Shawn Rowe & Kenneth Guthrie
Today I sat down with photographer Kenneth Guthrie who was kind enough to take time out of his busy final semester of graduate school to talk about Columbia College Chicago and his two projects The Way You Look at Me and Slim Non-Masc Faggot Bundles Faggots. During our conversation we discussed growing up queer in the South and how the current cultural moment impacts art making.
Shawn Rowe is a Chicago based artist and curator exploring the complexities of gender and social constructs through portraiture. His long form approach allows him to embed with his subjects for months or years in order to understand them as complex beings. Shawn’s work has been exhibited and featured throughout the United States and internationally including the Photographic Center Northwest, Aint-Bad and Der Greif. Shawn is also the Assistant Editor of SKYLARK EDITIONS, a non-profit book publisher in Chicago, IL. Shawn received an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago and holds a BA in Psychology from Southern New Hampshire University.
Kenneth Guthrie obtained his BFA in Studio Art with a Photography emphasis from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2016. He is a second year MFA in Photography candidate at Columbia College Chicago and works as a Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP). His work has been exhibited nationally at Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), LATITUDE | Chicago, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) Gallery 51, among others. Guthrie’s work has been published in Communication Arts and Photographer’s Forum.
Shawn Rowe: Hello Kenneth! Thank you so much for taking time during your final semester of your MFA. First of all congratulations on almost completing your MFA in Photography, can you talk about your experience so far at Columbia College Chicago and what you have planned for your thesis exhibition?
Kenneth Guthrie: Thank you so much! I’m really excited about the culmination of the project and seeing it take form as an installation in my MFA in Photography thesis exhibition.
My experience at Columbia College Chicago is one I will never forget. I’m from a rural city in Arkansas, and my undergraduate journey was different as there were only two other BFA in Photography students in the program with me. At Columbia, you receive a lot of feedback during seminar, by both faculty and colleagues, so navigating that feedback and filtering through what I thought was important was initially a challenge. Your first semester is all about experimentation, getting uncomfortable, and making anything and everything that crosses your mind. You’re encouraged to “put it on the wall, see what sticks,” and I genuinely believe that you have to do that in order to grow as an artist and also within the work. The level of discourse that comes out of seminar is challenging yet rewarding, and I appreciate that the most. I wouldn’t trade my graduate school memories with anything. Your colleagues become like family, as do your mentors. I’ve met so many great people and have made so many rewarding connections, not just through the MFA in Photography program, but also working as a Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP). Working at the MoCP is like a second education; you learn the ins-and-outs of museum and exhibition production. Working with a permanent collection of over 15,000 art objects directly impacts your work, since you’re learning about new artists almost every time you go in for a shift.
All of this experience plays a role in my journey and vision for the projects in my portion of the exhibition. My photographic series The Way You Look at Me, as well as video performance Slim Non-Masc Faggot Bundles Faggots will be displayed together as an intricate installation. Varying sizes of photographs layered on top of each other using photo-tex and framed pieces will be carefully placed all over the wall, with my video folded into the edit, a moving picture in a way, on a screen in the middle of the space. Large pieces will juxtapose very small pieces, forcing the viewer to weave in an out of the space, bringing them into the scene, which is a big goal when viewing this work.
SR: I love how intimate your work is, can you talk about your decision to photograph your relationship? How do you balance being so vulnerable while also keeping your and your partner’s agency?
KG: The decision to photograph my partner came intuitively and I felt that I needed to follow that instinct. During the beginning of my graduate studies, I was working in the studio and creating highly constructed still lifes that weren’t translating what I wanted to say in the most successful ways. I had always struggled to visually communicate my, insecurities and experiences when it came to my queerness because growing up in the South there wasn’t much to explore or many people to talk about those feelings with. Meeting Rich, my partner, we instantly connected, not just intimately, but photographically as well.
Balancing vulnerability with authorship to maintain agency within representation is really important to discuss when making images of other people. For Rich and myself, both being photographers, we collaborated in ways that we were both comfortable with. We would pass back and forth my polaroid camera to make nude images of each other, directing our poses and constructing scenes for the camera. Although all of the images in my work are performed, they derive from my real-life experiences. Having Rich depict some of those scenes, it was important for me to discuss my vision with him while also making sure how he was represented remained authentic. Yes Rich is a mirroring of myself, but he is also his own person. In The Way You Look at Me, I construct and set all of the scenes, and when Rich is in that scene I usually give him the remote to release the shutter when he feels comfortable. This allows him to feel in control of his body, the experience, and that’s what I think creates that highly intimate mood in my image while still being constructed or staged.
It’s also important that I make sure my partner is comfortable having his likeness on display in exhibitions or publications. Since I’m also making nude images of him, I make sure to discuss and communicate my intentions with the pictures before we make anything. Working as an artist, however, it’s crucial to remember that you won’t be in the space where your work is being exhibited everyday it’s up, so the viewing experience and meaning of the work will be unique for everyone. Knowing what the work means for you and ensuring that it was made in your light is the most important thing to keep in mind.
SR: For your project The Way you Look at Me, your statement reads “Utilizing my partner as a conduit for vulnerability and desire, I construct self portraits and still lifes that allude to personal narratives from my upbringing. These experiences conditioned me to conceal my queerness in fear of being rejected by my family.” I think this is something that a lot of queer people, including myself, experience, can you talk about how you have used your art making to cope with these issues?
KG: I use photography and art-making in order to express feelings that I otherwise would suppress. One thing I think a lot of queer individuals can relate to is hiding, or attempting to blend in. I use that experience of trying not to draw too much attention to myself through the use of color theory and repeating textures or patterns. These kinds of visual cues allow for certain conversations to be started around the work when I’m sharing it with others or when it’s in a show I can’t physically be at. Forcing my viewer to alter their vantage point or denying them information within the viewing experience in a way allows them to empathize with what I felt growing up.
