Interview by Paul Ruscha
“I grew up sitting at museum benches looking at art.
When you stare at a work of art for quite some time, that
piece starts living in your mind. I would walk around in
—Mona Kuhn trance imagining metaphors and creating my own fantasies.” — Mona Kuhn
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mona Kuhn now lives and works as a photographer in Los Angeles. Known for her dreamlike nudes, Kuhn often forms close relationships with her subjects and the places she photographs. Her work is exhibited at museums and galleries internationally, and she has published five books of photography since 2004, her most recent entitled “Private.” Website. Edwynn Houk Gallery.
An LA-based photographer and an avid art collector, Paul currently works with his brother, artist Ed Ruscha, as an in-studio photographer and documentarian. His book “Paul Ruscha’s Full Moon” chronicles his compulsive collecting since childhood. Paul has also opened an art space called the El Gran Art Garage in Winslow, Arizona.
The head of German book publisher Steidl, based in Göttigen, Germany and known best for its photobooks.
Los Angeles-based artist and photographer (born 1937), important to the development of Pop Art. Ruscha is known best for his deadpan, stylized depictions of American culture, such as gas stations and Hollywood, and his paintings using ironic words and phrases. His photobooks catalogue places and objects, often from cars or highways.
In the spring of 2004, Gerhard Steidl, the German publisher came to LA to work with my brother Ed Ruscha on a book project documenting Hollywood Blvd. After a full day of shooting that street, we all went to Musso & Frank’s Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant. Gerhard told me that we should allow an extra chair at our table as he was expecting to have the photographer of a new book he was publishing to come from San Francisco and join us. Gerhard is a multi-tasker who meets with many artists who are preparing to print their books with him in Steidlville – his publishing empire in Göttingen, Germany. He allots specific times to discuss ideas with the artists, usually during the production of his many other projects, so his timing is always short and precise, and one is lucky if given more than a few concentrated moments to clarify their presentations with him. I ordered my meal, and a bit later a beautiful woman appeared behind me. Gerhard stood up and they spoke German briefly as he embraced her, and I got up and hugged her, too, as it seemed like we’d known one-another for a long time. Gerhard repeated her name – Mona Kuhn – and she sat down next to me and from then until we finished dinner, we never stopped talking. She was a force of energy I hadn’t experienced in a long time, and I therefore welcomed our initial acquaintance, and said I truly hoped to see her again. Then we all bid a reluctant goodnight to her.
A few months later, I received an announcement with a note from her about her exhibition and book preview at her gallery in LA. I made an effort to attend and was quite impressed with her work. She was surrounded by gallery-hoppers and collectors when I saw her across the room, and she waved her recognition of me. We spoke for a few moments and agreed to get together when she returned from San Francisco, and she told me she was considering a move to LA. I was taken aback with the exhibition of her photography and with the book, Mona Kuhn, as well as with the artist herself. When she returned to LA, we saw each other often and spent many hours discussing the complicated world of commercial vs. art photography, as she was professionally familiar with both disciplines. When she moved to LA she also returned with her new husband, the composer Boris Salchow. We three began a close-knit exchange in the surrounding desert areas of LA and in the Arizona desert areas. Mona draws her inspiration from the textures and ambience of the locations which are backdrops to the people she so deftly frames, and her swoonful take on these elements adds to the mystery and beauty of her photography.
Paul Ruscha: I know that you were born and grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, to German parents. From what I have observed, you have a great tenacity to focus on your themes, which seems a Germanic trait to me, and yet you have the personal exuberance and pacing of an irresistible samba during Carnaval. Watching those two elements interact has been fascinating for me these past ten years, and I can see that they play a great part in presenting the art in your work, as well as illuminating you as a career-minded woman. How were you able to adjust your home life to your career?
Mona Kuhn: I never thought this way, but you are right. I find my balance in being mostly German during the week, and absolutely Brazilian on the weekends.
PR: How did you decide to come to the USA, and where did you first locate?
A photographer and promoter of modern art, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) ran New York art galleries where he introduced many of the European avant-garde to US artists. Married to Georgia O’Keeffe, Stieglitz’s greatest legacy was making photography an accepted art form.
