The Creators of NYC: Polaroid Photographer Mikael Kennedy
Josh Wool spent a decade as an executive chef, opening restaurants across the south. But all that changed in 2010, when the carpal tunnel in his hands meant he could no longer work. To keep from going stir crazy, he picked up a camera and found his next calling. Two years, thousands of portraits, and a move to New York later, Wool is documenting the people who inspire him on a daily basis. Welcome to Creators of NYC.
Mikael Kennedy is a travel-adventure photographer who specializes in Polaroids. He has documented his life and travels — from the jungles of Puerto Rico to the woods of Maine — for more than a decade, all housed on a travel blog called Passport to Trespass. I met with Mikael in his Greenpoint apartment to turn the lens on him.
What drew you to Polaroids?
The initial interest was purely aesthetic and functional; nothing else looked like a Polaroid, and as I was travelling and broke I didn’t have access to a darkroom. Polaroid being a self-contained process was a huge draw. There is also something inherently magical about a Polaroid; it’s a tactile experience. You are holding a photograph in your hand while it develops.
A decade later, do they still have that same magic for you?
I am currently only exhibiting Polaroids because they have become art objects instead of photographs. I have very little interest in photography, actually, but being able to hang a piece in an exhibit and tell someone, “That’s it, that’s the only one in existence” is important to me. It’s like a painting. I like the fact that with a Polaroid you know, first of all there, that there is no manipulation in the image, there is no zoom lens — the person who took it stood there in that moment, that distance from the subject, and held that photo in their hands. We are over-saturated with images both in the real world and online that I think the weight of an image has changed, so it is important to me that what I am creating is a physical object.
You come from a DIY background. Does that approach still apply to your work?
The position I always took in making art, or books, or doing shows has always been based on the old punk rock DIY world that I grew up with. The idea was basically if we weren’t invited to your party, then we would make our own. We would set up our own shows, print our own books, albums, everything. I spent a lot of time wandering the U.S. with my friends’ bands, watching them play in basements or silkscreening their own T-shirts and record covers. They weren’t able or allowed or often interested in participating in the music industry that existed, so they just said “fuck it” and built their own community. So why couldn’t we do that with art? Why would you need someone’s permission to put on a show? My first book was printed after hours at a Kinko’s in Portland, Oregon, where a friend of mine worked. I’d send him the files and he would print the pages when no one was looking, and then shipped them back to me to assemble. These days it’s a more refined process, but I would rather have a handmade book or a limited zine from an artist I like than a book I bought at Barnes & Noble.
How has living in New York affected your art?
I have a weird relationship with NYC. I’m not here all that often, but I realize that in many ways it’s one of the only places I’m able to do what I do, to live my life like this, constantly on the road but still having a home. I always talk about leaving and moving back to the country, but there is that energy here that keeps me, and New York has really afforded me a lot of opportunities that I’m not sure would have happened anywhere else.
Has the internet age helped or hurt the art world?
The internet has been the great democratizer in many ways: bands don’t need labels, they can record and distribute their work on their own. Same with artists. Now because anyone can do these things there’s a lot of noise and clutter to sift through, but I kind of think you just put your head down and focus on what you are doing, and you will be fine.
Is it ever difficult to balance personal work and commercial projects?
You know, you hear photographers who start shooting commercially complain all the time about the lack of time or drive for personal work. I guess it really depends on what you’re in this for. My commercial work has in so many ways liberated my personal work or my art. It funds what I want to do artistically, and everybody has to have a job. There is something remarkably liberating in not caring about whether a show sells. It becomes entirely about the vision of the body of work, and nothing else. Of course things get busy, and sometimes I can’t always do exactly what I want at the time, but honestly my personal work is less based on photography and more on living my life … to me that is the art, so in the end it’s all the same, I just want to travel and explore and live a good life.
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