Born in Philadelphia, Richard Kagan is a photographer and former furniture maker whose artistic career took a curiously circuitous path. He began as a self-taught street photographer while a student at Temple University. However, after leaving college to practice Buddhism under a visiting Japanese Zen Master in New York, Kagan became impassioned with the silent eloquence of handmade objects and pawned his camera to buy woodworking tools.
Following several years of apprenticeships, Kagan opened his own furniture workshop and founded the Richard Kagan Gallery—the first nationally recognized gallery for contemporary furniture artists. He taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (University of the Arts) for 10 years and exhibited furniture in museums and art institutions throughout the U.S. A back injury put an unexpected end to his woodworking career and opened the possibility to return to photography, thus bringing him back to where he began.
Beginning photography again in 1988, with academic studies and assisting other photographers, Kagan went on to have solo photography exhibitions in the United States, Great Britain, and South America. He taught photography at Drexel University in the mid-1990s. An early grant from the Arts Council of Wales enabled an extended project in the U.K. and Europe, culminating in an exhibition at the Royal National Eisteddfod. That project solidified a love of landscape photography first begun in Italy some years before.
Not surprisingly Kagan brought to photography some of the same aesthetic concerns with which he made furniture—a quest for quiet, understated, and elegant forms. His main bodies of work include Land/Spirit/Sky, landscapes photographed primarily in Europe; Iron Portraits, a series of austere yet sensuous portraits of antique tools and objects; and Blurred Time: Sacred Places In Kyoto, nighttime photographs taken on the grounds of temples and shrines in Japan (and on exhibit at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral).
[click on any image to enlarge]
EXHAUST MUFFLER No. 1 (2008) | Floating in a black space, a fallen-off and run over, rusty automobile exhaust muffler. How ordinary and how humble in its sensuous skin of iron. And, like us, how vulnerable and how precious. I picked this up on the street as a 21-year-old living in New York’s East Village. Some 40 years later I photographed it.
EXHAUST MUFFLER No. 2 (2008) | Another muffler which, after I photographed it, I realized was influenced by a single still life painting that I also discovered at 21, and which had a profound influence on everything I’ve ever done. (Dali, Basket of Bread, 1945 — the year I was born. Not to be confused with his earlier version.) So many of my photographs have been about making something so absolutely still and yet possessed of an internal icon-like energy. Stillness is a major link between the objects and the landscapes, I think.
OIL CAN WITH LONG NECK (2004) | How could I not photograph this proud, elegant, oil can?
RECUMBENT SHEARS (1992) | About 14 inches long, this rusty pair of shears, like all of the objects I photograph, are just things that are part of my life. They live on shelves or stands throughout my home and studio.
DANCING PLIERS (2005) | For 20 years, prior to my career as a photographer, I worked with hand tools on a daily basis as a furniture maker. Working with wood was an expression of reverence and sensuality and I gave it up only as the result of a back injury. The silver lining in that dark cloud was that I got to pursue an earlier love, photography. Nonetheless, I am still inspired by the gentle grace and beauty of handheld tools.
SUGAR NIPPERS (2008) | Two centuries ago, sugar nippers were used by the wealthy, for table or kitchen use, to cut small pieces of sugar from conical shaped sugar loaves.
NEAR SIENA Tuscany, Italy (1990) | A clump of Italian cypress trees amidst a farmer’s land. This was the first of my landscape images. It spawned a decade of landscape photographs throughout Europe, the U.K., and Ireland.
CHAPEL OF THE MADONNA Tuscany, Italy (2001) | I knew I wanted to photograph this little family chapel with its two cypress trees, but it took a long afternoon of searching for the perfect point of view. In the actual (print) photograph, the chapel is bright white, while the rest of the image is a warm pink — a laborious technique of chemical split toning that affects the various tones of a black and white photo differently. In Photoshop it would only take two minutes.
RETURN TO GRANADA Andalusia, Spain (2000) | I like to photograph at night, though it has its own problems. During the 8-minute exposure that produced this photo, I covered the lens with a hat when cars were approaching. Somehow, I didn’t hear this car and thought the headlights had ruined the photo, but actually it’s what made it. Drawn to this image, but not happy with what I was getting, I worked on it in the darkroom for several days. Ultimately, I eliminated a house, tree, and other extraneous information.
PARQUE DE DOÑANA Andalusia, Spain (2000) | To make this photograph, I remember standing on a rental car roof with the 2 legs of the tripod astride my own and the 3rd tripod leg precariously perched on the top rail of a chain-link fence. A strong wind threatened to throw the camera, tripod and me over the fence. Stillness is a balm for the confusion of my life.
MONTURQUE Andalusia, Spain (2000) | What a joy when after days of fruitless searching, a horse, a building, and a hole in the clouds came together for the camera’s delight!
CAMPO DE SAN JUAN La Mancha, Spain (2000) | In Spain, I followed the route of Don Quixote along the path of Cervantes’ near-mythical hero.
The photographs in the Iron Portraits series were taken with a view camera — the old-style camera with a 4 x 5″ negative. The prints were made in a traditional wet darkroom in sizes ranging from 16 x 20″ to 36 x 46″.
The photographs in the Land/Spirit/Sky series were taken with Kodak 2475 Recording Film, a special purpose film with a very grainy, soft-focus quality that at times can resemble a drawing or mezzotint. They are 8 x 10″ and were also made in a darkroom.
Photo by James Blocker.
A native of Philadelphia and a former furniture maker, Richard Kagan has been teaching, traveling, and photographing for over thirty years. When he is not in his darkroom hand crafting the fine nuances of black and white prints, or on the computer making color ones, he enjoys reading (Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), meditating (on the mysteries of importing his AOL contacts into Gmail), and his cat (Takuhatsu). “I take relatively few photographs, compared to some photographers, but I spend a lot of time making work prints and thinking about each image on the contact sheet. I look for trends, I look for what’s happening that is consistently running through the contacts as well as for new directions. And from that I discover something about how I see.” Visit Richard’s website at richardkaganphoto.com for more photos and interviews.