Photographer Profile - Karen Kuehn: "I don't feel like a machine, but rather very human"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 21, 2017

Karen Kuehn  enjoys the perks of working as a stills photographer on film and television productions.

“They feed you several times a day, for one thing,” she says.

She also enjoys the regular paycheck she gets from the job. For the past 16 years, Kuehn has been living in Peralta, New Mexico, a little town down the road from Albuquerque. Before that, she was one of the most in-demand editorial and advertising photographers in New York, shooting for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly and Saturday Night Live, where she produced the show’s famous “bumper” photos.

“But I never really wanted to be there,” she says. “I had a friend who was living out in the country in New Mexico, and when I called her I heard chickens. I said, ‘Do you really have chickens?’ I wanted to be there.”

Now she has chickens. “I’m a farm girl,” she says. “I’ve got six acres, I grow my own food, raise my own beef, scoop horse poop, and do photography. I have a great life. It isn’t the money life I had in New York, but I could never move back there. I love it here.”

The big challenge she has faced living in the great American outback has been maintaining what she calls “sustainability” as a professional photographer. With photo editors and ad agency art buyers, a photographer who’s out of sight can be out of mind. That’s why she began doing the film unit work on productions in the area — most recently NBC’s upcoming show Midnight, Texas. She’s edged her way into Local 600, the camera operator union, which will help her get more jobs.

“I had to go through a lot of backdoors to get into the industry, but it’s what I’ve got to do to be here,” Kuehn says. On the side, she wrangles horses for the productions.

She still takes advertising and editorial assignments — “I got a call from an art buyer one time, and he said, ‘Was that a rooster I just heard?’ So there you go,” she says — and the blazing creative impulse that propelled her in New York is still there. Between her other jobs, Kuehn has crowdfunded a series of photo books about Burning Man, for instance, and has even planned out her own Burning Man sculpture.

“It’s sort of Richard Serra meets James Turrell,” she says. “I thought New York was a creative environment, but there’s more creativity in 13 days at Burning Man than I saw in 16 years in New York.” In addition there's a long-range plan for a personal still-life project about humans and animals that Kuehn describes as “a very Nine Inch Nails, early Joel Peter Witkin kind of thing.”

Last year she also crowdfunded a retrospective book called Maverick Camera: The Photographs and Stories of Karen Kuehn. It is as filled with as much creative energy as Kuehn herself.

“It’s really big and heavy,” she says. “It’s a weapon.”

Sharp Observations

In fact the 12 x 12-inch book weighs about four pounds. Inside are some 200 of her photographs, give or take a few, that trace Kuehn’s life and career back to the late 1980s.  “I started going through all my pictures back in 2009,” she says. “I have 25 old wooden filing cabinets filled with negatives. That’s a lot of negatives.” The collection of commercial, editorial and personal work showcases what have always been Kuehn’s strengths as a photographer — the ability to communicate big ideas in a single frame and to improvise when necessary.

Such as the time in 1989 when Interview magazine sent her to photograph the noted New York sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein. Kuehn had arranged to shoot the portrait in a jail cell but at the last minute Fairstein balked at the idea of being photographed in the vicinity of people she might have put behind bars. Instead she ushered Kuehn into a nondescript office with a table and chair and a few law books. “My heart grew heavy,” Kuehn writes in the book. Then an idea: Kuehn had the prosecutor throw the book at her.

And there was the time in 1989 The New York Times magazine sent her to shoot photographer Sally Mann, who had become controversial for taking nude photos of her children. Kuehn had Mann pose nude while her fully-clothed children “censored” her body with leaves.

She had director Robert Altman play solitaire with tarot cards and fed filmmaker Michael Moore a gallon of ice cream before shooting him draped in 35mm film from a music video she’d shot. “He looked at me and said that I must be a very mentally healthy person to be able to destroy my own film. I never thought about it because I was on to new images,” Kuehn writes.

The book's texts — fleeting memories and sharp observations laid out like prose poems — are important to Kuehn. “I like words with pictures,” she says. “I want people to read this book and dog-ear the pages. I like to think of Heidi Klum sitting on the toilet with her panties down reading my book.”

Let that image sink in for a moment.

Someone who has seen the book recently told Kuehn that it amounted to a record of the choices she’d made in her life. It’s also heavy with the insights she’s gained as a photographer over the years. One of the pictures she included shows a young girl named Suzie in a tutu with butterfly wings and a magic wand. It was made in 2005 as part of a marketing campaign for the University of Michigan Hospital; the girl was a leukemia survivor. Her mother later sent Kuehn a snapshot of Suzie posing in front of a giant billboard with Kuehn’s photo of her on it.

“It’s these sort of snaps that mean the most to me. Symbolizing. Appreciation. Connection. A job well done,” Kuehn writes. “Often photographers are used as  tools. I don’t feel like a machine but rather very human.”

The Former Park Ranger

Kuehn grew up in Long Beach, California, in a Brady Bunch blended family of three boys and three girls. “My stepfather had boats and dirt bikes and fishing poles and we did all that,” she says. Summers were spent riding horses with her biological father on a ranch in Oregon. Her family often went camping in Yosemite National Park, and at age 19 she got a job as a seasonal park ranger.

“It was supposed to be for only three months, but when it was time to leave I said, ‘I don’t want to go back, I want to stay here,’” she says. She stayed another three months and thereafter worked as a seasonal ranger for the next four years.

Between stints in Yosemite she studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena — the dichotomy between art and the outdoors already making itself apparent in her life — and then moved on to an internship at National Geographic.

“I wanted to work either for Geographic or Rolling Stone, so I wrote to both of them and got in at Geographic. I was in Washington, D.C. two days after I graduated from Art Center,” she says. “I stayed there for six months, and then Tom Kennedy, the photo editor, told me I needed to move to New York. I stressed out because New York was the last place I wanted to go.”

But she went and became one of the coolest photographers in town. Then she moved to New Mexico, where she remains cool — Paul Rudd says so. Last year Kuehn was working on a movie the actor was filming in Santa Fe when he spotted her. Stills photographers can be overlooked amid the creative intensity of a film set, but not Kuehn.

“He said, ‘You’re the coolest person here, I’m gonna hang out with you,’ Kuehn says. “I said, ‘You can’t hang out with me. They’ll fire me.’”