Opened First Women Owned Photo Gallery in Los Angeles in 1987
By: Helen K. Garber
Copyright Helen K. Garber
Jan Kesner is a pioneer in the field of fine art photography. She was the first woman to open a photography gallery in Los Angeles with only G. Ray Hawkins to precede her.
Raised in Chicago, Jan's mother was the first to expose her to the visual arts. Jan knew that she was meant to pursue an art career by the time she was eight. She was an admirer of Edward Weston by the time she was twelve. Jan shot her first roll of film with a Kodak Instamatic camera the same year. Instead of taking typical family snapshots, she aimed her camera at the sky. She created abstract images of bare tree branches with that first roll of film. Jan started to work in her first boyfriend's darkroom at the age of thirteen and expressed her creativity through the process of traditional photography.
Jan studied at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago and experimented with a variety of mediums including painting and sculpture. She decided that darkroom work was cleaner than sculpture and pursued a B.F.A. degree in Fine Art Photography.
The Art Institute of Chicago had one of the premiere collections of vintage photography in the world and as curator, a leading photographic historian, David Travis. David became Jan Kesner's mentor and guided her through the school's amazing collection of work. Jan was most inspired by the work of Imogen Cunningham.
A true perfectionist, Jan felt that she wouldn't be able to achieve the level of technical proficiency of the masters that she studied and that she desired for her own work. She turned her focus to filmmaking. Jan still remained passionate about photography and took all the courses offered in photographic history and theory along with her technical courses in film.
She received her M.F.A. in experimental film and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970's to pursue a career in the film industry.
While working as a film editor, she met the photographic collector and critic, Manfred Heiting. He introduced her to G. Ray Hawkins, the first fine art photographic dealer in Los Angeles. Impressed with Jan's knowledge of photographic history, G. Ray offered her a position with his gallery. Jan accepted, thinking that selling vintage photographic prints would be a more secure way to earn a living than the uncertainty of the film business. She didn't realize at the time that she just found her niche in the world.
Jan stayed with G. Ray for four years and left in 1985 to show work from her apartment. She soon built up her clientele and developed a stable of great artists. Richard Misrach, Max Yavno, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and O. Winston Link were among the first photographers that she represented.
Her timing was perfect, as photography was just barely starting to be accepted as fine art. This allowed her the access to historically important photographs that is no longer possible.
Those images of Edward Weston's that could be purchased for $2,000.00 when Jan began her career command over a quarter of a million dollars today. Now, the earliest vintage works dealt through contemporary photography galleries were created mostly in the 1960's and 1970's.
Jan felt ready to open her first gallery space in 1987. She specialized in contemporary work with conceptual or minimal themes. She even mounted a show using five or six L.A. based artists who worked with light sensitive materials, but used them in a different direction than historically photo based work. It was a very exciting time.
Her reputation and clientele list grew fast and she enjoyed the boom period from the mid -1980's to the early 1990's. She was able to maintain a broad diversity of work including images from the Nineteenth Century, but began to specialize in Twentieth Century Contemporary prints when her competition grew. There are now twelve photographic galleries in Los Angeles. Each one specializes in showing different photographic artists. Photographers who have have shown in the past two years at the Jan Kesner Gallery include Richard Misrach, Larry Fink, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Max Yavno and John Humble.
Judging a photograph by the form and content of the image, Jan values the originality of the photographer's concept and the quality of the print and technique. She also needs to see how the individual piece fits into the body of work of the artist. The value of the image increases when the negative was either printed by the photographer's own hand or by a master printer under the photographer's guidance. The provenance of the piece is also very important. The printed image must reflect what the photographer wanted in their conception of the negative.
Jan Kesner puts her client's needs first. "I find it really lovely that I am able to bring art into people's lives. Living with art is one of the more enriching experiences that we can have," said Jan recently. She enjoys educating the novice who is open minded to learn, but also feels responsible to allow people to experience art on whatever level they can.
"Photographers should do everything they can to expose their work," advised Jan. "Not every artist is going to get shown in a conventional gallery," she continued. Spaces such as businesses, restaurants, clubs, coffee houses, charity auctions and open studios are common alternatives to traditional galleries. Jan suggested that a photographer should do research and find the gallery that specializes in similar work to their own. Also, they should find out the gallery's policy for reviewing new work to best prepare a proposal.
Jan expects that artists will incorporate the new technologies in their work. Her present show includes large prints whose negatives were scanned and printed digitally.
When asked whether Jan ever picks up a camera herself these days, she looked up, smiled and answered quietly, "I garden." She has obviously found her place as well as peace in this world.
K. GARBER PHOTOGRAPHY
Helen K. Garber Photography for this article is sponsored by Photo Impact of Los Angeles.
PHOTO IMPACT offer to PROFESSIONAL MEMBERS One coupon good for 15% discount on any service at photo impact. One per year per pro member. Please contact WIPI for coupon.
"It's just a matter of who's paying attention, and in a position of power to make the work seen..."
while photographing workers in the tea industry in Southern Brazil,
I found something I had not come across in the past ten years documenting
sugar, soy and cotton industry workers - women working inside the factories.
