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Artist Statement

Notes for The Hollywood Suites

"The Hollywood Suites" series came about almost accidentally, following a brief stint as a bondage magazine photographer in L.A. I became intrigued by some elements of the idiom and began further, less commercial, photographic explorations on my own. I would set up situations in funky, rent-by-the-day, one-room apartments in the old, run-down sections of Hollywood, hired models a industry agency and created images that somehow spoke to the broader issues of bondage, containment and isolation. These were "no-exit" situations, entered into without plan, full of anxiety, in the hope of producing some document of the experience that was explicit, visually powerful, yet went beyond what it was. It was my intent, through these explorations of the unknown to be involved as an artist.


I was not playing voyeur in these situations, except in the sense that I was looking at myself and recording the choices I made. I wanted the experience to be contained within the room, so shot pull-and-peel, black and white Polaroids with a Polaroid Land camera and on-camera flash. In this way the images could be viewed almost immediately, feeding the process as it evolved. I worked like this for approximately one year and produced a set of nudes and portraits entitled The Hollywood Suites (nudes).


These images were made at a time (1974-75) when other artists were starting to document events within their own constructions. I didn't feel I could continue working as a street shooter any more. Apparently others were experiencing similar needs to expand on the traditional concerns of photography.


On one occasion, the model didn't show up, and I found that I could explore the same issues by photographing the room itself - without the models. This discovery led to the next body of work: The Hollywood Suites (windows, mirrors and doors). These were studies of the room - exploring the contained (content/me) through explorations of the container itself (the room) and how one takes on the nature of the other.


Essentially, the container became more interesting than the content it contained.  So I photographed the walls, windows, mirrors and doors...the articulated interface between inside and out...a perfect vehicle for what I was exploring coincidentally in psychoanalysis.  I did that for another year.  At some point I started focusing on the common indicators of a defined space, those elements that define for us an enclosed a room – corners, floor/wall/ceiling junctures.  I would photograph parts of a room that way, in pieces, and then try to re-assemble the elements into something marginally credible, thereby exploring what it takes for us to conceptually accept that what we are seeing is, at least as a reference, real.  Whereas in fact, the connection was fictitious. Only the source of the elements was common.  They became the Triptychs and Quadrants -- 3 and 4-part constructs, some of which I made mural size, 3’x4’ panels – selenium toned, photographic paper mounted on aluminum sheets and hung flush to the wall.  There were other tangential explorations linked to the HS while I was shooting there, like the Storm/Wall series of diptychs for which I paired an image of an apartment interior wall with the image of a storm moving across the Pacific, shot from my porch high up a cliff over the sea in Malibu.  I was living this duality and thought I’d just put the images together in one frame to see if I could learn anything from that.


Corridors, the last phase of the HS project, involved photographing in color the hallways of 4-floor apartment buildings and presenting them as four one-point perspectives, laid out horizontally, within the same frame. These were metaphorically part of the syntax I was developing -- the connector/conjunctive elements within the construct of the mind that I was exploring — the apartment building of my mind -- the rooms that I never wanted to find, the doors I never wanted to open.  Thus, continuing the inside/outside fascination of the previous work.  The analytical sessions and my art explorations were a good match for me at the time.

For the b/w work I did in The Hollywood Suites, I used a vintage Polaroid model 195 camera with on-camera flash, so I could see what I was doing immediately, making my next image a response to what I saw -- an abstraction of the event, yet concrete enough as a thing in itself.  Back at the studio I copied these prints onto high-speed 35mm film, developing it to maximize a crisp grain structure.  There wasn’t much info in the original Polaroids and the sharp grain served to hold the, once again, it allowed me to play with the balance of content and formalism.  Other than the process as described, I didn’t do any special manipulations of the images. With one exception:  I tried a bit of intervention.  I added some graphic elements to a few doors, using tape, string, rope and black yarn to “draw” on the walls themselves.  Those elements became part of the image I then photographed.  They were called Bound Doors.

Otherwise I rarely altered the walls or curtains...or posters or framed lithos.  They were photographed as I found them.  Flat white plaster walls in need of repair and paint. These were lowest common denominators of such living spaces.



