Alan Henriksen: Contrapuntal Vision
Balance is the keyword of Alan Henriksen’s intimate and elegant imagery, from his black-and-white landscapes of Hawaii, Maine, California and New York to his recent color photographs of an antique dealer’s establishment in Bar Harbor. Henriksen takes pains to ensure that no single element dominates the frame, and that each piece of the composition carries equal weight. It’s an interesting approach, one that’s well suited to his exploration of natural terrain where growth often coexists with decay. Born in 1949 in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York, Henriksen began taking photographs at the age of nine, and has found frequent exhibition outlets for work that combines acute visual clarity with a highly personal emotional impressionism.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I am employed as a software engineer. From 1974 through 1983 I worked as a sensitometrist and software engineer at Agfa-Gevaert’s photo paper manufacturing plant in Shoreham, Long Island—which was formerly Nicola Tesla’s laboratory. One of the papers we coated was a contact-printing paper called Contactone. This was a paper once used by Cole Weston to print his father’s negatives. One perk I enjoyed was that I was permitted to take outdated paper from the lab, enabling me to spend countless hours printing my 8 x 10 negatives without having to be concerned about the cost of the photo paper.
When did you start taking photographs, and what provoked your interest in the medium?
Although I began photographing in 1958 and making prints on print-out paper in 1959, photography was just one of my many hobbies until 1964, when I discovered the photography of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Strand during a visit to my local library. My response to the Weston photos in Peter Pollack’s The Picture History of Photography was so overwhelming that I knew at that moment that photography would become my lifelong passion. In retrospect, I feel that my previous experience with print-out paper prepared me to appreciate the beauty I saw in those photos.
What other influences helped direct the course of your work?
Early on I read every photography book and magazine I could get my hands on. During that period, the greatest influence on the development of my seeing and on my ideas about photography was Edward Weston, which he communicated through both his photography and his writing. One line from his Daybooks—“Whenever I can feel a Bach fugue in my work I know I have arrived”—led to my interest in the music of J.S. Bach, and I would often listen to recordings of Bach’s music while looking through books of Weston’s photographs. Weston and Bach have been, in a sense, lifelong companions, and I hold each of them in the highest esteem. One side note: To my mind many of Weston’s finest works don’t seem fugal at all, but instead have the transcendent sweetness of a Bach aria.
Rock, Point Lobos, 1998
I took great interest in the work of many other photographers, including Brett Weston, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Caponigro and Ansel Adams. I was honored to know Adams not only through his photography, but also as a friend and mentor. In 1967 I did a very brash thing by mailing him some of my photos and asking for advice about pursuing a career in fine art photography. He replied with a two-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter expressing his opinion that it was unwise for anyone interested in photography as an art to pursue a career in photography merely to earn a living. After praising my “seeing,” he said he would like to follow the progress of my work and invited me to send him more prints whenever I felt I had made some progress. He concluded by saying, “You have something to say, and world needs all it can get of creative beauty.” I continued my correspondence, as well as occasional phone conversations, with Adams until 1970, when I attended his Yosemite Workshop. I kept in touch afterward, and from late 1977 through mid-1978 got to work with him and with Paul Caponigro on David Vestal’s project for Popular Photography magazine concerning the declining quality of photo paper at that time. During this period I also became acquainted with a truly great photographer, William Clift, with whom I have since had countless engaging conversations on photography.
How would you characterize your own work in terms of music? I feel that it has a chamber music quality.
The music of Bach is what I’m really closest to. I think my work could be called contrapuntal. I don’t have a single element that stands out as being “the” subject. In contrapuntal music, every part is important. That’s what I like to do in my photographs. I don’t make images of an isolated subject with a background supporting it.
Leaves and Rusty Can, Super's Junkin' Company
Bar Harbor, Maine, 2008
When did you start shooting color?
My color work began in fits and starts in 2005, after I acquired my first digital SLR. Then in 2008, right before I left for a trip to the Maine coast, Bill Clift and I were discussing his color work, and he asked whether I had been doing anything in color now that I owned a digital camera. That was enough to put the wheels in motion, and I decided soon afterwards to visit Super’s Junkin’ Company in Bar Harbor, a place I had driven past but never visited, and to work in color as well as black and white.
Not that it’s all that important, but do you work with film or digital? Or both?
I work in both film and digital, although most of my recent photographs (including this series) have been made with a digital SLR. In the past I’ve worked with 8x10 and 4x5 view cameras, as well as a medium-format SLR. I plan to use the view cameras again in the not too distant future.
What was your thinking in terms of shooting this series in both color and black and white?
I enjoyed the challenge of deciding on the spot whether to organize each composition in terms of luminance or color. Of course, since I was photographing with a digital camera, I was free to change my mind afterward, during the editing phase. Ansel Adams was fond of saying that the photographer should visualize compositions in chords of tones. I have found that this notion, extended to color photography, is perhaps even more closely aligned with the idea of a musical chord. Chords of colors can create feelings equivalent to the experience of consonance or dissonance in music. And, as we all know, colors can clash, which can be a good thing. I’ll never stop working in black and white, but color opens up whole new dimensions. The kinds of moods you can get in color are impossible in black and white. And vice-versa.
Leaves and Trash, Super's Junkin' Company
Bar Harbor, Maine, 2008
I love the color palette. It’s full of strange tonalities that evoke both growth and decay. Is this intentional? And are these found colors, or do you tweak them slightly in Photoshop?
