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“How Others See Us”

I’ve been following the work of photographer Ken Holden since the day I saw his exhibition at the de Young Museum’s Kimball Gallery in San Francisco a few years ago. The range and potential of the artist were overwhelming, considering he was a relatively unknown fine art photographer.

At the exhibition, I realized that I had seen Ken wandering the museum almost every Saturday, (I used to take my kids to a Saturday morning art class there), and shoot non-stop, visitors, architecture, and textures, but not the artwork on display. Ken was also interested in how people looked through a shattered glass windowpane, or through a raindrop covered plastic tent, or the slow environmental changes throughout the museum – through this, through that as he studied the environment.

It’s hard to talk about what this artist likes. But it’s rather easy to figure out what he doesn’t like: the obvious and perfect reproduction of reality. Ken doesn’t photograph the “postcard” image. Rather, he captures what lies in our imagination on the sidelines of our vision.

Ken and I have stayed in touch since the exhibition at the de Young Museum and, recently, I got to hang out with him and had a long chat about his life, career and passions.

Ken’s recent collection of work is titled, “How Others See Us.” Like his earlier work, this collection requires the viewer to stop and observe what he or she is looking at. Is it a painting? Is it mixed-media? Or, is it a photograph or drawing? One has to study the image to understand what it is and what the story underneath it is. It takes the viewer a few seconds to realize that he or she is looking at a photograph and not a painting. The subjects of men, women, and children are blurry and seem to hurry to some unknown place. To create his style, Ken follows his subjects with his camera during long exposures. This in-camera technique isolates the subject from the environment intentionally blurring the background achieving a painterly effect photographically. His images look like they have been painted by his eye, or his artistic skill, or his mental thoughts and captured at the moment they all intersected in time.  And, what was invisible to us suddenly becomes visible.

What happens outside the camera is life in constant motion. People are seldom static, ever moving, and dynamic. In our daily lives we participate individually in this blur of motion going to and from different places. Because we are often preoccupied with thoughts, various distractions and unconscious observations, we miss “seeing” our surroundings. Technically, images are post-processed using standard image processing software without the use of software filters, or other manipulations for effect. Instead, the visual effect is created in-camera.

What happens inside the camera is quite simple, as the artist explains. Ken uses a long focal length lens, 100mm – 400mm, to compress the field of view so the image is “flat.” Tracking subjects with his lens, he uses a slow shutter speed creating the blur, yet retaining some area within the image in sharp focus. This is a balancing act requiring practice to achieve the precise timing to create the visual style.

Ken’s website,, includes videos on how he “sees” images, detailed graphs on projects (for example the number of exposures per weekly visit over a three year period) and other creative insights. Ultimately, Ken’s photographs record a world imagined and how it is in real-time. There is psychology behind his vision that raises questions about how we look at photography. You have to use your mind and not just your eyes to appreciate the images he creates.












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