California Photographer Joins State Library Foundation
Mary Beth Barber is the special projects coordinator for the California State Library, and at one time took workshops from Kennedy and other local photographers, shot hundreds of rolls of 35mm black and white film, and spent a great number of hours in The Darkroom as part of Sacramento’s creative photographic community.
Photography is everywhere in today’s digital world, but finding expert craftsmen and women who have a deep knowledge of the world of chemical-based photography are a dying breed. Rarer still are those with deep knowledge of the historic techniques and equipment from the early days of photography, with large negatives and boxy cameras that appear simple and quaint from today’s perspective, but which were wonderous at the time of their invention and first use.
One of those connections is Gene Kennedy, the latest employee to join the ranks of the California State Library Foundation, working with Executive Director Brittneydawn Cook as administrative assistant. As administrative assistant, Kennedy will be helping in daily office work as well as lending a hand at events and exhibits.
Kennedy joins the Foundation after a long career as a photography expert not only in the making of art/documentary photos, but also in the technical craftsmanship of the paper and chemical processes of the medium. Much of Kennedy’s time has been devoted to teaching at local colleges and focusing on his photography including his Yosemite series California’s Cathedral of Spirit, currently on display at the historic Library and Courts Building. But he’s offered his administrative and craftsman expertise part-time to the Foundation as well.
Most photography aficionados in the Sacramento region and beyond who have been working prior to the digital boom are familiar with Kennedy’s work. He was an art gallery director, has taught at more than a dozen educational institutions (currently at Butte College), and has photographs in collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the California State Library, among others.
Kennedy is most admired locally as the ambitious photography lover whose business served as a creative lab for photographers for a decade between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. He was the founder and original owner of The Darkroom, a do-it-yourself photography rental lab in east Sacramento. The facility served many budding photographers along with professionals intent on crafting their own final products.
I, myself, have known Gene Kennedy for decades, first as a student of The Darkroom workshops, and later as an apprentice working at The Darkroom behind the counter, prepping chemicals and cleaning trays in exchange for the opportunity to learn photographic craftsmanship that would typically come with a high price tag at an arts school.
Kennedy grew up just outside San Diego in the 1950s and ’60s. He received a 35mm camera in high school and began a years-long affiliation with nature and wilderness. When he entered college at San Diego State, he expected to leave as a high school math teacher, an ambition he chuckles about now. “I have no idea what calculus is anymore,” he said.
It was a geology professor by the name of Baylor Brooks who ignited Kennedy’s passion for nature photography with the gift of two Sierra Club Exhibit Format books, Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon, which featured the photographs of Philip Hyde, among others, and Glen Canyon: The Place No One Knew by Eliot Porter.
Porter’s color images of Glen Canyon of the past inspired Kennedy, especially because Glen Canyon was drowned into Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made reservoirs created by damming the Colorado River on the Arizona-Utah border. The images were taken with large-format cameras, which allowed for incredible detail. It inspired Kennedy to learn the technique. “I purchased every large-format book I could.”
“At that point I was an Ansel Adams groupie,” said Kennedy. He was particularly keen on Adams’ and other photographers’ “Zone System” for black and white photography, using a scale of ten variations of gray, from pure white to pure black, to determine the technical settings for film exposure and development. As he learned and perfected his craft, Kennedy focused on landscapes beginning with environment and nature, but eventually turned to man’s imprint on the landscape. There’s a constant theme in much of Kennedy’s work that could be described as man’s interference with Mother Earth
For State Library supporters, this may sound familiar. Years ago, the Foundation and State Library acquired a collection of Kennedy’s prints of new subdivisions being built on otherwise pristine open land in Southern California. Gary Kurutz wrote about the pieces in the State Library Foundation Bulletin in July 1990, in an article titled “Violations of the Landscape: The California Photography of Gene Kennedy.” View Camera magazine in 1989 had a similar take; “Gene Kennedy: Ravaged Landscapes” was the title of that article.
As Kennedy explained to David Best in 2012 for a profile in Black and White magazine, at some point Kennedy pivoted from the beautiful landscapes and began to focus on the disruptions. “I saw cul-de-sacs as metaphors because I saw all this development as a dead end. It doesn’t seem sustainable,” he told Best for the article. Kennedy saw the same sense of loss in California’s dwindling reservoirs during the long drought that ended in 1992 and captured these landscapes as well.
One notable non-landscape subject from Kennedy was the buildings and acreage of Gladding, McBean, the historic ceramics company in Lincoln, founded in 1875, that specializes in everything from sewer pipe to architectural terra cotta. The company’s artisans had a significant impact on California architecture in the first half of the twentieth century, including the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, the iconic Spanish-revival buildings at Stanford University, and even the façade of the historic Library and Courts Building. The company’s manuscript and photo collections are preserved at the California State Library and include over 10,000 film and glass-plate negatives of the artists and their works for over 6,500 architectural terra cotta projects.
