Photography Is a Playground – an Interview with Kevin Kunstadt

Kevin Kunstadt is a photographer from New York who lives and works in Brooklyn. Since 2010 Kunstadt has produced several photographic projects in book form, on subjects as varied as: asphalt road resurfacing, gunpowder, scrap metal, and “sneakers, bricks, and politics.” These have been nominated for the Mack First Book Award, and shortlisted for the Kassel, Luma Rencontres, Fiebre, and La Fabrica Dummy Awards. He currently manages Penumbra Foundation’s Risograph Print and Publication Residency Program. Andy Pham spoke with him via Zoom about his image making and bookmaking practice.  

AP: My initial takeaway from your work is that it’s a lot more layered and complex than initially meets the eye. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the process, and experimentation and conceptualization play a large role in your final publications and projects.

KK: With a lot of my recent projects, there’s been this sort of technical and process-oriented aspect, which is cool and I’m into, but I’m a little bit fearful that that becomes too much the focus. My stance toward that is technique and process are great, but where does that get you? It’s just another tool. It’s just another arrow in the quiver. For example, I love using enlargement and scale, and when you start going down that world, the degradation that happens – which is maybe “wrong” if you’re in that sort of uptight high-fidelity photo mindset – I just see it as another tool for us as photographers to use. With instruments they talk about timbre. I feel like sometimes in the photo world everyone is using this very narrow range of the timbre of the instrument, whereas it can do all this other stuff. So I think that enlargement and graininess and lo-fi-ness – let’s explore it and not only use it, but let’s have fun. This is a playground. Let’s play.

I feel like sometimes in the photo world everyone is using this very narrow range of the timbre of the instrument, whereas it can do all this other stuff. So I think that enlargement and graininess and lo-fi-ness – let’s explore it and not only use it, but let’s have fun. This is a playground. Let’s play.

AP: Your book Police Department comprises only six photographs made within twelve seconds at a protest in 2020, which were then manipulated through a series of methods (cropped, enlarged, ran through a coded Python script) to create a halftone system that prepared the images for risograph printing. Flipping through the book, I couldn’t tell that the 24 resulting images came from just six initial photographs. Not only are you able to create variation within the imagery, but the halftone system renders the subjects (police officers in the NYPD) as inhuman and robotic – almost like video game characters, or pawns in a system they can’t control. What was the impetus for this work? How did you decide to use halftone risograph printing as the method that would best fit the images? And what message were you trying to get across with the project as a whole?

KK: So, I do want to get to your question about the messaging, but first I think that I’d like to back up a bit. The books Time = Color and Police Department come out of a singular exploratory path that I’ve been on, even though they look quite different. Basically, in the last five years after coming out of grad school I wanted to take on the challenge of how my images become an object. There was probably a lot of frustration as a young photographer – you look at these amazing books, like Steidl prints a book in quadtone ink on beautiful Munken paper, and you compare yourself to that and want that result, but it’s not realistically attainable, so what do you do? How do you make your work an object that you’re satisfied with?

So I started to explore different types of printing. At one point I became a member of a silkscreen studio and started printing silkscreens, and that’s what I think started this avalanche. Similar to risograph (both are stencil based technologies), it’s a halftone based process, meaning there’s no gradations of tone, and so to create the illusion of tone, you have to work with halftone dot patterns or something similar. When I started to enter that world, I actually became quite interested in this moment where an image becomes a print – it sort of feels like this split second which we take for granted, or we want it to go perfectly. I got interested in all these different processes of how do I fuck with the halftones and color separations, either by hand or in Photoshop or with a Python script? And what could that moment of halftoning, etc. actually add to the image, rather than just being an invisible process we hope not to see?

