I believe a photograph, like a good painting or a well-composed piece of music, has the power to transform a person from a passive viewer to an active participant in the art. Art is first created for the spirit of the creator, and then if the decision is made, it is put in front of the world to be viewed. This is where the magic of art happens. If the artwork strikes the right chord in viewers, they will become entranced with it and treasure the feelings they receive through the experience. If those feelings compel people to make a difference in the world, whether that difference is protecting wilderness from the encroachment of man or simply smiling to a stranger they pass on the street, to me then, the photograph is a success.
Excerpted from a letter written by Paul Gruchow to Nathanael Kuenzli:
"I have had the opportunity to linger over your beautiful photographs. I'm not a photographer, of course, but these photographs speak to me deeply. I'm struck by how much these scenes remind me of the countryside I now live in. Maybe this says that the photographs themselves have a universal quality. In any case, you have given me great pleasure."
Paul Gruchow, May 1999
Born in 1981, Nathanael Kuenzli started carrying a camera with him at the age of four. Although the camera did not have any film in it, he would walk around his backyard composing photographs of the plants and trees. "I can still remember some of the subjects I was composing images of at that age: they were the subtle details in the landscape. It is still those subtle, quiet details that capture my imagination and are most compelling to me."
At the age of ten Kuenzli was taken out of standard schooling to focus his studies primarily on photography. His new education centered on understanding the landscape, artistic composition and music. Traveling also became an important part of his life. "As soon as I had my drivers license I was driving around the country photographing. Traveling alone allowed me to immerse myself in the landscape, often spending a whole day by a waterfall or an outcrop of rock."
It was this slow, methodical way of working that made photographing with a large format view camera come naturally. "I find it very gratifying to spend the time setting up the view camera. The rhythm and weight of working with the different pieces of the camera, and the separation that the dark cloth gives helps to purify my vision of the subject I'm working with."
Kuenzli is drawn to the quiet corners of the natural world and enjoys traveling and living simply out of the back of his truck. "Working seasonal jobs allows me the time to travel. But also, just as important, it allows long periods of time when I can work in the studio printing. I find the creative work of printing to be as enjoyable as the time in the wildness making the photographs."
When not traveling, Kuenzli makes his home on the North Shore of Lake Superior among the lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior.
A large format camera is used to make all landscape photographs
Toyo 4x5 AII field view camera with Schneider lenses and focusing loupe
Gnass Gear focusing cloth
Pentax Digital Spot meter
Fuji Velvia sheet film, Polaroid instant sheet film
Gitzo tripod with Kirk Enterprises ballhead
Equipment is carried in a Granite Gear expedition backpack. Inside the backpack is a waterproof soft-sided case made for anglers by Patagonia (invaluable when photographing in the rain). Photobackpacker cases are used to organize the equipment inside the waterproof case. The pack weighs about 65 pounds when fully loaded.
MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPHS
Photography has been my brother's passion for as long as I can remember. No matter where we went when I was little, Nathanael's camera was never far away. And his passion has only grown with time. When I was seventeen we left on our first photography trip together. We spent seven weeks traveling in the Southwest and camping out of the back of his small car. It was on that trip that I first took a deep interest in the methods and work his large format photography involves. Since then I've always appreciated being a part of the process, observing the mind of an artist at work and seeing the world in a new dimension.
We've had the opportunity to travel together extensively for Nathanael's photography. Our travels have concentrated primarily in the desert Southwest with additional forays into the Pacific Northwest and the high mountains of Montana and Colorado. The early spring and late autumn of the desert correspond with the time of year we are able to travel--times when daily jobs can be put aside for awhile. By spending an extended amount of time in one area we can learn the moods of the landscape and light, and explore the hidden corners that most people pass by. We're always sure to maintain a flexible schedule, which allows us to go where the weather and season seem most promising for photography. When we arrive at each new place on our journey we're never sure if we'll be there for a few days or for weeks. If spring is late in coming and brownness pervades the landscape we spend many hours poring over maps and figuring out where to go next.
While living on the road, photography is a continual process. It involves constantly thinking ahead and looking at the landscape with all of our senses. Even in harsh noon light we are always calculating how the evening light will change the rocks, water and trees. While we're in camp a sense of focus descends as soon as we wake. Breakfast revolves around map reading and figuring out what to explore that day, exposed film is exchanged for fresh film and sandwiches are thrown together with great efficiency.
While out hiking for the day we both carry packs full of immensely heavy camera gear. The packs are difficult to lift, not to mention unwieldy to carry. We traverse every kind of terrain, from backcountry trails to brambly unnamed canyons, and we carry rope to lower our packs down small cliffs. It isn't uncommon to hike for several hours before Nathanael finds something he wants to photograph. If the light or the weather isn't right we'll have to return later, and we often end up hiking the same stretch of terrain many times.
Most days we are out late looking for photographs. Often when darkness falls we have a long hike by headlamp and a drive ahead of us before we reach camp, hungry and exhausted. If we are staying in a campground the surrounding campfires are dying out, and other people are asleep by the time we return for the night and heat up a quick dinner. The following morning we're up early getting ready for another long day. It's not a way most people would choose to spend weeks in a row.
Of course, there are breaks in the routine. At night, hours may be spent playing backgammon under starry skies, and an empty campground easily transforms into a Frisbee field. A grocery store parking lot can serve as an impromptu picnic spot after buying supplies. Sitting on a curb eating tortillas piled high with fresh vegetables and watching people come and go can be surprisingly rejuvenating after a long day. And a trip to the grocery store always means cookies or a container of ice cream that must be eaten in one sitting before it melts.
But when Nathanael is photographing everything centers on a single objective, and he becomes distant in deep concentration. While he's composing an image he rarely hears me if I talk as he works under the focusing cloth. It is only after the last bit of fading light disappears that he becomes conscious of anything other than the photograph he is working on. Hours at a time may pass like this--patiently waiting for the light, or for the wind to pause its seemingly ceaseless rustle of the leaves. There is a rush of relief when an exposure is finally made. The process of making one photograph often takes several days to complete.
While I have many vivid memories of the places he has photographed--the Grand Canyon at sunrise, the fading light on the sand dunes of Death Valley, the intensified colors as evening descends on Fisher Towers--Nathanael describes his concentration as being so great that he has no memory of what our surroundings looked like outside the focusing cloth.
Nathanael has the ability to find his compositions among the jumbled disarray of the natural world where most people would see nothing of value. But when the camera is positioned, and a test Polaroid exposed, suddenly there is a simplicity in the chaos, a rhythm to the ordinary, a balanced weight in a sea of possibilities.