karen kuehn
karen kuehn
born: long beach, ca
resides: new mexico
 
photo by brian caven

I was one of 6 kids in a merged family best characterized as the Brady Bunch meets David Lynch surrealism. My mom, oh so sturdy, worked as a purchasing agent, while my stepfather had a boat business racing for Johnson outboard motors. They struggled to feed all of us and provided a healthy physical lifestyle typical of California. We camped, fished, water-skied, and dirt biked regularly. Our household had many animals residing in it! Our neighborhood resembled many of those in the old Doris Day films, quaint and protected from outside realities.

   My stepfather Bud loved to take photographs. I managed to use his Nikon as I entered a beginning class at Cypress College in California. I didn't ever imagine myself being a photographer or an artist, even though that seemed to be the easiest outlet to express myself.  I always envisioned becoming a veterinarian. The funny thing is that I just took a few photo classes for fun with John Wycoff, Marshal Lacour, John Sexton and David Drake. Next thing I knew I was the freak in the class spewing out a multitude of ideas. I wasn't very good with the technical stuff at first--matter of fact I was a bonehead--but there was no shortage of ideas. I did the array of photo classes and graduated. Encouraged to go to the Art Center College of Design, I submitted a zone system style portfolio and got advanced placement 3rd term. It was a boot camp of a school. I did one term and removed myself for the sake of my soul. Having worked a few seasons as a National Park Ranger, I returned to Yosemite to gather my thoughts and escape the fast pace of education. I looked into other schools; Cal Arts was super and too expensive for me and the University of Arizona  looked good, but they seemed more academic and less hands on so I returned to Art Center for a couple more terms. I won a scholarship and completed all the classes. At that time, I was sort of an odd person for that institution, a free spirit. I think they have loosened up now. I graduated top off my class, which was a surprise to me. I was very happy about that for my parents, seeing how I was the only child that went on to school.

   Upon my exodus from Art Center, I received an internship from National Geographic, from the new director, Rich Clarkson. Bob Gilka was retiring and Tom Kennedy was coming on as Clarkson's associate. All of these gentlemen were very inspiring and thoughtful to me; a greenhorn. They made sure I was on the road a lot. My first gig was working on location near Mt. Kennedy with Barry Bishop (the first American to climb Mt. Everest) and Brad Washburn.  I was in heaven in the Yukon for weeks! I was and am so blessed with abundance.

   Clarkson and Kennedy suggested that I go to New York City. I choked and wanted to run to the Hungry Horse Newspaper for a job in Montana. Four weeks later, I arrived in NYC, visited approximately 38 editors and art directors, shot four jobs in two weeks and I haven't left yet!  Now 15 years later, one son, and many travels loaded with experiences not to be repeated, but embellished, I still love photography.

   Photography has given me so much more than I expected. One minute I'm working with a homeless person, and the next a murderer, or a super star. Always learning about life's gifts and how even though it feels limitless, a moment passes ever so quickly. One minute I'm on  top, another I'm not. Challenged by current trends to keep fresh, to decide what's important and map myself anew!

   When I started I worked mostly for New York Magazine. My first job was with Nan Goldin, another photographer with her own special reputation. It was such a contrast meeting for both of us, I think. She was living on the Bowery with her cat Milky. She had racks and racks of clothing, and I was living out of a backpack, kind of a clean cut California gal, inexperienced in the world of cities for true. I barely had a drink under my belt, when I slammed into Manhattan. Meeting Nan was like apple pie meets heroin chic. Laura Broadus and Susan Vermazon (The New York Magazine), Frannie Ruch (Elle) and Mark Jacobson (New Look magazine) kept me alive my first two years in New York.

   I came to New York with about $1000 in my pocket, 2 cameras, a Norman 200b and my backpack. I can't image doing that again! I was lucky to hook into a funky loft downtown where I lived for about 8 years. I was young and fresh. The photo community was very welcoming to me. My second year out, Peter Howe (the New York Times editor) gave me my first assignment with the magazine. For many years to come Kathy Ryan and her staff incorporated my style into the magazine. It was a great venue for a new photographer. I was working a lot for Interview's Marc Balet and Mark Jacobson. Then the Saturday Night Live show hired me for a season to photograph their television “bumpers.” That was a terrific opportunity. I continued to work with Bill Black, currently at Readers Digest. He gave me a number of traveling assignments doing black and white projects for Travel Holiday. Prior to that I worked for him at Travel & Leisure.

   As time moved forward I teamed up with an agent and pursued some advertising assignments. Currently I work editorial and advertising assignments. I enjoy both and as long as there's something to learn, I will always be taking pictures.

   Photography has given me a silent license to move in and out of many circles of life. I am grateful for this privilege and consider myself Blessed. Taking a picture doesn't mean stealing a soul if the subject allows it! A kind eye can reveal much emotion without sacrificing anyone's integrity. Sometimes what is real isn't so beautiful to the viewer's eyes. Sometimes I'll meet a person for the first time and they'll be emotionally in another space and not with me. I only have a short time to reveal a thread of what's actually shown. Sometimes I don't take a single shot ‘til a day later, sometimes not at all. I think curiosity is a good tool to map into a photograph--using my senses has always been key.

   In July of 2001 my son and I moved from the lower eastside of NYC to New Mexico. We love our life. We have expanded our little family to include roosters, chickens, dogs, donkey and horses. We cook out all the time and enjoy campfires and music with friends. Our life here is simple: we garden, cycle, do our art and music. Our dreams are made of living creatively and our goals are to travel, surf, camp and photograph. After spending 16 years in Manhattan this is a welcomed change of pace and a lovely way to live. I welcome all travel assignments and might mention that there's a huge saving shooting here in New Mexico as production costs are much lower than in the major cities.

   My life is my art and I have strong feelings about creating work to inspire people spiritually. The modern world has pushed so many species to extinction and confrontation. My dream is to touch society through photography—to evoke an emotional response and visually inspire mankind to express compassion for the Earth and the animals that share this planet.

Blessings to All

karen kuehn

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