A legendary American photographer, Weston (1886 – 1958) focused on the places and people of the West, especially California. His style broke from popularized soft focus photography to the highly detailed image he is famous for.
A New York photographer and writer (1923-1971) known for her images of strange, marginal, or ugly people, in order to reveal the truth and harshness of flaws.
MK: I never thought it would be possible to follow my passion. My generation was the first to democratically elect a president in 1989, the year I graduated from high school. It was only when I came to study in the US and spent a large amount of time alone at the arts library that I discovered for the first time the gorgeous monographs of icons such as Stieglitz, Weston and Arbus. At that moment, I knew I had to pursue it.
“I find my balance in being mostly
German during the week, and
absolutely Brazilian on the weekends.”
— Mona Kuhn
PR: What brought you to your decision to live in San Francisco?
MK: I first came to study at the Ohio State University. They had just inaugurated the Wexner Center, and the space was jamming with artists and performers. From there, I moved to San Francisco mainly because of its topography. I missed seeing the ocean and the hills and a little voice inside of me was looking for trouble! So I started taking classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, and soon thereafter I gravitated to the Getty Research Institute here in Los Angeles, where I now live and have been an independent scholar there since 2005.
PR: Mona, how did you come to be interested in photography?
MK: Because most of our family lived in Europe, we would frequently visit. And my parents had this “wonderful” way of dropping me at museums for the day, so they could get other things done. So I grew up sitting at museum benches looking at art. When you stare at a work of art for quite some time, that piece starts living in your mind. I would walk around in trance imagining metaphors and creating my own fantasies. I took on drawing and charcoal, but it was the speed of photography that got me hooked. I like how fast photography can happen. The challenge lies on how to create your own visual vocabulary within that speed.
PR: How did you come to begin your work in a naturist community in France?
MK: I was introduced to a French naturist community by a dear friend, and fell in love with the place and people right away. It is quite different than anything I have seen in the US. It is a place that could only exist in a European setting. It is a place where people come to escape the world out there, to relax, to disrobe of status and materialism. Nudity is perceived as free and natural. It reflects a basic understanding of freedom and respect that I have not seen anywhere else.
PR: What was your rapport with the group you were shooting?
MK: I don’t really have a script or predetermined rapport. I love the place and the people, and I live my life among my friends. The photography is a small sliver of all these moments we live together. I could maybe say that my motto is to live life and hope art will follow.
PR: Tell me more about your upcoming series titled “Private”…
MK: The desert has two metaphors for me: it is a place where you are tested and a place where you encounter the universe above and within. I usually start a new series intuitively, I read a lot and feed my mind before throwing myself into new situations. At that time, I was reading T.S.Eliot’s “Wasteland” and “4 Quartets,” which addresses similar issues. It is always a mystery what brings me to create a new series, but some of the reading echoed with my inner desire and eventually found a way to my attention.
“The desert has two metaphors:
it is a place where you are tested
and a place where you encounter
the universe above and within. ”
— Mona Kuhn
PR: When did you start photographing “Private”?
MK: It is really important for me to feel a deeper connection before starting a new series. Photography is really just my excuse of keeping a memento of a place or someone who means a lot to me. It was not until our first trip to the high desert, where we spent a weekend together, that it all started happening. Back then, I was still too much in my mind. To me, it all started when you took me by the hand for a desert night walk. You gave me a hands-free miner headlight and we went for a night stroll, embracing an all-surrounding silence, a message. I am not sure if you know this, but that walk was like a plunge into the subconscious for me. I felt I was walking next to a shaman.
PR: I’m glad you recalled our nocturnal walk with such clear night vision. I remember it, too. Perhaps it was just an excuse to show you what is so exhilarating, and that is the desert in the dark – a mystery surrounded by black, and what you cannot see in the few feet ahead of you. That is what is appealing about your books. The images of the people which inhabit them are mysterious; the attending images of their rooms; the textures of the walls; the jungle foliage; the dry, desert landscapes… all those things to me are such a wonderful place to visit through the vision of someone you admire for what they see, unlike the direction I take in the way that I approach photography.
