The Arctic Through The Lens Of Katherine Akey


Her photographic journey started when her father gave her a 35mm camera. She has been reading books about polar explorations from an early age and recently she had the opportunity to experience Norway first hand. In this interview, Katherine talks about this memorable trip and reveals what keeps her motivated to take photos.

Hey Katherine! Welcome to our magazine! What is it that you are working on at the moment? What drives your inspiration and creative thinking these days?

I’ve been spending about half my time getting work from my residency in the Arctic polished up and ready for exhibitions. No one tells you when you dream of being an artist that half your time at minimum is going to be spent writing emails, organizing your expenses and writing proposal after proposal. Honestly, writing all those proposals really help me organize my thoughts into discrete projects. When you’ve been on an expedition as exotic as the Arctic Circle Residency, it can start to feel dreamlike and distant so quickly.

After eighteen months, building out projects and making work from my time there really benefits from having some structure put in place by writing show proposals first. The rest of my time, I’m digging into a big body of work about the First World War. With the WW1 centennial occurring right now I have no shortage of interesting events, books and films to draw inspiration from (if you haven’t seen J’accuse, a 1919 silent film made during the war about the war, you should!). I’ve just started making work about the conflict, so right now I’m in a sketching, fluid, very experimental period of creation.

I understand you are based in Washington, DC. What inspires you the most about this city?

I am actually relatively new to the city, having just moved here last spring after a decade in New York. As unsexy as it sounds, the absolute best thing about DC so far has been that I have more time to make work as well as a studio space. Neither of those was easily available to be in New York purely from an expense point of view and having time to work, to read and to build on my work has been invaluable.

My studio is in my home where I am able to read and work with my cats always nearby, often in my lap. It’s pretty much the dream life. Something very unique to DC is its incredible museums, which are free! I can spend as much time as I want at the Hirshhorn or the Air and Space Museum looking for new stories. After living in a city where a museum visit usually cost at least $10, it’s a great change of pace.

How did you become a part of the photography world? What attracted you to photography in the first place?

I didn’t study art or photography formally until graduate school. My father gave me a 35mm camera as a child and taking photos became something I did and did constantly; I’m not that old, but this definitely predated cell phones with cameras! We all take photos every day now that smartphones are ubiquitous, but for me, it was all about that Minolta
It was just a fun hobby at first, a way for me to express myself and keep a record of my friendships, but as I made my way through college and started thinking about graduate school I had to decide if I would stick with photography as my primary medium or venture into something else (printmaking has always been a part of my practice).

Something really magical about photography is that it touches the real world; when you take a photograph, the light that your film or sensor is capturing has reflected off the thing you are taking an image of. There’s a physical touch there that has always seemed really incredible to me, something similar to smelling your lover’s shirt when they’re away or taking comfort in a dead grandparent’s watch, an object that can bridge time and distance.

What is the most valuable thing you learned doing this job?

I’ve learned to be oh so resilient. And to stay organized! If you’re not getting rejections almost every month, you’re probably not making enough work or applying to enough opportunities. I’ve also learned that any opportunity to share your work is a great opportunity, whether it’s in a gallery or in a pop-up space, though prints or self-published books. Perhaps that’s my own idealistic point of view, but making artwork that is so personal and such a labor of love, why wouldn’t you want to share it with as many people as possible and in whatever way life throws at you?

You've visited Norway and made a stunning series of photos called "Svalbard". What influenced you to visit this Norwegian archipelago? What were some of the most memorable sights you have experienced there?

The trip was this incredible joy for the child in me; I’d read books about polar explorers since I was very young, and getting to see and smell and feel the landscape I’d read so much about was transcendent. I got to hear the newly shorn ice crackle and pop in the seawater and to see violet and green appear in the snowdrifts. As an artist, it was an opportunity to take my thesis work and pull it in a totally new direction. My thesis had been drawn wholly from the archive left behind by the polar explorers of the 19th and the early 20th century; journals, photographs, and films.

I put an enormous amount of energy, time and emotion into that work in grad school, but as soon as I saw the Arctic with my own eyes and not just through those of past explorers that work changed for me enormously. It feels dated now, but sweet. You can’t go back to unknowing something. So now that I’ve traveled to the Arctic, the way I was able to view the exploration of the area before, it’s now extinct. That’s a really powerful thing for me to have experienced, seeing that work change and rethinking how I move forward in that line of creative inquiry with this totally new, rich layer of experience, the firsthand experience.

What challenges have you faced doing photography? What keeps you motivated to take photos?

I’m not sure I’m actually that strong of a photographer, but I have learned that I am a very strong storyteller; I do not capture those decisive moments naturally or easily. Half of my work is done after the photos have all been taken when I get into a darkroom and start fiddling around. When I shoot, I think about gathering raw materials to use later rather than capturing strong, stand-alone images.

Accepting that photography doesn’t limit itself to the click of the shutter was so liberating; it allowed me to view the incredible breadth of photosensitive materials and techniques as opportunities rather than defined limits. I just enjoy what I do so much that I need no real motivation; I think if you dedicate your life to something like making artwork, telling stories that you love about subjects you adore, you ought to love the medium you work in!

Your resume is quite impressive. You've also done some solo as well as group exhibitions over the years. Where do you see yourself a couple of years from now?

I just want to keep doing what I’m doing now! I am making new work, exploring new techniques and materials, and I am sharing stories I am passionate about with others through exhibitions and books. If I could keep doing this for the next several years I don’t think I could be any happier. I do very much love teaching darkroom photography, something I currently do a few days a week.

I’d really like to add a few college level courses to my repertoire as well and I do envision myself eventually teaching at that level. Though I must admit, you really learn so much from teaching five-year-olds darkroom photography. They view the world in the most remarkable way and I’d hate to stop teaching that age group. They are so much fun to work with!

Additionally, I’m hoping that I can find a residency or some other opportunity to get me to Europe so I can photograph the WW1 battlegrounds myself sometime in the next few years. I anticipate I’ll have a similar experience; having made work from archives and books, I’m sure seeing the land scarred by war will permanently transform the work I’m making now and will change how I move forward with that body of work.

Are there any upcoming projects you would like to share with us? Can we expect new exhibitions soon?

Yes, do I ever! I have two solo shows in the next year, the soonest one opening November 3rd at Hillyer Art Space here in Washington DC. That and the second one, which will be at the beginning of 2018 in Alexandria, VA, are both going to feature my work from Svalbard. I have been building out a new body of work about nighttime bombers in WW1 that I hope to show in 2018/2019 as well! Additionally, I am excited to be deeply involved in the US WW1 Centennial Commission where I’ve just started producing a weekly podcast.

I also am getting myself more involved in the DC arts community by establishing a darkroom residency at the school where I am the Photo Department chair, as well as taking on a little side project of curating art installations for a video projection architectural feature in one of DC’s local parks. I have such a variety of things going on it’s hard to imagine ever being bored again!

All photographs shown in this article were used by the permission of Katherine Akey. If you want to see more of her work, check out Katherine's Website and follow her on Instagram.

written by Ivana Džamić on 2017-05-10 #people #norway #travel-photography #katherineakey

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