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Interview with photographer Chris Keeney

Posted 19 April, 2007 in Interviews + Pinhole

I met California-based experimental photographer/camera builder Chris Keeney on Flickr. He’ll shoot with anything that crosses his path: pinholes, toy cameras, digital, a pair of glasses, a can of Spam… he seems willing to try literally anything at least once. We decided to interview each other via email, a first for both of us. The process turned out to be a lot more interesting and a lot less straightforward than I expected, with both of us going back and questioning a lot of basics. Not always comfortable, but definitely rewarding.

You can see some of Keeney’s diverse body of work at his web site,, and at his photoblog on Flickr.

Nicolai: While you’re a professional graphic designer, your photographic work seems to embrace chaotic experimentation, which stands in stark contrast to the regimented, almost fetishistically controlled, compositional characteristics that most photography by designers exhibits. What are the patterns of influence between your design work and your photography, and how do you feel about them?

Chris Keeney: Ever since I was a little, I have enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together—often just so I could see how they were “put together.” I think I took that thinking along with me into my design and photography. Believe it or not, the renowned graphic designer David Carson was one of my high school teachers—but in social studies, not graphic design. I think of his design and photography in regard to the “chaotic experimentation” you mention above. My junior year, Carson asked me to be one of the photographers for the school yearbook, but my GPA was in need of some attention, I had to pass on his offer. Probably a career-altering decision and certainly a painful lesson in the distracting effects of putting too much time into extracurricular activities.

While in high school (Torrey Pines High School) I worked closely with my two commercial art teachers (Fred Marinello), who took me aside one day and said: “Chris, I think it’s best you learn the basic principles of art before you go out there and start breaking them.” So that began my apprenticeship for the next two years: color studies, gestalt principles, typography, etc. I had no clue that all this was just the beginning of my art education. One of my teachers noticed my love for photography and suggested that I apply to RIT in upstate New York. He had gone there in the 60’s and felt a little cold air would help “chill” this artistic rebel a bit. So I did.

While at RIT, I took both design and photography classes. I had learned so much from being a TA in high school that I accepted an offer from one of the fine art photography professors to be his assistant. It was my first whiff of the rarefied air of ‘art photography.’ I started experimenting with infrared film, wideangle lenses, long exposure, painting with light, solarizations, Liquid Light, etc. During that time, I remember seeing a series of images by a photo student friend, made entirely with a Bazooka Joe camera. They were some of the best photos I’d seen yet—all made with a tiny toy camera. I thought wow—all these photo geeks walking around the halls with Hasselblads and my friend blows them out of the water with a camera that she got in the mail, from sending in a few candy wrappers. Up to that point I had been thinking Zeiss this and Leitz that, but from then on I understood that it wasn’t about the camera—it was what you did with it.

One night I went to a lecture by Jerry Uelsmann. His genre-defying work (all pre-photoshop), this weird concoction of Magritte, Man Ray and Ansel Adams, opened my mind to the possibilities of using my photographs as a canvas to be worked upon—the reverse of the traditional view that sees the camera working upon the canvas of nature and the world. I felt for the first time it would be possible for me to combine my love of design and photography and thereby see the world around me in new ways.

As time progressed and technologies improved, I started experimenting with high contrast graphic shapes and collaging them with photos in Photoshop Version 1.0. It wasn’t long before I became a complete Photoshop junkie. My next fix was beautifully hand drawn type and I played with ways of mixing them into my designs; this is the time period when I did my work with Dr. Visser and later Fox River paper. That love for hand-crafted art was a recurring motif in many of my designs in years to follow. Designs created on the computer for some reason always felt like designs created on a computer. I wanted my photography to have that same created feel… this image sprang from a human, not a computer program. Hence my love for pinhole photography: Breaking photography down to its most basic principles. Point the camera at someone/something and let the light in. Use your instinct to guide you and go with the flow rather than scrutinizing over the composition.

I also want to point out that I’ve been a photographer longer than I’ve been a designer. Lets face it: graphic design is art that is created to help sell a product or service. Art you create for yourself is very different from the “art” you create for your client. Photography is something I started and practiced because it was interesting to me. It wasn’t until many years later that I started getting paid for creating photos—and you can be sure I wasn’t using the SPAMera on these photoshoots. I once read about a N.Y. photographer who enjoyed using her Diana Cam on location shots. She would pull out her Diana Cam and everyone would look at her like “what are you doing?” I guess it doesn’t really matter how you get there, as long as you create something that pleases both you and the client. It’s taken me some time to get past feeling a bit like I’ve sold out my art in what I do for a living, which for a long time was an obscure field that few people knew much about or associated largely with ads or commercials. When people asked me what I did for a living, I would tell them I was a graphic designer and most of the time people would reply “what’s that?” But as time went to it began to seem that everyone I met knew someone who was a graphic designer or photographer, and now it is easy to feel lost among a sea of new graphic designers and photographers. It seems like everyone I run into these days is a photographer or knows someone who is. All that doesn’t change my feelings about design or photography. In the past decade, I have seen a large shift in corporations giving more credit to the value of quality branding, either with the photos they use or the designs of their products and how they market them.

