Kerik Kouklis
A Different Way Of Seeing

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The atmosphere is heavy, the photograph made under very soft light and foggy conditions. A copse of trees on either side of the road disappears into the horizon and the mood is one of haunting beauty and emptiness.

"Ice House Road in Fog," taken in Crystal Basin, California in 1992, is one of the first images Kerik Kouklis made with his "new" old Korona 7x17" Banquet camera. Intrigued with the compositional possibilities of the narrow rectangular format Kouklis has never looked back. "When I found the Korona I knew that I had found a unique way to look at the world," he says, "a way I could explore for a long time to come."

Kouklis' images depart from traditional landscapes. Some are panoramic while others, done more recently, are circular in format. The photographs are profound rather than documentary. Seldom overdramatic, they are delicate in tonal scale and well suited to the platinum/palladium process he uses. Photographing in low light, often in mist-laden conditions, the appeal of these images lies in the ethereal and peaceful quality that Kouklis considers his trademark.

With an educational background in geology and the environment, Kouklis developed an early interest in the outdoors and in photography, shooting 35mm with a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex his grandmother had given him. During his college years in '84 while on a field trip to the Mono Basin in California, Kouklis recalls how the gentle beauty and delicate ecosystem of the area touched him in a unique way, sparking his interest in environmental issues as well as rekindling his early interest in photography.

Upon graduation he began to explore photography in a more serious way, perfecting the fine art of black and white printing. "Looking for the detail and sharpness of the large negative I began shooting 4x5" and became a traditional Adams-esque, cold-toned landscape photographer, doing both black and white and Sierra Club style color landscapes. In 1992 I hit the wall creatively and felt frustrated at being one of the seemingly endless landscape photographers producing nice but predictable images."

Adams' great landscapes had been a technical standard for Kouklis to aspire to and he was impressed with the master's generosity in using his photographs to support environmental issues. Later, the softer, more delicate print quality of John Sexton's work inspired him as did the moody and atmospheric images of Michael Kenna with their natural and manmade elements. "I have also been influenced by photographers whose work is very different from mine," Kouklis says, "like Sally Mann and Jock Sturges, who has become my mentor. Though there are seldom people in my photographs, I feel they are often about people in an abstract way."

In one panoramic image, for instance, "Stairway Down, Joaquim Miller Park," the quiet of early morning captured on Thanks-giving Day in '96, addresses the peaceful setting of a park that people enjoy on a daily basis. For Kouklis it evoked memories of where he had grown up since the park is about a mile from his childhood home. "It was a strange and stimulating experience to photograph a place I was so familiar with as a child and teen-ager and was seeing for the first time with `grown-up' eyes. So many memories came back--childhood baseball games, hanging out with high-school friends...I had never thought of the park as beautiful until I came back with a camera in tow and a new perspective. When I returned a year later the City of Oakland was `restoring' the park and all of the trees I had photographed had been removed."

Kouklis knew that he had an inherent knack for making pictures and wanted to make photographs that would satisfy his inner desire to capture time, atmosphere, emotion, and above all, a sense of place. With the new large 7x17" negatives it was time to resume the experimenting he had done in platinum. Platinum, he felt, would help convey the beauty he saw in the landscape. "It took me two or three years of trial and error (lots of error) to bring my platinum printing skills to a point where I could consistently make prints that I was happy with."

Platinum prints are characterized by a soft and quiet tonality and lend themselves to the difficult lighting conditions under which Kouklis photographs. "I love the emotion that is conveyed through the heavy atmosphere," he says, "and the platinum print separates these tones with a subtlety that cannot be duplicated in a gelatin silver print. One of its appealing characteristics is that it becomes unique to each artist. We all have our own spin on the process and what works well for one printer may prove disastrous for another."

There have been times when Kouklis has run across frustration when what has worked in the past stops working. "Paper is the key element in platinum printing once the proper density range has been achieved in the negative," he explains. "The search for the perfect paper is never ending. The slightest variation in the chemical makeup or sizing of a paper may render it useless. I use Arches Platine, which can be fickle--it will make you pull your hair out." He has streamlined his process using a technique where rather than adjusting his print contrast by altering the makeup of the sensitizer from print to print, he adjusts the contrast using a series of developers with slightly different contrast characteristics. In this way he is able to coat many sheets of paper with the same sensitizer formula and print continuously.

Kouklis had turned to the Korona to break out of a creative rut and loves the sweep of his images in the long, narrow format. But he is a highly charged photographer, always on the lookout for new ways of seeing and he wanted to try something that was as far from panoramic as possible. "The circle was an obvious choice," he says, "so I began making circular images with my 8x10" view camera, using a 135mm Nikkor lens that is not intended to cover the 8x10" format. It threw an image circle a bit larger than I needed so I added an old aluminum lens shade to the rear element to vignette the image to the size I wanted. It has been a path of discovery to figure out what works in the circular shape and I have had the most success with images where the main subject is located centrally with supporting elements kind of peeking in from the edges."

One particularly successful shot was taken near Hernandez in New Mexico last summer. There Kouklis shot "Stuart's Window," a weird shot of an intact window sitting atop a crumbling wall of adobe with the wonderful Southwest sky adding to the surreal feeling of seeing the world through a peephole.

Shortly after Kouklis had begun his circular images he came across an article in Shutterbug by Gordon Mark who was also making circular images using a camera of his own design and a construction that could be handheld. Kouklis had to have one like it and soon built his own version, using an 8x10" back from an old view camera attached to a wooden box. Zone focusing is accomplished through a series of spacers that adjust the distance of the lensboard relative to the film plane. A wide angle viewer (like the one on the front door of many houses) is used as the viewfinder and drawer-pulls serve as handles. The camera is equipped with a 100mm Carl Zeiss Dagor lens--"low-tech but fun to use," says Kouklis. Presently his view cameras include modern day 4x5" and 4x10" field cameras as well as 8x10", 7x17", and 11x14" cameras that date from early in the century.

Kouklis, who has worked as a geologist for the past 14 years, lives with his wife and two children in Placerville, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and spends as much time as he can photographing and printing. His goal is to become self-sufficient with his art and he currently exhibits his work in the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, Aperture Gallery in Salt Lake City, fStops Here in Santa Barbara, and Afterimage in Dallas, Texas. He is included in the permanent collections of the Lamar-Dodd Art Center in Georgia and the Hoyt Institute of Arts in Newcastle, Pennsylvania as well as numerous private collections. His web site (www.jps.net/Kerik) has brought clients from as far away as England and Germany and several times a year Kouklis runs workshops from his California studio and Toronto, where he will be having a show this summer at the new North Light Gallery.

Kouklis' advice--"Don't follow the rules. The camera and the process must be learned but then go on from there--photograph what you want in the way you want to do it--otherwise, everybody's pictures look the same."

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