Photographs & Words
The talk was all of roads and routes and distances and interesting places thousands of miles apart, with a spice of harmless exaggeration about the performance of this car or that, its wonderful tire mileage and surpassing power and reliability. This was as natural as the elastic statements of a trout fisherman. –Ralph Paine, 1913
Two ways of knowing
I am equal parts photographer and nonfiction writer, and I find my work to be strongest when images and words work together, neither dominating the other, to illuminate a place, an idea, a person, a story perhaps, some tiny part of American life. Each is a different way of knowing, and each contributes much to the understanding of a subject. In their best expression, photographs do not illustrate words, words do not explain photographs, and the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.
For me, photography is best employed in the study of something, a fragment of the glorious, palpable, sensory world. Unlike any other art—opera, painting, fiction, for instance—photography has the power to reveal distant things and events in a concrete, specific way. When my work is at its best, there is no need for suspension of disbelief; every tiny thing within an image is clear, unmanipulated, in focus, singular, and invites the close attention of the viewer. Opera distills emotion to its purest form; painting makes visible that which cannot otherwise be seen; fiction plumbs the range of human existence; and photography makes the world real.
My photographs (most often black and white) are of ordinary things and places conditioned by human use, and of people who inhabit these places, subjects made powerful by the inquiry of the camera. My subjects have included highways, the American county fair, the Mississippi River, ordinary landscapes coast to coast, small towns, grain elevators, railroads, and the people who call such places home.
Because of my writer's sensibilities, I find it important to know a great deal about the subjects I photograph. For example, I think my images of grain elevators are better because I know how grain elevators are built and how they work. Landscape photographs are better for having some understanding of basic geologic processes. Like any photographer, I respond first visually to any subject; but by bringing to bear some deeper knowledge of a subject means I can probe it more thoroughly and reveal it more intimately, rather than respond only to its evident surface qualities.
Fundamental to all the work I do is the idea of place. I am a geographer and historian at heart, and wherever I travel I find myself noticing the shape of the land, the flora, and the rich patterns of human life. May Theilgaard Watts wrote that we can “read” the landscape much as we read a book, and most anytime I set up the cameras and evaluate what’s before me for a photograph (a room interior, a cityscape, a bridge…) I read the scene looking for its layers and mysteries.
What is this place? I ask. Who belongs here? What lives have been lived here? What has shaped this place? What is hidden? What will happen here? Each photograph is a time exposure of a discrete place, a place fixed in amber that changes the moment the shutter closes and I fold up my tripod. It will never be the same again.
Since almost all of my photographs are "found" rather than planned, there is no substitute for simply being there with the tripod set up when the subject and the light are right, so my methods of travel and photographing are devised to provide greatest access to potential subjects.
Put more simply, I sleep in the truck a lot, or camp. This means I can photograph late into the evening, until the light fails altogether, then make a meal by lantern light over the camp stove, sleep where I am, wake with the morning light, and begin shooting again as soon as my eyes are open enough to focus. A look at my contact sheets reveals subjects photographed in light from opposite directions: first in the low slanting light of evening and then in the low slanting light of the next morning.
I've not worked alone on these book and exhibit projects. My wife, Carol Kratz, gets a lot of reading done when she accompanies me and is happy to talk to the curious rancher who stops to see what's going on, leaving me to concentrate on getting the shot before the clouds move and the shadows change. Because of our close and ongoing collaboration (she edited my first two books), we've embarked on a couple of book projects together as coauthors. See the Books & Publications page for details.
Geographers, historians, and other peripatetic wanders like myself have filled my maps with good places to check out, and numerous local residents have taken me (or us) to remote sod houses, ghost towns, the back forty, have fed us and put us up for the night.
A few technical details
My black and white photographs are made on 120 roll format using either Hasselblad cameras and lenses or a Fuji panorama camera, tripod mounted whenever possible. After a few weeks on the road shooting, I often arrive back home with as many as 150 rolls of exposed film to process. I rely on Ansel Adams' Zone System of negative exposure and development. My black and white images are printed in my own darkroom on fine exhibition quality paper, selenium toned, and processed to archival standards.
Medium format black and white film (120), is strongly popular with committed black and white photographers. The tonal range, luster and depth of a traditional black and white print cannot be matched by digital printing. The classic silver bromide print, processed to archival standards, continues to grow in importance as many photographers switch to digital.
Until a few short years ago, all my color work (mostly for magazines, etc.) was shot on Kodachrome or Ektachrome, 35mm or 120. I have now happily switched all color shooting to digital. Purebred & Homegrown: America’s County Fairs was my last love affair with Kodachrome, and I am sad to see it go. Nonetheless, with the advantages of digital color, I cannot imagine shooting color film again.
Requests for pricing information on color prints (digital from film scans) are accumulating in my mailbox, and I am researching the best archival options. Stay tuned, or contact me directly at dhokanson [at] winona.edu for updates.
My equipment and film choices are based on the idea of often spending long weeks in the field immersed in subjects and shooting a lot of film. Most of the black and white photographs on this site were made with either Hasselblad equipment (2 ¼ inch square negatives) using lenses from 38mm to 250mm, or with a Fuji G617 panorama camera (2 ¼ by 7 inch negatives) with its 105mm lens. Since I sometimes return home from a three-week shooting trip with a cooler containing as much as 140 rolls of exposed film, the cumbersome nature of sheet film would make these sorts of field trips impractical.
I shoot on Kodak T-Max 100 and 400 film, process it in D:76, and for exposure and development, I use Ansel Adams' version of the Zone System right out of his still-relevant book, The Negative.
Back in the darkroom (yes, a genuine darkroom), I print on Oriental Seagull VC fiber paper using a fine Bessler enlarger with a colorhead and on a highly modified Zone VI enlarger. My prints are selenium toned and processed to archival standards.
While I have no intention of switching my black and white work to digital, any future color exhibition or book work will be done digitally. I miss Kodachrome, but the ease and gorgeous renditions of digital color really do make it obsolete.