Mona Kuhn – Native

Copyright Mona Kuhn 2009 courtesy Steidl

It has taken me a little longer to review Native, the third of the Kuhn titles published by Steidl (Photographs, 2004, and Evidence, 2007) as I am intrigued by her photographic books. I very interested in acquiring and reviewing her earlier work to place this book into a broader context. I sense that her vision has matured and see evidence of the subtle but wonderful changes reflected in each subsequent photobook.

Native is in essence a landscape book in the broadest sense, perhaps better described as an intimate, maybe even private, landscape. There is a wonderful mix of natural habitants which explore inner emotions and feeling combined with interior landscapes that frame an inner place, again both physically and emotionally. The explorations of the terrain are poetic descriptions of dense eco-system; tightly framed and composed in lush saturated greens with sparkling dewy highlights, resulting in an abstraction, without really defining an actual location and place.

What might be best described as interior landscapes are bare walls, translucent windows and an interior space. In and amongst these places are her nude subjects, who provide an introspective chemistry to this body of work. In contemplating these intimate landscapes, it becomes all the more private as Kuhn indirectly reveals herself.

Consistent with her earlier practice, Kuhn’s photographic style embraces her use of a mix of sharply focused with narrow or out of focused images, which are not sharply defined and in fact abstract, as though she is providing the opportunity to participate in a shared but softly defined memory.

One key aspect of a book versus an exhibition, or even a group of individual photographs, is the sequencing and order of the photographs. I will admit, while initially scanning a new book, I don’t always proceed from the beginning of the book and sequence to the back, nevertheless, a book is planned for that eventuality.  Native shares with Kuhn’s prior book, Evidence, in sequencing from a sun drenched daytime to a final eerie and inky black night-scape, creating a sense of passing time. The duration of time is an unanswered, but intriguing question. Since this is Kahn’s second consecutive book providing a subtle narrative alluding to the passing of time, the passing of time is an important concept for her, but the details of which are both vague and alluring. She creates sufficient space to insert our individual stories about the meaning of the passing of time.

The very first photograph in the book is an interior photograph; the viewpoint includes curtains in disarray bordering a window, beyond which appears an early morning light. It is the start of a new day as well as the beginning of her narrative for the place of her birth. The subsequent photographs of the terrain, interiors and her models, progress from open light to cast shadow, ending with the mysteriously darken jungle.

In this book, Kuhn’s subjects evoke a sense of intimacy that they are comfortable in their skin and situation, without the feeling of being forced into unnatural positions and static interactions. In her first Steidl book, Photographs, the models in the Black and White series appear to be friends and acquaintances. On the contrary, the arrangement of her models in Evidence feels pushed, creating an unrequited tension that runs counter to the potentially relaxed situations. It feels that with the transition to the photographs for Evidence, Kuhn has to provide more direction without the opportunity to develop the same sense of personal connection, trust and intimacy.

The men and women who inhabit Kuhn’s Native are allowed to directly connect with the viewer. I am not sure of the reason for the changes in her working methods for this current book, but for me it is noticeable and appears to me that she has created a very interesting body of work as a result.

Kuhn has captured a sense of calm and a strong feeling of introspection. I also note that in this book, her subjects are native to the environment and have shared backgrounds and potential relationships. There appears to be a desire to avoid complex multi-subject arrangements and by simplifying the compositions, has created more intriguing narratives. Through the book, her portraits are occasionally pared up with photographs of the natural terrain, creating another complex layer of questions about relationships, equivalence and connections, and I find no easy answers.

In traditional Steidl style, this photobook is beautifully printed and hard bound, with splendid essays by Shelley Rice and Wayne Vesti Anderson, both provided in English. This is Kuhn’s best book to date and recommended.

by Douglas Stockdale

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