Kenneth Axelson:
Why I Make Photographs
When I was eleven years old I purchased a twenty-five cent "Tri-Chem" pack and a fifty cent 25 sheet 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 "Velox" pack of paper at the local photographic shop. With this, a ten cent roll of film, some clothes pins and few dishes, I was ready to launch into photography.
The "Tri-Chem" pack contained enough universal developer, stop bath, and fixer to make up to 16 ounces of each of the working solutions - all the darkroom chemicals you need to get started in small foil packages no larger than a 3 1/2 inch floppy disk. The camera was my grandmother's old pre-war Agfa box camera.

Even though the first roll of home processed film was slightly fogged, it did have images on it - and I was hooked. I couldn't get enough of this photography stuff - every spare cent went into taking and making photographs. Less than a dollar a week was required to feed my habit, and I felt compelled to make pictures.

This was exciting; photos were for me to communicate my view of the world to family and friends. Photographs speak in terms that compel attention to a small quadrangle of paper, at least for a few seconds. During these few seconds a statement is conveyed - this is me, this is how I see the world, this is how I feel. This is why I make photographs.

What the Photos Say
When I was five or six years old I noticed that the world had changed, seemingly quite suddenly, and that everything had a very different look compared to how it appeared when I was much younger. (A friend of mine was reading this and said, "This is quite a story, but you don't really remember." But I do - I'm not making this stuff up!) After thinking about it for a while, I realized that the difference was due to my physical growth and ability to walk.

During early childhood the world consisted of views of the bottoms of tables, close-up sights of the legs of chairs, intimate observations of adult kneecaps, and grand vistas of ceilings. The world was new - nothing had been seen before and the psychological filters were not fully in place. A child sees things through innocent eyes - the eyes of an explorer seeing the never before seen, and two things aid in the uniqueness of a child's view.

First, the size of a child forces a viewpoint quite different from that of an adult. Second, a child sees without stereotyped perceptions. After years of predigested world views being presented to us by the various media we forget that there are different ways of looking at an object. The images we see are usually "stock photos." Some art director has deemed a given image to be so representative of a particular object that we often think that this is the correct and only way of seeing it.

There are many ways to look at something, but there is no right or wrong way, just different ways. To this end, I use my "innocent eyes" and try to see something as if for the first time and with the hope of being able to communicate to a viewer some of the wonder, strangeness, and beauty that I see in so many of the things that surround us.

How It is Said
I move about the X, Y, and Z coordinate space to find unique and interesting viewpoints. Using a low angle of view, looking down from above, and creating an unusual perspective are all three space tools for innocent eyes. However, there are other tools.

Time (t) is a dimension that can be used to speak of its invisible movement. I do not often use the camera to freeze a moment in time (the fast shutter speeds on my cameras are virtually unused). Rather, I prefer to use longer exposures and show how time flows as another dimensional continuum. I'd rather show how a person's timeline flows through and around other objects than show a static image of that person.

Another tool that I use involves a concept I call "Tunneling." Tunneling (T) involves the use of contrast techniques to bring forth the view of the very blood vessels under the skin of a person - you tunnel through the person's skin and hopefully see a different aspect of that person. This does not make for cover girl-type pictures, but then I don't really want to capture that kind of image. It allows me to get an "under the skin" viewpoint that is actually more "natural" than the conventional, flawless skin-type view.

I work mostly in 35 millimeter. In order of usefulness, the lenses I use are 50 millimeter, 17 millimeter, 100 millimeter, 7.5 millimeter, and sometimes 200 millimeter focal lengths. A critic might say that the use of a 17 millimeter lens is a gimmick and that it is not how people actually see. These critics would be wrong.

The human eye has a focal length in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 millimeters. The view given by a 17 millimeter lens very closely duplicates the view given by the human eye. Try this experiment.

Close one eye and place the thumb of your hand on the nasal step of your nose. Spread your hand out and look. You'll see your thumb with your hand sharply receding into the perspective and the background, exactly the view that I give using a 17 millimeter lens.

If you've ever sighted down the edge of a board to see if it's straight you are also aware of the "strange" perspective. This close up perspective is common with children as they examine their environment, since they're born myopic or "near sighted." With maturity, a child's vision becomes "normal." The child learns from society what the "correct" viewpoint is supposed to be, losing the "innocent eyes" viewpoint.

Using X, Y, Z, t, T, and perspective, I hope to reawaken in people their innocent eyes and hope they will see things a little differently.

Kenneth Axelson lives in Katy, Texas.

All contents copyright The New Journal, 2001.