Wanderlust: A One Question Interview with Mikael Kennedy

By

Mikael Kennedy

“Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.” – Carl Jung (Memories, Dreams Reflections)

On an island, when I was a young man, I made a young man’s mistake. I made the mistake in front of about 30 people; all whom I worked with, all whom I lived in close quarters with, all friends. The morning after, groggy and ashamed (as ashamed as a young man can be at least) I got myself out of work and onto a boat headed to the nearest port town. Mikael Kennedy was on the same boat and, halfway to the coast, he took my picture. I had a cigarette in my hand and regret on my face.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco. Not long after my arrival Mikael breezed through the city on one of his many cross-country explorations. I can’t remember where he was coming from, nor did I know where he was headed. But that’s the way Mikael is on the mainland, somehow still connected through dirt to the sea.

We met at a nondescript San Francisco bar and drank  until it was time to leave. Before we parted ways I stood under a Mikael Kennedystreetlamp, my shirt off, beer gut hanging over my belt, fists raised up against nothing in particular. Mikael took out his Polaroid camera and snapped my picture.

The next morning I woke up with cuts on my face (the whiskey’s fault, not Mikael’s) and a photograph. That was three years ago.

Between continental expeditions Mikael’s work has shown up in galleries, he has photographed models, and he has published books of photography from his travels. Upon hearing of his latest series, The Odysseus, I decided it was time to get back in touch. I asked him “why?” This is his response:

Mikael Kennedy: Let’s start with the artist statement from my latest project… that really sums up a lot of what is going on in my head these days:

“The Odysseus series is grounded in the fundamental theme from the classical myth The Odyssey; a solitary character on a journey. In this series of photographs it is the perspective of the character with which we are concerned, as one who represents exploration, wanderlust, searching, and isolation. In The Odyssey, the character begins his story sitting on the shore staring at a “wine dark ocean” longing for his home. This is where we begin, staring out into the horizon with a sense of longing, absence or lack and from there wander out into a world that is both foreign and familiar in its terrain.

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The images that make up this story are American landscapes photographed during years 2006 to 2009. The American landscape itself, once a symbol of exploration and isolation, the wild west, the new world, is generally no longer viewed as uncharted territory or undiscovered land. This collection of photographs revisits that perspective: the one of cresting the hill to unknown plains or coastlines, reminiscent of the work of the Hudson River Painters and American exploration artists who were moved to capture and portray the vastness and isolation of this new world. The Odysseus becomes a journey through the vistas of America – this search is for a renewed vision of the land, a vision that carries both the excitement and isolation of exploration.”

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I often tell people that I am more of a storyteller than a photographer, or that I am more interested in the story or vision carried by a series of photographs than one individual image. I also think of all the stories in the end just blurring together, it will be the summation of a ‘life lived’. Recently I have become really interested in myths and symbolism and all those things that go into a story. I have been reading a lot to inform this project, concentrating for a period of time on Joseph Cambell‘s and Carl Jung‘s work, and branching out from there. Also lately I have become obsessed with early American landscape paintings. You can often find me wandering around the MET with a little notepad writing down things like “more photographs at dawn! you have missed half of the worlds light so far!” Really. That was one of my notes. Everything I see or hear or read somehow works its way into my work. I spent last winter studying the Mayan Calendar and crop circles and crystals. I was reading a lot of weird spiritual stuff about auras and shamans and vibrations.

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Travel has always been a central theme in my work, it is hard to say when the wanderlust began, maybe with the letters my older brother sent home when I was in high school and he was hopping freight trains around the country. I first started hitchhiking when I was 17, then I spent 5 months living out of my car driving around the United States which led to my thesis show in school called ‘kids life sucks.’ After school I spent years bouncing around the country living in art houses, working on an island called Star Island just off the coast of New Hampshire. All of those years turned into my first book ‘Still, Not Dead.’ During that time I became obsessed with Polaroid film and began carrying a Polaroid SX70 with me all the time shooting along side whatever other project I was working on. My friend Mandy Lamb (an amazing photographer) [Editor's note: I have a tattoo in her handwriting on my left arm] and I used to buy cases of expired film on ebay even when we were so broke that we were selling our blood to afford it.

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My Polaroid work has been the longest running continuous project, I’ve been shooting it for almost 10 years now, in the past 3 years the Polaroid projects have taken the form of a blog called Passport to Trespass. The Polaroid work is just a stream of consciousness really. I wander around taking pictures wherever I am and I start building these phrases into them that I keep repeating to myself over and over again until I post them on the blog. Then about every 6 months I collect all the images and release limited edition artists books.

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I have geared my life to allow me this lifestyle. Growing up I read a lot of anarchist and, what we called, self revolutionary theory. The most important thing to me became living my life and experiencing everything I could at least once. I use the term “a life lived” a lot. It lead me to some really odd places, like being a garbage man, or selling my blood to buy film, or moving to Serbia on a whim. One important distinction that I make in my life is that there is no difference between life and art. They are the same thing. The way you live your life is your art. I think the stories I tell with my work are just versions or interpretations of that life. Right now I live in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve been here over 3 years, which is the longest I have lived anywhere since I left home. I work in the fashion/advertising world, which is an odd business to say the least. But I feel really blessed these days finding a way to support myself in this business and then saving up and traveling every chance I get.

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All photos (save Polaroids) from Mikael’s latest series: The Odysseus. Prints are currently on sale at Eponymy, Smith + Butler, and Tauk.

More of Mikael’s work can be found at his website, and his often updated Polaroid blog, Passport to Trespass (I cannot recommend exploring Passport to Trespass enough). You can purchase his limited edition books based on his travels here.

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Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He has also written for The Bold Italic, McSweeney's, Mother Jones, and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is a co-owner of The Rumpus. Follow him on Twitter. More from this author →