Kennedy learned about the factory when he lived in Lincoln in the 1990s and served as a docent for the immensely popular “Feats of Clay” exhibition, an annual national competition of fine-art ceramics presented inside the “pottery.” A tour of Feats of Clay included a tour of the pottery. “It was a living museum,” he said of the decades-old factory containing huge kilns, the machinery of production, old pottery molds, and the remains of ceramic objects from the past century.
Kennedy took groups of photographers to the pottery for workshops for 16 years and was able to make his own images at the same time. The results are a dynamic series of photographs of architectural craftsman- ship, the environment of historic century-old buildings, and finely sculpted figures in clay, left from decades of production.
Cathedral of Spirit
Northern California has been a quiet hub for photography since the early days of its invention. The images of Yosemite by Ansel Adams are burned into the minds of the general public, but the majesty of California’s wilderness started with an early master of the craft, Carleton Watkins. Watkins was the first to produce multiple images of Yosemite that were seen by the general public, and the State Library has a large collection of his images and negatives. Yosemite was a favored subject for Adams and Watkins and Kennedy too. His prints on display on the first floor of the Library and Courts Building bear a resemblance to Ansel Adams’ and Carleton Watkins’ work in setting and obvious love of nature, but also its disruptions.
Kennedy’s images include the imprint of humans on the environment, imperfections in this otherwise perfect landscape, a photographic image of perfect imperfections. Kennedy’s prints are meticulous in their craft, with minute details in black and white, the full Zone scale utilized. The images themselves, however, depict flaws: a downed and cracked tree, a line of trash cans in nature’s cathedral of Yosemite Valley, a perfectly round hole where it shouldn’t be in a natural landscape, obviously created by man. “He often has a dividing line in his photos showing what man has done to the natural world,” noted local photographer David Dawson, who studied with Kennedy in the 1980s and ’90s.
Legacy of The Darkroom
One of Kennedy’s greatest accomplishments was likely also the most difficult: owning a small business, especially an artistic small business. Kennedy created The Darkroom in Sacramento in the mid-1980s after leading a gallery at a community college in San Diego County. Life changes inspired the move as well: his father died, which inspired a sense of purpose and direction while also providing capital to invest. The result of this investment led to a unique location for community and artistic inspiration.
Many local photographers were referred to The Darkroom and Kennedy’s teaching by local photography professionals. Dawson discovered The Darkroom after a suggestion by a professional photography lab in the early 1990s, and within a year he was back in community college taking Kennedy’s large format course, despite a distinguished career as a working professional for the State of California for decades.
The lure of the craft was part love of art, part science, but also part camaraderie. The Darkroom was clean, supplied with accurate chemistry that was made fresh, and correctly calibrated high-end equipment. “It was a well-manicured laboratory,” noted Dawson, one that rivaled the most expensive art schools.
But it was the spirit of collaboration and sharing of ideas that The Darkroom and Kennedy truly nurtured. Kennedy was constant in his willingness to share advice and technique tips, and never imposed his own sense of artistry on others. He’s not about imposing his artistic sense on others, noted Dawson. “Gene is dedicated to (helping create) the best photo possible, period.”
For many photographers, the craft can be a lonely one. Kennedy combated that by investing in creating a community at The Darkroom. The facility became an artistic playground, as professionals willingly provided advice to novices, and experienced photographers helped each other. That sense of high quality and community lives on throughout Sacramento with establishments like the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center, a photography collective currently on J Street in Midtown that has dozens of members who first learned the craft at The Darkroom under Kennedy’s tutelage.
“Gene’s high standards are lurking in the background,” said Dawson of the work at Viewpoint. “They certainly are with me.”
Kennedy sold The Darkroom in 1996 to a former employee. By the early 2000s, digital photography advanced and do-it-yourself labs nationwide closed their doors. The stand-alone facility of The Darkroom was shuttered, and the best of the equipment and business name was shuttled to and eventually absorbed by another photography-related business: Photosource.
Kennedy continues to make film negatives but prints using digital technology now that the printers have caught up to the quality of chemical printing. But, just as important is the storage of pictures. Saving the original image on a computer without a physical product unsettles Kennedy. “I like to be able to hold my negatives,” he said. “I feel confident they will last. I don’t know if that’s true with digital files.”
Today Kennedy is teaching at Butte College part-time, on leave due to the Covid pandemic. His knowledge and understanding of film photography, archival storage, and the processes that went into historic images can be a key asset that Kennedy brings to the Foundation. But equally important is his generosity, professionalism, honesty, and sense of teamwork.
This article came from Foundation Bulletin #125, pp. 22 to 31. See foundation website for more info.