Is there anything you’d change about the relationship if you could? Why?

The first thing that came to mind when I read that question was “stock photography.” Being a designer and photographer allows me to better understand both creative approaches. And since marketing budgets seem to be getting smaller and smaller, I am constantly trying to find ways to work my photography into my design and visa versa.

In the early 90’s, I was working as a designer for a local design firm and I came a across a stock photo company (Monsoon Images) truly different from all the rest. I was so moved by the work of this stock agency that I wrote a letter to the company asking them how photographers could get involved with their company. As fate had it, the art director was going to be in LA reviewing portfolios and he was more than happy to meet with me. The man I met with was intelligent and friendly and used to be the creative director for Photonica images, so it was no wonder I liked monsoon’s books. Their stock was more about art and less about the growing trends in stock photography. Unfortunately my wife was pregnant with our first child and my job was more demanding than ever. All of this left me with little time left over for creating and processing images to post for review. I hope to make up for that lost time someday. Monsoon images has since been bought by PhotoLibrary and I have come to like their creative director’s view on stock very much. What kind of image is a stock image? An image that has a concept, a deeper meaning that just another pretty picture. This is the creative edge I would like to start honing. Images that inspire people to be better people—and as graphic communicators I think that should be our No.1 goal.

Your kids appear regularly in your work. How does photography affect your relationships with them? What do they think of it?

When my daughter was younger, I took all sorts of pictures of her (you can still see a few of them that are used on large banners as you drive into Legoland in San Diego). Watching them grow up through the lens has been very satisfying. As my children get older, I have learned to try and keep it in check though. I now only shoot them with their prior approval. Recently my son has taken an interest in photography and enjoys working with me in the garage when I am making new cameras. On many occasions he agrees to be my “Photo Assistant” and stands in for long exposures, etc. Sometimes he’ll even carry gear for me. I think if you make them feel like they are part of the creative process, they’re more willing to go along with it. I know before I know it, they both will be grown up with lives of their own and these pictures will help remind me of all the great times we spent together.

Meanwhile, pictures of your wife rarely turn up. Why is that, and what does she think of the whole thing?

Good question. My wife has been in many of my photos. I have had to learn to respect when is the “right” time for photography and the right time for family. Since the family demands much of my time, naturally that is when I take a lot of my pictures. On a recent family trip, my son and I decided we would walk around the airport and give the ladies a break from us. This way my wife and daughter could enjoy each other’s company while Mr. Rocks (Mr. Ruby Rocks that is) and I went off on a photo adventure. My wife knows this is something I love doing and she respects that. For Valentine’s Day, she called a photo friend of mine and asked him what kind of photo gear I lusted after. To my surprise, I opened a card with a beautiful inscription along with a 52” Photoflex diffuser. Now that’s love for ya.

Why do you build a lot of pinhole cameras? Is there a relationship between building them and shooting them, or are they separate things for you?

I’ve always been one for tinkering with things. When I was a boy, I remember taking apart radios and trying to use the parts to make them into other things. Sometimes I wonder what I enjoy more, the process of making a camera or using the camera I just made. Either way, there is a discovery period with every new camera I make. Each one is unique and gives very different results. It is that discovery process that I enjoy most. Once I have discovered what that camera can create, I move onto something new and different. I am now experimenting with making cameras that are more like art and less like cameras. This was what attracted me to the Zero Image. That camera truly is a work of art. Holding it in your hands you can see the marriage of the camera maker and the photographer.

When and why did you start taking pictures?

6th grade? I think that’s when I saved up and bought my first camera, a Canon AE-1 Program. I started photographing some of my classmates as well as getting into nature photography. At the time, an old camp counselor of mine (Chris Carpenter) started a company called “Sierra Expeditions”. My friend and few others would lead expeditions into the wildernes for young people. Over the years, I went on many of these backpacking trips. It was on these wilderness expeditions (mostly the California Sierras) where my friend helped me better understand the functions of the camera, as well as respecting the landscapes I was photographing. It was during that time that I become to appreciate the work of Ansel Adams and I wanted to grow up to create photos like he did. ‘Why’ is another question that’s too hard to answer—I just felt an urge to do it. I consider myself very curious about life, and photography seemed like the perfect way to creatively explore the world around me.

Like everyone else, you must have really sucked when you started. Why did you keep going anyway?

I have taken more bad pictures and poorly processed buckets of film, to earn me that title. Like most people, I learn from my mistakes. Sometime it’s these kinds of “mistakes” that lead me to other ways of thinking that are successful…“Happy Accidents”. Hope also keeps me going. The hope of creating something unique and different. My friends, family and clients keep me going too. Their kind words of support tell me that I must be doing something right, and a few bad exposures and failed experiments are OK. We’re all human afterall. I remember one time I was hiking and taking photos in Joshua Tree with my brother. He commented that I was taking a lot of pictures and asked if that was expensive. I replied that the price of film is way cheaper than the price of the trip and the experience we were having. He agreed.