MK: I know what you mean about mysterious, I think we are both drawn to that. It is probably this personal disposition that spills into the ways I photograph people. I am drawn to nudes as timeless forms. I don’t deny our sexuality, but I don’t want to be limited by a one-dimensional representation. I am drawn to beauty as I am drawn to mystery. No one knows where taste comes from. No one really knows where instincts come from either. No one can teach you that.
PR: To me, photography is the record of one’s history. In the studio, I mostly document the works of my brother, who’s an artist, but when I am in a different locale from the studio, I am recording images of the events in my life, and I’m glad to do so, even if it’s mundane and not for so-called fine art photography. I have seen how you shoot your images and it excites me at how focused you are… unlike the shoot-from-the-hip technique that I use. Most of my photography in the field is accidental, and after the fact, I am quite critical of what pictures I have taken. That is why I really appreciate someone like you who is inspired enough to make photo-forays into the wild, so to speak, and find the most amazing images to present as you have in your books.
MK: I am my worst critic, a tyrant. My books are skinny because I am a firm believer that less is more. When I am starting a new series, I go out and photograph almost anything that moves me, even without really knowing why it moves me. Later in the studio, I pin the small prints all over my walls, and live with them for a while. I edit a few out on a daily basis. After about 6 months, there are very few left. Those are the ones that survive and deserve to be in a book. These are images that are closest to my dreams, those I was able to translate into a visual language.
PR: You mentioned you are quite intuitive with your creative process. How do you know when something feels right to you?
MK: Then we continued our trip to Winslow, Arizona, where we stayed at El Gran Garage, your home and warehouse in the desert. Your place is filled with amazing books and your unique collection of art and oddities. It is a universe in itself. I thought we were escaping Los Angeles by driving 8 hours east, but it was not until I entered your place in Winslow that I really felt we were in a different realm. I felt in love with Winslow right away, maybe because it feels rough and fragile at once. It had the emotional tones I was looking for.
“I am my worst critic, a tyrant.
My books are skinny because I am
a firm believer that less is more. ”
— Mona Kuhn
PR: Not many people who come to the desert are professional photographers, but most everyone is awed by the surroundings. The town of Winslow is a dusty, Route 66 byway. My building and a few others in town are exceptional to the norm. The outlying areas leave me spellbound, but it’s wonderful and surprising to me that you could find things to shoot in town, as opposed to the panoramic desert vistas which I think would have more appeal. You were such a welcome relief when you were there because you saw many things that I take for granted. But you also saw similar things that way in the California high desert locales near Joshua Tree. That area just lures one into taking walks after dark, hearing coyotes howling in the hills and not being afraid of the unknown. Of course, it seemed you were so much more cavalier about striking out into uncharted territory than I was when I first went out there into the night. But what is it about those various places draws you into wanting to shoot them? Do certain areas intrigue you, like the naturist colony in France, or the familiar places where you grew up in Sao Paulo? Even though you know those places very well, I sense that you continue to explore the same terrain for new things to discover about your surroundings.
MK: Many things inspire me, it is almost too much. I am always looking at other people’s work, movies, performances. At some point I need to narrow my attention and I usually do so by going into remote areas. I escape all that noise and hide for a while. In the past, it was the naturist colony in France, or the rainforest in Brazil. But recently it was looking for simple things, like the heat and the silence in the desert. Elements that bring your focus back to your core.
PR: Do you have any other places you’d like to check out that you haven’t been to before? What new projects would you like to endeavor?
MK: Just after finishing “Private”, I ran into a glass house in the desert which was a perfect platform for another series titled “Acido Dorado”. It was exhibited in London and NY, and I am looking for the right place to exhibit this series here in Los Angeles. We also have plans to publish it in 2015. So keep an eye out for it!
PR: Well you know me… I can’t wait for your next book! However, I’ll be patient because I trust your process of elimination, as the end results are always fascinating. Boa sorte, Mona!
All images ©Mona Kuhn