For the most part, it's a man's world, no matter where or how you slice
of the U.S.'s imported goods and raw materials originate in Brazil:
sugar, soy, coffee, tea, orange juice, leather goods. These raw materials
fetch a high price on Wall Street as commodities, yet the quality of
life of those that help originate this wealth remains unaffected by
the high sale cost of the very commodities they produce. It became my
hope, to acknowledge, validate and empower the workers involved, and
through my work provide a vehicle for a global audience to understand
and recognize the contribution that the workers make to their own lives,
One of En Foco's national programs is the "New Work Photography Awards," where a panel selects four photographers to receive an honorarium and photo supplies to create new work or complete a series. WIPI has generously helped support the cause, by presenting the 2001 winners with an annual membership: Gaye Chan, Rosey Truong, and Lisa Jong-Soon Goodlin (the fourth is Native American photographer Larry McNeil). For some of the artists, life experiences and culture are more important than location, as they deal with created spaces: ie, Goodlin's work explores her adoption and coming to terms with her Korean roots; Abichandani (2000 New Works) deals with self portraiture and goddess imagery, as it relates to her south asian heritage.
Its photographic journal "Nueva Luz," celebrates a long history of documenting works by culturally diverse artists with a special 112-page color edition,available December 2001. It features works by 68 photoraphers and essays in English and Spanish by leading photographic critics and authors: Lucy Lippard; A.D. Coleman; Deborah Willis; and Pedro Meyer. This issue includes well known artists like Carrie Mae Weems, along with emerging artists such as Lauri Lyons and Suzanne Saylor (winner of En Foco's 1999 New Works Photography Award). Nueva Luz has just been nominated by Utne Reader magazine for the 2001 Alternative Press Awards, in the Art & Literature category.
in the power of art. Be inspired and help effect change. Your support
of organizations that help make a difference not only insures their
longevity, but allows the organization to continue supporting works
by newer generations of artists.
Stephanie McGehee - Kuwait
Kuwait has grown in the many years since 1977 that I have been here. My father's job was the reason that we left our home in Southern California in the late 60's which took me to in the Middle East and consequently led me to Kuwait.
Before the Iraqi invasion in 1990, I had already established myself as a well-known photographer in the country. Starting my career, in a predominantly male profession, especially in this conservative part of the world, I established my career as a social event and commercial photographer as well as the resident photojournalist for The Associated Press. During the off season, I traveled around the Gulf countries on my own, in the early years, when the people were still not used to cameras and the TV crews of late. The experience was amazing. My archives were full. I remember, about one week before the Iraqi invaders changed our whole life around, I counted my library of over 250,000 images, when I was preparing to purchase a system that I could start my own stock library... Then, August 2, came...
After the allied forces liberated Kuwait in 1991, I returned immediately to find all my archives burnt or stolen... Somewhere in the streets of Baghdad, maybe a fortune in stock pictures!!
Starting all over again from scratch, with a borrowed camera, and a bag of film, it was hard, but at the time I felt lucky for just being able to be back in Kuwait. No money, no equipment and no job, I knew one important asset I did have, was my reputation.
I was requested after the Invasion to document the destruction of the country by Kuwait's Ministry of Information. All of my photos have been used since, in nearly all history books, and publications pertaining to the horrific destruction of this tiny country.
For all the years that I have been in the Middle East, I have mastered the Arabic language, which I feel has helped me in being accepted as a very close friend to the Kuwaiti society. They are very kind and sincere people, being that they are a tribal society, I blended right in, having some American Indian heritage of my own, I always joke with them that I am an American Bedouin .
Post Liberation, the Reuters News Agency asked me to be their resident photographer, of which I have been now for 11 years. I have had golden opportunities to photograph interesting events. Everything from Presidential visits, military exercises, catapulting on aircraft carriers, flying helicopters all around the country, photographing f-16's re-fueling in mid-air and meeting many wonderful people along the way.
When I am not doing photojournalism, I am the leading wedding photographer in Kuwait. I became the leading photographer in Kuwait, because I always try to bring new ideas and the latest technology to our little market.
Weddings in Kuwait are very different than Western weddings. The ladies adorn themselves with exquisite evening gowns made by designers the likes of Christian laCroix to Christian Dior, wearing jewelry that would be the envy of even the wealthiest of people. Because of the Muslim and tribal traditions, men do not attend except for the groom. Even the photographer, must be a lady
ladies dance up and down a large dance floor area while the bride sits
in a elaborately decorated stage setting, made especially to her taste,
and watches her guest until the Groom arrives. The bridal gown is usually
flown in from Europe along with the fashion house fitters that come
just to dress the Bride. Finally after about 2 hours into the wedding,
the Groom walks in to sit next to his bride on the stage. The simple
traditional drinking of juice and the ritual of putting tens of thousands
of dollars worth of diamonds around the Brides neck is done. They then
continue on to the ceremonial cutting of the luxurious cake that is
usually over 15 feet tall. The guests are then invited to eat the broadest
range of international cuisine that a 5 star hotel can provide. The
newly weds are then escorted by me to their suite, to finally photograph
their wedding portraits, usually it is 2 am by this time. The Kuwaiti
people are very private, especially when it comes to their photos. The
secret of my success, is the trust that my clients have in me. The sad
thing in my profession is, that do I not keep any photos of my brides,
it is the law in Kuwait, now read this
The Client has sole right
to the negatives!!!
I have been working on a book and an exhibition, although it is way over due but I will try, in between covering US strikes on Iraq and photographing the weddings of the rich and famous... to finish both of them soon.
I find my camera to be my best friend. I don't get lonely when I am taking pictures and When you live in a far away country, that means a lot.
All Photographs Copyright Stephanie McGehee.
List of Captions
Photo of Stephanie McGehee
Soldier in Kuwaiti Sand
Beautiful Kuwaiti Bride 1
Beautiful Bride 2
Together Along the Sea Side
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