Hailing from Florida, but a long time resident of Minnesota, James Henkel is an expert at play. He has traveled extensively with a camera at his side, but is always drawn back into his studio. With an imaginative spirit and a passion for problem solving, Henkel transforms every day objects, occurrences and scenes into quirky and eye-catching images.
What first interested you in photography ?
I grew up in Miami and when I was 12 or 13 I was interested in painting. I would go to the library, find these photos and I would draw or copy them. Then one day, I realized that the photo itself was interesting. In high school I was slightly more interested in photography, but didn’t really begin photographing until college, when I took my first class and bought my first camera. Finally, I thought: this (photographic) world is possible.
After teaching for so long, do you see reoccurring themes in your student’s work?
Yes and no. There is a core of similarity of trying to find one’s voice in the world. There are themes of identity and “how am I relating to the world”, but students are informed by the changing times and so their work is also continually changing. With that said, however, I’ve gotten to a point where I will not look at any more photos of the Washington Ave. Bridge which spans the Mississippi River and connects the two sides of our campus.
Teaching is a funny thing, in the sense that you learn because you are teaching. After 32 years, I feel much more comfortable in my teaching role. At first, I struggled with not knowing everything, but I’ve learned to not worry about what you don’t know. I tell students that we’re learning together- this unsettles some students while it reassures others.
You’ve had a very impressive amount of exhibits around the world, including China, Russia Paris, and Fargo, North Dakota. What have been some of the most memorable exhibits and why ?
This list might look impressive… but I didn’t even go to some of those exhibits. Many of these exhibits like in Russia and China happen because of university exchange programs.
In 1987 you did a residency in Paris, at the Cité International des Arts. Can you tell us about being an American in Paris and what photographically inspired you the most about the city ?
I was in an extremely beautiful section of the city and I had a whole year to do whatever I wanted. I decided to be every kind of photographer that I wondered about. I was reinventing myself. It was like a Halloween party where you can dress up and be anyone you want. I was able to be Atget or Lee Friedlander or Man Ray. I put no limits on myself.
When I first arrived, it was “la mois de la photo”, in Paris. As I visited the various photographic exhibits, I got to know the city. I also bought a giant map of the city and put it up on my wall at home. Each day I chose a new park to visit. I had to figure out how to get there so it was a great way to learn the metro system. I hadn’t traveled much prior to this. I’m a creature of routine and while in Paris I visited le Jardin des Plantes almost everyday. It became my routine. ack then it was a bit rundown with a dark romantic quality about it.
As far as being an American in Paris, there were moments where I longed for American culture. I missed baseball.
Ferris Wheel Tuluries
When I returned back to the states, there was an overwhelming amount of material and I put it all away. I chose, instead, to focus on still-life and my studio work. I only just seriously revisited my Paris street photographs five years ago.
Your series like “Stacks,” “Spills” and “Light Work” appear to be shot in a studio space. Do you work alone or with the help of others ?
All alone. Very alone. It’s almost like improvisational theater. I find objects and just start to play. I ask myself : Why am I interested in this ? What are its qualities ? I see something, pick it up, take it to the studio… and keep it ; sometimes it sits in the studio for a couple years. It gets used or maybe it gets recycled.
The objects become metaphors and symbols. I just continue to revisit things. It is play with purpose. There is a problem-solving element that I really enjoy. It’s like being a kid, I grew up an only child : the being alone part goes hand in hand with imagination.
A reoccurring theme seems to be ‘play’ and I get the impression you have a lot of fun assembling your shots. For the series “Stacks” did you play around with the book slices until you found an arrangement you liked, or did you have a vision in mind before photographing ?
It’s both. I’ll start by just playing and then once the project has matures, I’ll search for more specific things, like a certain number or color on the spine. It becomes more purposeful the more mature the work becomes.
I had trouble at first cutting up books. It made me nervous and gave me pause. But it was so compelling-it had to be. I’ve been working with books since college. Every time I think I’m done, I discover I’m not.
My little joke I say in public is : “I can’t tell you that no books were harmed in the making of this project, but I can tell you that no good books were harmed”.
I would go to a Good Will store and buy books for 50 cents. I figured that either I bought them or they were going to become cardboard. Sometimes I rescue books that are actually interesting and keep them or give them to my friends as gifts.
What kinds of themes are you currently working on ?
Right now I’m casting about. I go to the studio almost every day. I’m photographing balls in a way that are makes them look like planets. But it is in the early play stages. I often think the early efforts are brilliant, only to discover a few weeks later… that of course they aren’t.
I’ve also been working at Gettysburg the American Civil War Battlefield, photographing the monuments. When I work in the landscape, it’s almost like it becomes the studio. I take a place and turn it into a studio. I use the landscape as a place to return often so it becomes comfortable. Like on the beach in 1999-2000 I lived in Florida on the beach and went there every day to photograph what washed up during the night. I let the objects come to me.
Up until recently, I shot all film. But, over the years, I’ve developed a sensitivity to darkrooms –too many years of bad ventilation. So I was thrilled when digital came along. The health reasons either eased or hastened my transition to digital. Now my darkroom has become a storage space.
Pair of Shoes
Interview by LG