David Campany
Writer, Curator and Professor of Photography Theory, University of Westminster, London

‘Stardust’ is an essay written for Mona Kuhn’s book PRIVATE, to be published by Steidl in Spring 2014.

A little extract:

“Remember, we live next door to the ocean, but we also live on the edge of the desert. Los Angeles is a desert community. Beneath this building, beneath every street, there’s a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed.” So warns a character at the beginning of Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s film about water and corruption in the hot heart of California. I wonder what it must be like to live in Los Angeles knowing this. Does it make the place even less real, accepting the very grounds you stand upon could never support you?  Or does this artifice sharpen the senses and firm the grasp upon life? Does it focus one’s attention on what it is we need to survive and make a life worth living?

The desert is not for the weak of heart. In 1849 Francis Parkman warned that in the deserts of the American West “the whole fabric of art and conventionality is struck rudely to pieces.”  In 1901 Frederic Remington described how the glaring light of the Southwest collapses the near and far into one plane, scrambling perspective. That light will unnerve any visitor who arrives unprepared. In the attacking brightness our pupils contract to cut down the light but in doing so they render all distance crisp, pin-sharp. As the eyes move from a rock at one’s feet to the distant horizon there barely feels any change in focus: all close and all distant. In the 1930s Georgia O’Keefe – painter of deserts flat and deep – came to know this phenomenon. She talked often what she called the “Faraway Nearby” and her canvases expressed it.

And this is the photographer Lee Friedlander relating his experience in the Sonoran Desert in the 1990s: “From a distance it is as tranquil as any other landscape, except for the light. As I get close the place becomes wild. Everything in sight is up-tempo and jumping with a thousand branches, a million thorns shaping the edges of cholla, saguaro, and ocotillo, and mesquite and palo verde, altogether becoming a maze of order new and crazier in every turn, bathed in light that defies description… My eyes would become sore from the light… It’s a place, the desert, out of control in the norm of places. One’s vision is pleasured in the extreme of the place. It’s a wonderful, awful, seductive, alluring stage on which to be acting out the photography game.”

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So try to picture Mona going from her home in Los Angeles into the desert. Hypnotic drives from the edge to the interior.  She did this for half of 2011, all of 2012 and the first months of 2013. To Joshua Tree. The Mojave Desert. The Painted Desert. Staying in friends’ houses, sometimes camping, the trips would last from a few days up to two weeks. In the desert there are pictures everywhere. It is a profoundly photogenic place. Not only does it appeal to the camera, it is hard to see the desert as anything other than image. This is partly because we have seen it in so many images, but more profoundly images are a short-cut when places are difficult to comprehend. It is far easier to understand a photo of the desert than the desert itself.  And for this reason what most visitors bring back are the images they expect to bring back. How then to use a camera to get beyond the obvious, beyond the immediate image? How to approach what is truly strange, beautiful and disorienting about the desert?

At times Mona Kuhn takes the challenge head on, making views of crystal clarity in which light and land are one.  At other times she prefers a wide aperture and a shallow depth of field for her photographs. This seems to resist the hyper-lucid power of the desert’s glare. These are crepuscular visions, seen and photographed before the light has reached its zenith or after it has passed. Early mornings, early evenings and the moments of respite offered by shadows and sequestered interiors. The desert’s seductive threat is always there of course. It menaces from the edges.  Look at the signature image of this book, a dusty room glimpsed out of focus through a glass door bearing the words ‘PRIVATE’ in reverse.  A view of sultry enigma, a chamber beyond which the brightness of the sun is coming to devour everything and take the mystery with it.

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