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The Heaviness of Memory: Unpacking Personal Archives

In September and October of 2016, Klea McKenna and Trent Davis Bailey met at McKenna’s studio in the newly developed Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco. While conversing about their work as artists, they reminisced about their separate upbringings in the American West, and their mutually unfolding influences of kin, environment, and archive. McKenna first discovered Bailey’s work through his MFA thesis exhibition at the California College of the Arts in 2015, six years after she had graduated from the same program. She felt a pull to his photographs and once she looked up his back-story she discovered many of them were made in the town of Paonia, Colorado, which happens to be the birthplace of her father. She then contacted Bailey to let him know about the coincidence. They’ve since become friends and have noticed other parallels. Perhaps it is not surprising then that both of them make work that is the result of chance encounters grounded in places of personal significance. The following dialogue is an excerpt from their two studio visits.

Trent Davis Bailey: Let’s begin with your 2008 project, The Butterfly Hunter. How did this body of work come about?

Klea McKenna: In the year 2000, my dad died of brain cancer, and one of the things I inherited from him was an old-fashioned travelling-type trunk that was filled with butterfly specimens he had collected from 1969 to 1972 in Indonesia and Colombia. They were folded up in these little triangular, origami-like folds of paper just as he had collected them. Normally people use a special type of acid-free paper to do that, but he didn’t have that with him so he used scraps of magazine pages, local newspapers, visa documents, even pieces of his own writing, and whatever else he had available. As an artist, I knew I would have to do something with it, but I hadn’t been able to figure out quite what that was. Throughout my twenties, I moved from apartment to apartment with this thing underneath my bed.

TB: Did it become a burden?

KM: Yeah, it became a burden. It smelled like mothballs. It was this strange and psychologically heavy object. I had poked around in it, opened it up, and peered into it, but I hadn’t really unpacked it because it was so daunting. After I began unpacking it, it was immediately clear that the butterflies were beautiful and interesting, but the real stories were in the pieces of paper. It was not just an archive of these specimens, but it was also this archive of world news from that period and a chronicle of my dad’s journey. Eventually, I unpacked all 2000 of them and photographed about 500.

TB: What came to your mind as you were unpacking them?

KM: I liked to think about my dad wrapping up each specimen one-by-one. I envisioned us having this parallel experience across time. For me, in that moment of discovery, I’m opening it up and I’m imagining him closing it 40 years earlier in all of these strange places. I picture him in tents in the Amazon and rented bungalows in Asia where he’s closing up these little time capsules.

TB: Well, I’d say you’re extending that legacy of working in wild places. For me, a lot of your recent work uses the natural world as a depository that you re-purpose photographically. Do you agree?

KM: Sure. People often refer to my work as abstract, but most of it is extremely indexical. I think my newest work, Automatic Earth, does what you’re proposing. The prints are “photographic rubbings,” which is a term I made up. These “rubbings” are essentially photograms made by hand-embossing light sensitive paper into surfaces in the landscape—crumbling cement, cross-sections of trees, and cracks in the earth—and then exposing them to light so the image of the texture is fixed. I often piece these prints together to create fictional forms and large installations. In the case of the tree rings, each tree is actually an archive, a historical and ecological record of how time passes in a particular place.

TB: How do you think you established this meticulous way of seeing the natural world?

KM: I think it began with an assumed animism that I learned from my parents and from the nature I grew up in—essentially the belief that everything is alive. This worldview is very common in other cultures, particularly indigenous cultures, but seems odd within our context. My parents were both ethnobotanists and they had absorbed this way of seeing from the cultures and traditions they studied. If you extend the idea of a landscape being alive then you can begin to ask questions such as: What is the character of this place? What are its desires and motivations? And how are those reflected in all the organisms and forms within it? This line of questioning is very productive for an artist.

TB: Your photograms remind me of artists like Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy who utilized abstraction to react to the materialism of the 1920s and the horrors of World War I. In our current cultural climate, I see your work as a reaction to the fast-paced urgency of urban life and the looming environmental consequences of an industrialized world. I also see you pushing against the ubiquity and instant gratification of digital photography.

KMI’m glad you see it that way. An art idea is first a prescription for the artist who makes it and then for the viewer who sees it. My ideas are often prescriptions for me to go spend long, slow, uncomfortable amounts of time in nature and almost always in the dark. That must be what I need or maybe it’s the way I do my reckoning as a reaction to our current way of life. It’s my hope that the physical relationship I have with the materials, and the role manual labor plays in this work, gives it a sort of rawness and sensuality that a digital photograph may not have.

TBDid you ever make straight photographs?

KM: Yes, but I stopped about nine years ago. I was looking for a kind of transformation and visual freedom that I wasn’t finding anymore in straight photography. I wanted to recover the feeling I had for photography as a teenager—the feeling of sliding paper into developer and having no idea what it was going to look like. Alchemy, rather than replication, was what I was craving.