I have a project called Letter Box which has never been published that also contains a lot of activism and protest photography, so it’s just something that has been going on for a while now for me. Due to the chance that I was making those [Police Department] images around the time that I was playing around with this [Python half-toning] technique, I hit upon a way of combining them in a way that felt meaningful. I had much more complicated results that came out of that process, but I actually felt that the one that I published, which is quite simple – just lines and ovals – there was an emotional resonance to it that just worked, and sort of a neatness or a resolution there.

With Police Department, I went through all these gyrations of process and there’s this conceptual grounding, but then you get this new kind of image out of it, and you sit and look at it, and how does it make you feel? What does it make you think about? That’s ultimately the criteria for me. The trick with all these projects is finding that balance of these two poles where everything comes together. 

I obviously have my own personal opinions about the NYPD, but I hope that that’s not the overarching read of the book per se. What’s more interesting to me is the questioning of the systems and structures that we’re all a part of as humans. And then obviously the photographic apparatus is another type of rigid structure in play there too. 

I became quite interested in this moment where an image becomes a print – it sort of feels like this split second which we take for granted, or we want it to go perfectly.

AP: Some of your other projects are a bit more straightforward, while still retaining a conceptual feel that guides the imagery. Letter Box is nearly 50 images focused on “sneakers, bricks, and politics”. AWOL is striking in its study of the urban landscape. You seem to make photographs in a variety of styles and approaches, not being tied down to one aesthetic or specific subject matter. This is very interesting to me, as I appreciate photographers and artists whose work is constantly shifting instead of static. Can you talk a bit about the thought process that goes into making a new project? What guides your shooting style and the subjects that you end up focusing on? How does your personal relationship to the images you make dictate where they end up or how you use them?

KK: I am definitely attracted to those types of “shifty” artists as well! And I definitely feel like I can get bored quickly – once I feel that I resolved something, I just want to move on to the next thing. But to back up a bit – When I was younger, I grew up in New York City and I could never take pictures here. I always had to go somewhere else to see things fresh and new and to actually be paying attention. But I think there’s been a process of growth which I’m proud of where I eventually was able to figure out a way to make pictures here and start to see and look with attention. ONE-CAR-BAZAAR is literally made within not even half of one city block. Once I got over that hump, I kind of exploded things again for myself.  

I think we all have these things that we’re drawn to make pictures of, and almost always that’s a reflection of the person behind the camera in some way, which they may or may not be aware of, and at the same time it’s also a reflection of all the images that we’ve looked at, things that we know are more “photographable”, past images that we liked. All of that is happening when you go out with a camera. I like trees a lot, so I probably take an inordinate amount of pictures of trees. Life is short; let’s have fun. 

But the images also have their own life. I want to give them their best life. My images can have more than one home – maybe I have 25 pictures of birds out my window and they could live together but maybe one or two get extracted and live with a rocky landscape and that creates a new meaning. I think that’s really interesting and I love exploring that. Why tie things down? Usually if you pay attention to the images they end up leading you to the subject matter, to a certain extent.

AP: Your book design is another element of your practice that really intrigues me. You use a variety of sizes, layouts, and printing and binding methods. Each book or dummy is its own very specific object. ONE-CAR-BAZAAR for example is made using approximately 7” x 14” folded sheets of newsprint, resulting in a very unorthodox book size. All for the Best is a beautifully designed object – risograph printed in metallic gold ink on black paper and wire bound, creating a very textural feel to the book that supplements the imagery. How important is the design of your books to your overall practice?

KK: I love design and I like the process of designing books. For me it’s another opportunity to take the work somewhere. So every book you do a different dance of juggling these variables of – what does a book want to be, how much money do I have to make it, what size fits on the shelf or in your hands – these very practical considerations versus what’s the ideal format for the work. So for every book that’s different, and maybe there’s multiple solutions but once I find one solution I’m usually satisfied and I stop. In all of this it’s juggling these ends and how do you make them meet in a hopefully elegant way. Very often you maybe make an early mock-up or PDF or maquette, but it’s totally wrong so you have to change it all anyway. Very rarely does it stay the same through the process, and I think that’s what’s interesting about it every time. You don’t know the solution until you get there, much like making the work itself.  

