exhibition, Kirkpatrick brings in a "few flowers, too," she adds.

Keep your head down

Kirkpatrick's fascination with the great outdoors began in childhood. "Like most kids I was looking at the ground," he recalls. "I was alone a lot. We always had a creek or a hollow near our house."

But he didn't just stay in the woods. His parents took him to art exhibits and he heard his jazz musician dad perform.

Like many youth growing up in the 1970s, Kirkpatrick dabbled. In college, he changed majors every six months; he worked as a DJ at a local radio station, then as a postman. He credits a photography class with finally setting him straight. Eventually he earned a bachelor's degree at the Corcoran School of Art and a master's degree at the University of Maryland. Now he teaches art at the Corcoran and the Smithsonian Institution. Best of all, his work is selling.

Kirkpatrick's plans to return to the region's industrial zones. But he is savvy; as usual, he'll take a buddy.

"I need someone there to cover my back. I can't run with it [viewfinder camera]," he says.

Did Ansel Adams have this kind of problem?

Kim Kirkpatrick's photographs are on exhibit through Saturday, June 16, at the Troyer Gallery, 1710 Connecticut Ave., N.W. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 202-328-7189.