I think photography and performing for the camera really allowed for me to find myself. As a teenager, I would always make self-portraits by sticking my camera in random places, like in a tree or in a mailbox for weird angles, compositions, and poses. I grew up not having the LGBTQ representation I wanted or needed, so I resolved that by making the pictures I wanted to see with myself as a model. This gave me more confidence in my imperfections, mannerisms, but it also gave me strength and confidence. Personally, I find it important that I be a subject within my own work. Throughout art history portraiture has always possessed a performative nature that is used by artists so that they can make their own self-image. I definitely feel my work falls into that still very current conversation.
© Nadia Sablin
SR: Your work situates itself during a unique time. Our culture is currently in a reckoning with toxic masculinity, #metoo and its effects on public policy and political discourse. How have these movements influenced how you make your work and how do you see it situating itself in this moment?
KG: That’s a really great question. When I first started making work in graduate school, I was (and still am) really focused on subverting toxic masculinity, queering the gaze, and making sex-positive images. Growing up Southern Baptist, I was always reminded that sex before marriage was “not good.” On top of internally punishing myself for my natural desires, I was imagining sex with men, which definitely didn’t help with my self-image. I internalized a lot of negative feelings, and began to project myself as more masculine or straight to the public. This is something I’m still trying to work on even now. As a way of working through this insecurity, passing back and forth that polaroid camera became an important journey to have. This for me alluded to a time in history when the polaroid was invented. With this came the realization that you could take nude images in the privacy of your own home with your lover without having to send the film to get developed for someone else to see. Making polaroids with other individuals, you immediately connect with your subject because you both have the shared experience of viewing it at the same time. This allowed me to connect with sex, with my partner, but overall, with myself as a queer man. While polaroids are inherently intimate, they are as equally as objectifying. While being an actual object, they also transform subject into object, which makes me think a lot about consent.
Going back to agency, consent and comfortability from any model is crucial. Thinking about the #metoo movement as a cis white male, I understand that ensuring whomever I’m working with is eager and willing to be involved is what will make or break the project. As a photographer I am aware that I am the director. I have all of the power when it comes to representation, narrative, and composition. Essentially, there runs risk of no consent being given to the person who is posing for an image and how they will be depicted. Ethically and morally, I can’t allow that to happen within my work. As someone who performs for the camera theirself, I can empathize with feeling powerful as I’m masquerading or gazing into the lens. I can also empathize with the feelings of insecurity that come with laying yourself completely bare to the camera. If your model doesn’t want to perform what you’re asking, they don’t have to. As a photographer, it’s your job to solve that visual problem while also keeping your point of view in tact. Ultimately, for me, it’s important when working with others to empathize with them while creating the most comfortable environment you can.
As my projects took on their own life and meaning, The visual language shifted but my goals remained the same. I find it really important that my work situate itself within the world’s socio-political climate as something that has potential to elicit empathy, education, and dialogue around ideologies that may differ from my own. It’s essential to remember that not everyone is going to have the same beliefs or ideas as you or even myself, and that’s what makes this world a great place, granted that we approach those conversations with respect and understanding.
SR: I’d like to switch directions a little bit and talk about how social media and dating apps are becoming more and more ubiquitous. The title of your film Slim Non-Masc Faggot Bundles Faggots addresses the damaging language that is often seen on gay dating apps (and all social media platforms for that matter). Talk about your process in making this film and how the performance of bundling sticks speaks to this issue.
KG: Slim Non-Masc Faggot Bundles Faggots is a performance film that has gone through many different stages of refining. I have omitted the use of the audio excerpts from Grindr profiles and conversations I originally started using. Now, the video is silent with ambient noise, focusing on the delicacy the hand gestures, the dramatic form of the body, and the repetitive nature of the task at hand. There are a few instances where I break a few sticks, disrupting the audio and visuals of the scene.
Although I’ve taken away the audio, I do feel the video still discusses pressures, expectations, and standards of beauty that overwhelm the gay community, but in a more meditative light. The title itself alludes to language men use on dating apps to describe their build for others who are looking for sexual encounters. The use of side lighting in a pitch black room places emphasis on the fact that I am not masculine nor am I ripped with muscles. I was called faggot almost every day of my life growing up in junior high, high school, and I still hear the word thrown at me today. I used to take it to heart, but I try not to let it affect me like it used to. Rather, I reclaim it. Making this video and placing emphasis on that word was really important for this piece. The process of tying the bundle of sticks together is a nod to the evolution of the word, which is used to describe the finished product, and to offensively describe a gay man. Faggots were used to burn people and things, so its nature feels inherently violent. The repeating of bundling also speaks to repetition as a gendered role; to some, the act of repeating oneself in a task is considered to be a more feminine characteristic. It also gives weight to issues like sex and gender while unearthing loss and gain. Who wins? In the final edit of the performance, the pile of sticks does not grow nor does it shrink. This detail essentially diminishes the whole performance, begging the question to what end? I asked myself this questions a lot when I was using dating apps like Grindr for sex.
SR: Finally, what books have influenced your work the most?
The Rug’s Topography, by Rana Young
Kitchen Table Series, Carrie Mae Weems
Relationship, by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
To Survive on This Shore, by Jess Dugan and Interviews by Vanessa Fabbre
Double Life, by Kelli Connell
V, by Shawn Rowe
Complicit, by Matthew Morrocco
Portraits in Life & Death, by Peter Hujar
Model American, by Katy Grannan
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, by Nan Goldin
Young New Yorkers, by Ethan James Green
Blow Up, Lyle Ashton Harris
Performing for the Camera, Tate Publishing
D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ self published books
SR: Thanks Kenneth!