AP: Nowadays, mass produced photobooks often are lacking in design elements that truly stand out or embellish the work in any way. Your books, however, are small and limited editions. How much does this allow you to focus more on design elements and choices?  

KK: On the one hand I can admit an envy about having a preordained format and you insert your images and you move on – there’s a lot you don’t have to worry about if you go that route – it definitely makes sense economically and in a lot of other ways, but then you sort of lose out on playing this game that I’m playing. I think it affords a certain freedom of exploration. If you’re into books and into figuring out problems like that, then it can be really interesting.

I like trees a lot, so I probably take an inordinate amount of pictures of trees. Life is short; let’s have fun. 

AP: In your latest book Time = Color, you use a method where you essentially layer, or embed, multiple images of the landscape onto each other, using different digital color channels, to create each image. This might be hard to imagine for someone who doesn’t have the book in front of them.  For example, images of rocks are “color shifted” to indicate the passage of time, which is fundamentally what photography is – capturing the passage of time. In one image, as the tide moves in and out and partially covers the rocks, the viewer can see this change represented in different cyan and magenta color layers.  

KK: In the simplest way possible, I would say: change over time results in deviations in color. Or, to zoom out further: the project is doing work in digital space to sort of better, or differently, represent physical space. There’s the question of the colors – which colors go where, and why – again, I try to allow myself to play a bit, because I can be a bit rigid and overly rigorous sometimes. I really wanted it to be fun and for that to come through. Even with the color there’s so much going on. Even the rocks have such a variation of color in and of themselves. There’s this relationship of color in the literal ground that I was maybe subconsciously aware of when making the pictures. It’s just to say that maybe I am making intuitive actions and actions by chance and using gravity and fluid dynamics, letting some things be out of my control, but then you’re also reacting to existing conditions of the color and the light that’s there, and for whatever reason certain combinations stand out to you.  

AP: To me, Time = Color is an act of “meta-photography” – using foundational elements of the medium to experiment more broadly with image making and to study aspects of your environment. This is something that interests me a lot – the ways that photographers are now using images to explore new ways of seeing something, or to make the viewer think a bit more about a project or series of images in some way, instead of just a simple process of shooting, editing, sequencing, and presenting images.

KK: I’m not totally sure that I’m a hundred percent conscious of it. In a way it’s like you’re attracted to something in the world and you follow that – wherever my initial ‘moth to the flame’ approach takes me, it then gets honed as I go.

AP: Looking through your website at your past projects, you often use different textual elements to supplement your images. For example, you’ve used a short story, a play, an interview, and even a recipe in your projects and publications. How important is it for you to use these different elements to broaden the scope of your work?  

KK: I somehow get to that point quite frequently where I want to use text, not in an explanatory way, but just to add a different note to things. ONE-CAR-BAZAAR actually has two different types of text, a fictional short story and an interview, and that sort of bookends the images. 

It seems pretty great that everyone is looking at images, and what would be too many or too few?  It really just highlights the fact that our roles as photographers or artists or human beings is, how do we create or find meaning in all of that?

AP: Your Instagram handle is @toomanyphotosintheworld. Do you believe there are too many photos in the world? Are we in an age where an over-inundation in images of all kinds necessitates that we make or seek out photographic work that somehow broadens our collective view of what photography can be or do?

KK: [Laughs] My Instagram handle literally was started as a joke. It was my anxiety and reaction to Instagram – a tongue in cheek response to basically calling Instagram what it is.  It’s not something I would actually purport to be worried about in a serious way. It seems pretty great that everyone is looking at images, and what would be too many or too few? It really just highlights the fact that our roles as photographers or artists or human beings is, how do we create or find meaning in all of that?

Kevin Kunstadt

All Rights Reserved: text © Andy Pham & Kevin Kunstadt;
Images © Kevin Kunstadt unless otherwise noted.