• About: Mikael Kennedy's Polaroids

    All photographs reveal a clandestine relationship between photographer and subject. As casual spectators we marvel at the pure aesthetics of the image—the heartbeat of color, landscapes brimming with possibilities, a feeling or idea rendered lyrically by an expressive face—before wondering about the life transpiring behind the camera, and how that photograph—that moment—fits into the photographer's own narrative.

    Mikael Kennedy’s photographs, drawn from decades of traveling throughout the United States, intimately depict the story of an itinerant photographer with no concern for the distinction between life and art. Fond of mythology, his work resurrects a historic romanticism and appreciation for the divinity of American nature, made all the more ecstatic and dreamlike by a preference for Polaroid film. 
    Words by Shona Sanzgiri 
    Polaroids by Mikael Kennedy 

    These instantaneous snapshots, scarce in supply and sensitive to the effects of time, take on a precarious, sometimes tragic significance in Kennedy’s new book, “Year Zero,” a selection of images highlighting a transitional chapter in the photographer’s life: the death of a best friend, the birth of a daughter, a move from New York City to Los Angeles. 

    Though “year zero” comes from Alex Garland’s “The Beach,” Kennedy, who grew up reading anarchist theory, sees the title as a shorthand to describe the process of resetting. At junctures or impasses in his personal life, the photographer reversed course, as if “to sail into an unknown spring, or receive baptism on storm’s promontory, to know the earth under one’s foot and go, in wild delight,” to quote the writer Malcolm Lowry.

    “The idea first became relevant to me in 2003. I was living on an island off the coast of New Hampshire and I thought I was going crazy,” Kennedy says. “I couldn’t face the idea of living a life the way it was presented to me, so instead of fighting that urge I decided to dive headfirst into it, place a marker in my own timeline and head off in a different direction. There are moments after which your life will never be the same, and [the idea is] to allow those moments—or choose them—to be resets.”

    The photos, 50 in all, are not arranged chronologically, though some photos bear date stamps. Instead they have a different rhythm, one that seems to weave through the winding pathways and scenes of Kennedy’s life; a gray cliffside vista so evocative you can taste the saltwater, the demure and occasionally downtrodden eyes of close friends projected from a creaking porch, the incandescent, swirling majesty of New Mexico’s White Sands Desert.

    Having released a previous set of Polaroid books as part of his long-running “Passport to Trespass” series, Kennedy has been consistent and almost obsessive with his output since he first picked up the SX-70 in a Massachusetts thrift shop, going so far as to donate blood in order to purchase more film. Today he’s down to his last 50 packs. The photos in this new book, long past their expiration date, are beginning to show their age. Here the infamous Polaroid colors—creamsicle oranges, brownish yellows, muted greens and blues—don’t seem fashionably nostalgic as they do redolent of a life well-lived. 

    Some of Kennedy’s friends—Sarah Meadows, Mandy Lamb, Mike Brodie—who appear in his books also shot Polaroids at the same time. The group developed a vocabulary for their mistakes, including “ghost fire,” an effect that normally referred to a fall off point in film which obscured portions of a picture, but in Time-Zero film “seemed to fuck up perfectly,” framing subjects with an ethereal halo. 

    “I read a quote by Jackson Pollock where he said, ‘I deny the accidents,’ and I started to relate that to my Polaroids. The mistake becomes the beauty of the image. These ‘flaws’ made each image special,” Kennedy says. 

    In spite of such aesthetic preferences, the photographer isn’t much interested in photography as a technical or intellectual pursuit. Instead, photography is merely a relic. “I’d described Kanye West’s newest album, ‘The Life of Pablo,’ as the flashback of a life delivered in 3 parts. He mythologized his life while living it. In a lot of ways [my work] feels the same.”

    On a recent trip to Mexico, I carried just two books with me: Kennedy’s, and the “half-blood” Native American writer William Least-Heat Moon’s lauded travelogue “Blue Highways,” a book that democratically documents America’s small towns and people, and the lesser-known roads that connect them. I bought the latter in Seattle, a place Kennedy knows well, and the two books were perfectly complimentary. In the afterword of Least-Heat Moon’s, he characterizes the American desire to “head out when the distant side of the beyond seems a lure we can’t resist” as the consequence of our descent from “those who tried to solve old problems with a new place.” 

    Of course, there’s much to compare with Kennedy’s “year zero” in the extremely literal sense, sure. But also, perhaps, in the sense of making choices and embracing their results, here, there, and anywhere. 

    “Biochemists hold that evolution proceeds by random genetic changes—errors—and that each living thing is an experiment within the continuum of trial and error and temporary success. In nature, correct means harmony that breeds survival. Always to demand established routes, habitual ways, then, is to go against the grain of life. But to engage in the continuing experiment is to reach for harmony.” — William Least Heat-Moon, “Blue Highways”

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