Why do you bother with photography at all? What do you get out of it?

I sometimes wonder that. What’s the point to all this clicking and winding? It’s a question that seems to be coming up a lot for me this year. I suppose I want to create images that inspire others to create. I want to create images that point out the things in life that make life worth living. There are photographers that focus on the misery of life, which is certainly a reality for most of the planet, and that’s fine. We need to be reminded of what awful things humans are capable of doing to other humans, because maybe that will help to one day keep people from doing such awful things to each other. But that work is not for me. I’m drawn to photography for its capacity to inspire me to be better, and by extension for my photographs to help others be better people. The therapeutic aspects—raising someone’s spirits, reminding them of a time when they were happy and that they might one day be again, opening minds to life’s possibilities—these appeal to me more. Consider why it is that when you ask someone what things they would save when they learn their house is on fire, most say photographs. I also bother because I can sense my artistic growth, which has its own deep reward. Like anything in life, the more you work at it the better you get, and it’s your passion that keeps the creative spark alive.

Have you ever considered quitting? If so, why didn’t you?

I did quit for a while. Beaten down by my full time job, I found very little time for photography. And as digital cameras became more and more available, I became less enthusiastic to tell people I was a photographer. Jeeez, isn’t everyone a graphic designer or photographer these days. When talking with people, they seemed to be more interested in hearing about my wife’s accounting practices than my experimentation with photography. What I have learned is that the creative path has to be something you do for yourself… and it is up to YOU to keep that passion alive. Also, building a community of like-minded and creative souls on Flickr has made a difference as well – there’s a fellowship and solidarity that keeps you going. Photography isn’t something I do, it’s more of a way of life for me.

Have there been any Matrix-style "red pills" for your work—things that once seen or known permanently alter the way you look at and relate to it?

That’s a tough question. Finding the “truth” about your own work can be quite humbling. Finding that you may not be as “good” as you thought can often leave you flat on your back not wanting to get up again. And yes, I’ve been there with my work. But like anything in life, there’s always more than one way to see things. More than one way to “do” things. If you let others tell you “how” to do things all the time, well, you probably won’t stand out much. It’s when you throw caution to the wind and experiment with things when magic happens. I find that my best work comes from spontaneous exploration… letting go of what you “know” and allowing things to “just happen”. I believe that it’s the creative journey that matters more than the destination. And on my journey through life, I have learned from many “red pills” that have given me a better understanding on how to keep moving forward.

What are some of the scarier questions that have come up for you in the art making process? Have you found satisfactory answers? If not, do you think you ever will?

With commercial art, I am constantly faced with the question “are you creating for you, your client, or your client’s customers?” Sadly, most of the time I am creating for the client or the client’s customers. All of this leaves me with an emptiness which I think my photography fills. My passion for image making allows me to creatively explore without having to worry about approval. The scary question is… who really wants to see all of this creative exploration? Do people really care about what you have to say? Or are they more interested in what kind of dog some movie star has? I think the satisfactory answer is… you have to do it for yourself first, then worry about what others think later. If you worried about what others thought all the time, you probably wouldn’t create anything at all. It has always intrigued me how long it takes to erect a building and how long it takes to tear one down. Being an artist isn’t something you are… it’s something you do. And those who are concerned about fame and fortune get lost in that quest while losing sight of what it truly means to create.

What’s the one thing that you don’t want anyone to know about your work? Why not? How does it feel to let the cat out of the bag?

A good friend recently went to my web site and told me later that he liked how honest it was… I think he used the word “real”. I have found in my business that a lot of creatives don’t like divulging their creative secrets to other creatives. They fear that that person might steal their idea and take the credit for themselves. This may be true. Maybe keeping the cat in the bag will serve your creation better. Leaving people with a curiosity that keeps them coming back for more. By telling everyone everything, you’re not leaving much for their imaginations. Still, I lean toward a bias to be open vs closed in my orientation to life and work.

This question reminds me of the theological analogy of the “watchmaker” by William Paley. That design implies a designer… or perhaps Darwin’s theory of natural selection combined with mutation to improve the survivability of species. Life is constantly changing and evolving to survive. So maybe it’s best to “let the cat out of the bag”… then find another – or be stuck. In general, my goal is to create images that inspire others to create – and art that helps people see the brighter side of life. The more likely they are to see the glass as half-full, the more likely people are to find the courage to create and to inspire others to do the same. So I guess you could say I see myself as trying to be part of a virtuous circle on the wheel of life.


Thanks for putting so much of yourself into this, Chris!



This resulted in an interesting read.


Thanks. Great questions. I am a big fan of Chris’s work (Flickr)I enjoyed reading his interview of you,too.


Wow….that was so worth reading.

‘….it’s the creative journey that matters more than the destination.’
I can’t ever imagine reaching a point where I’m completely satisfied with what I do because it’s never really about the end product…

Thanks for talking so honestly.


Finally got to read both interviews. Flickr is a pretty stinkin’ great place sometimes, isn’t it?

Nicolai Morrisson

It sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks is.

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