To answer your second question first, many of the colors in these photos were altered while editing in Photoshop. My goal is always to produce a photograph that is true to what I feel about life as a whole. When working in black and white the photographer manipulates gray values and contrast, globally and locally, to achieve the ultimate expressive print. By extension, when working in color the photographer can also manipulate hue and saturation. I like to paraphrase a line from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style: A change to a photograph, however slight, produces a corresponding change in meaning, however slight.
Although I wasn’t literally thinking in terms of growth and decay, those terms do approximate part of what I was feeling when I made these photos. I accept without sentimentality the idea that ordered systems, such as living things and manufactured objects, are a temporary bulwark against entropy.
The images are very tactile; you can almost feel the dankness in images like “Leaves and Trash” and “Leaves and Rusty Can.” I don’t think black and white would impart the same effect.
The tactile quality of my photographs no doubt stems from my early experience working with large-format cameras. The rendition of texture and substance is still central to my visual “language,” even when working with a digital SLR. When I chose the images to include in this series, it was important to me that the color relationships were vital to the overall feeling I was trying to communicate.
Kelp Seawall, Maine, 2006
You seem drawn to subject matter that’s in a state of decay. Even your black-and-white landscape images are often evocative of a sense of things breaking down, whether organic or inorganic in nature. Why does this type of subject matter resonate so strongly for you?
It may be coincidental, but just days before I began photographing this series, I finished reading Alan Weisman’s excellent book, The World Without Us, which speculates upon what might happen to various manmade systems were mankind to suddenly vanish. Although I was not consciously reflecting upon the book while photographing, newly processed ideas sometimes have a way of insinuating their way into my compositions.
Put another way, you make decay very seductive from a visual perspective. Any comment?
I’ve been photographing along the Maine coast for over 40 years, principally in Acadia National Park and its environs, a region whose natural scene is at once idyllic and harsh. In any given patch of forest one will typically see young saplings and healthy trees intermingled with storm-toppled trees, some still leaning, others lying on the forest floor in various states of decay. And the coast is lined with storm- and surf-battered rocks, whose forms and textures speak of their primal past. So it’s a good place to contemplate the cyclical nature of both living and non-living things. In my photography I am devoted to trying to communicate my sense of the world, colored, no doubt, by my idiosyncratic history of photographic encounters.
Pond Foam, Somesville, Maine, 2007
The natural environment seems to be your primary focus. When you do photograph a location that bears the imprint of people, it’s an antique shop full of castoff, obsolete items. And it’s interesting that you photograph it in such a way as to show nature gradually reclaiming this space. Is there an implicit commentary implied here?
If there is, it’s purely subconscious. I don’t actually think that way at all. In fact, if you were to tap into my brain while I’m photographing, you’d find it pretty boring. I’m not thinking philosophically while I’m photographing. An important point that Bill Clift has driven home over the years is that when you photograph you really need to be completely innocent. That’s something I believe. Words tend to get in the way. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t these other influences. Any number of photographers shooting the same scene will come back with different images, completely different perspectives on life. I believe that keeping the verbiage out gives all of my unconscious equal access, equal opportunity for expression. I find beauty first of all in the combination of textures and forms and lines. I try to think in terms of the overall experience of the photograph, and to get as much of who I am into the image. Having said that, I think there’s a mixture of hope and dread regarding the future of mankind. I think that’s worked its way in there.
You pack a lot of visual information into each frame, but somehow avoid making things feel claustrophobic. Are you conscious of these kinds of pictorial dynamics when you’re composing an image?
It is important to me that every compositional element contributes something to the overall statement. An artist in any other medium, whether it be painting, sculpture, music or dance, would never permit extraneous, distracting elements to remain in a composition, and I feel the same way about my photography. Aside from that concern, I admit that I greatly enjoy the challenge of working with complex, visually dense subjects, puzzling out what I hope are meaningful compositional solutions along the way. I realize that in so doing I am walking a knife’s edge, the other side of which lies the dreaded specter of multiplicity.
Weeds and Junk, Super's Junkin' Company
Bar Harbor, Maine, 2008
Certain of the Super’s Junkin’ images—through a symbiosis of color, framing and perspective—are suggestive of hidden depths, spatially and metaphorically. It’s as if there are stranger and perhaps more abstract dimensions lurking just beneath the surface.
Thank you very much for that observation, and you are absolutely correct. For starters, the photographer can play with appearance of space and scale (which, after all, is always an illusion) by the degree to which context is either included or excluded. Ansel Adams was a master of creating a sense of physical dimensionality, which he called presence. But these aspects of apparent space are, for me, subordinate to the overarching goal of consciousness-raising. I like to say that as photographers we are limited to the two spatial dimensions of the print, but there is no limit to the number of dimensions of experience.
When you say consciousness-raising, are you referring to yours, the viewer’s, or both?
I think in some ways the goal of the artist is similar to that of a scientist; the artists that are preserved throughout history are the ones that actually added something—a new concept, a new of looking, a new perspective. They weren’t simply rehashing what came before them. Even in traditional photography, I think there will be new things happening several hundred years from now, if people are still photographing. Even though they will be going to the very same places that we go today, the same subject matter, and so on.
Is this an ongoing series?
Yes. In fact, in 2009 I returned to Super’s Junkin’ Company and other nearby antique shops, and made additional photographs for this series.
How do your see your work developing in the future?
I hope to continue photographing the landscape, naturalistic details, and modern-day cultural artifacts of the Maine coast and Long Island. Once I retire from my current career as a software engineer, I expect that I will begin to seek out other venues and projects.
Ice and Puddle, Nissequogue, NY, 1976
(Pay a visit to Alan Henriksen’s fine website to see more of his work: www.alanhenriksen.com. I profiled him in issue #8 of COLOR magazine.)