Process: Polaroid to Silver Print

The Polaroids were an essential process element in The Hollywood Suites.  When working with the nudes, the general idea was to select an environment with certain limitations, introduce the players with limited requirements/rules and see what happened over a period of, let’s say, an hour or two.  I wanted to initiate something and make a document of it, not a motor-driven reportage of it, a photo document that could be viewed within seconds, responded to and used as inspiration for the next step or event throughout the session.


The models had some expectations of what might happen.  After all, they were professional bondage models, hiring themselves out to be photographed for magazine and film shoots.  For my part, I tried to be open to whatever happened.  I didn’t know where the session would go. I didn’t have a plan.  That was at times disconcerting to the models, who were certainly vulnerable, yet at the same time, comfortable doing what was expected of them.  I only hoped that the interaction produced some interesting images, and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure what that meant.


Getting more or less “instant” results with Polaroid instant film was a common way to document sexual encounters like what I was doing.  One didn’t need a photo lab, and privacy was assured.  I used a “sophisticated” Polaroid 195 camera with fast b/w print film (#107) and a small, on-camera speedlight.  The image quality was poor, but it did capture the gist of things. The low resolution allowed me to shift traditional focus on details and texture to shape, value and surface.


Later, in my studio, I copied the Polaroid prints onto high-speed, b/w 35mm film (Ilford HP-4) using a copy stand with my Leica, and processed the film in the German developer Rodinal for crisp grain that formed the underlying visual surface holding everything together and out of which details coalesced.  The Rodinal also gave sharp edges to shapes to help delineate them.


The vintage silver prints were made on Agfa Brovira grade #5 paper to spread the short value range of the Polaroids across the paper’s response curve.  That yielded a grayscale that felt appropriate for the images.  The prints were finished in a light selenium toner bath for longevity, deep blacks and cool grays.


The images were documents of events that I had orchestrated -- events created to be experienced and photographed.  They were visual documents of what happened and among other things, revealed something about me.  Understanding and learning from those experiences were integral parts of the of the rewards, if I can use that term loosely.


Each session was very different.  Some produced interesting results; some, did not.


The medium of the Polaroid instant print came with its own issues: very low resolution and value range and full of various artifacts from the pull/peal process; viz., chemical streaks, uneven and/or inconsistent development due to temperature differences or other factors, blotches from dust or dried chemicals on the roller, bleaching due to late or uneven application of the “fixer,” scratches, etc.  I don’t consider these anomalies as positive contributions to the process...only as matters of fact.  That said, the rough “look”, especially after being copied and printed, was something that I liked.  They became “dirty” pictures both in their physical appearance and value range as well as in their social content.  That seemed consistent with the game I was playing.


Use of the on-camera flash contributed the look and feel of the images, as well.  The light source was just enough off-center of the optical axis, especially when used close to the subject, to cause thin, deep shadows of contours against the walls.  The light was very center-weighted, seriously falling off to the edges.  This added a sense of something being revealed, like a light opening up some dark corner to our eyes.  On the other hand, the light helped to delineate edges and slight, but significant, modulations of surface.  Not so much textural information as shape, which would reflect the light differently depending on the surface contour.  In this way the light would “draw” the information like folds in a curtain or outline surface detail, giving the images the quality of graphite sketching on a flat surface. The images had the quality of a ghostly mapping of select details.  This appealed to me, and I worked with it.


Back in the studio, where I copied the prints, the process shifted to working with “found objects,” not anonymous works, but objects of my own experience.  The original Polaroids had played an integral role in the events that unfolded in the rooms, but from that point on, the process was about making prints...refining the images via use of the tools available to me as a printer.


The copying process allowed me to explore the effects of creating multiple generations of the images and the levels of abstraction that resulted.



In some way my actions – the bondage stuff -- could be considered “interventions”. That was obvious with the images incorporating rope.  Later, I attempted explicit interventions of a different kind in the “bound door” explorations, using rope, tape and yarn to actually alter the physical appearance of elements of the room, to be documented after the fact.


Taking the process of intervention a bit further, I selected a number of color SX70 photos, Torsos, made during the period that I was photographing the nudes, slipped them into clear Mylar sleeves and literally painted on that surface with magic marker pens, alternatively covering over the image and scratching back the ink to reveal it.  I called these Painted Ladies.


Steve Kahn

November 7, 2012

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