KMNow, let’s talk about The North Fork, the project that you’ve been working on in Colorado. You’ve been going to the town of Paonia, which is also coincidentally where my dad grew up. Without knowing it, I think that connection might be what drew me to your photographs. Can you talk about what brought you there?

TB: In the beginning it was this search for a familial connection. I had not seen my aunt, uncle, or cousins, who lived in Paonia, in almost 20 years. I had fond memories of visiting them as a boy and even as an adult I was enamored by the thought of them living off the land in a large tent in the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, after only a few visits in the early 1990s, my dad and my uncle had a falling out, which is why I hadn’t been back. However, in a strange way, that fracture was a blessing for my own creativity.

KM: It gave you all this room to imagine the valley rather than to have a real relationship with it…

TB: Yeah. I had developed this mythical image of the North Fork and I had this insatiable need to see the valley for myself.

KM: While looking at your North Fork pictures, I have noticed many of the people are in moments of pause or puzzlement. They appear as if they are trying to understand something, and I can’t help but see them as surrogates for you in this process of trying to solve this family puzzle.

TBSure. I view many of the people in my pictures as guides who have helped me with this work. Also, I think “the pause” in these pictures points to a slower perception of time—a kind of rural time when viewed in a predominately urban world.

KM: I can see you’re focused on changing light and seasons, too. It also seems like some of the people in your pictures are responding to light, which is a beautiful circle. Can you talk more about how you’ve made time a subject?

TB: Sure. If you think about it, many of our memories are not imbued with the same type of running time that we experience in our daily lives. Instead, we often remember a snippet of a larger scene that gets pared down to a moment.

KM: Like a flash…

TB: Exactly. Light itself can be moment-driven. For example, if I think of the tent my cousins lived in I can distinctly remember the radiant glow inside of it. Some of my North Fork pictures actually reference that luminousness.

KM: Tell me about your newest project, which seems to embrace an investigative way of observing. Can you briefly describe it?

TB: Yes. With this new project, I’m considering my unusual connection to Sioux City, Iowa, a municipal center situated on the banks of the Missouri River. On July 19, 1989, my mom and my two brothers left Denver on a family vacation and boarded United Airlines Flight 232 bound for Chicago. They were on their way to meet my dad and me on the East Coast, but halfway to Chicago, the plane malfunctioned and lost control of an engine and all of its hydraulics. With disabled maneuverability, the pilots attempted an emergency landing at Sioux Gateway Airport, but sadly, the plane landed askew, spiraled violently, broke apart, and burst into flames. Miraculously more than half the passengers survived, including my two brothers, but many died, including my mom. For me, that day is both a tragedy and a miracle. In response, I’m embarking on a new project where I’m using Sioux City as my point of departure.

KM: So, this work combines your photographs in the present day with archival images from 1989?

TB: Yes, but I’m still grappling with what form the archive will take. Earlier this year, I reached out to Tim Hynds, Chief Photographer at the Sioux City Journal, who confirmed that the newspaper had an archive of materials related to the crash: black-and-white 35mm negatives, newspaper clippings, and related ephemera. I’ve since scanned most of the negatives from the archive, which are the prints you’re looking at now.

KM: Working with archival and found material and integrating it with one’s own photographs is it’s own formal and conceptual challenge. How are you finding your voice in them?

TB: As of now, I’m taking into account the existing formal qualities of the archive, and I’m thinking about the delivery of the material. For me, there’s something profound about the dust, scratches, and stains — the debris — that have accumulated on these negatives depicting the crash. Additionally, there are some incredibly touching human moments, which I love, as well as these mundane pictures that don’t seem to serve any particular news context. It’s also unique that I can look at these exposures representing the last minutes of my mom’s life.

KM: Looking at this selection makes me think that when something newsworthy happens we only see the cover image, a headline and text, and maybe a few supporting pictures, but the depth of reporting goes far beyond what the public sees. It would be my guess that only a handful of these were published, right?

TB: Exactly. There are several iconic pictures that have been widely circulated. Those pictures are ingrained in my personal memory and have influenced the collective memory of the crash. In fact, this is probably the most well known picture by photojournalist Gary Anderson, which shows Lt. Co. Dennis Neilson carrying a little boy. That boy happens to be my twin brother, Spencer who was not quite four years old. It’s difficult and eerie to see him in such an unconscious state and at a time when I wasn’t old enough to have a memory of him. When this picture was published it was tightly cropped and vertically oriented. Seeing it opened up and unedited like this, along with the rest of the archive, has broadened my viewpoint.

KM: Where do you see this project going next?

TB: Overall, I see this project as an opportunity for me to reframe the crash. Even though I wasn’t onboard Flight 232, it significantly shaped my life. And I know I’m not alone in this: thousands of others have also been directly or indirectly affected. I intend to connect with them, collect stories, and see where this work leads me. There’s solidarity and vulnerability in our shared connection that I’d like to make visible.