Carol Kennedy is an instantly likeable person. She makes you want to know what makes her tick. I saw her this year at the kayaking party held in her community along the north shores of Cape Breton, about the time that the Lamb of God was lighting up the bricks at the Bras d’Or. A few commuters to the party were grumbling about getting caught in road blocks, escorted by police through the sea of people that had gathered to genuflect while they slurped there coffee. After over hearing our conversation, Carol was amazed at the story of masses of people flocking to see connect minds, with like minds, and there desire just to witness such an event. She laughed and shrugged, “Well jeez, I’m not going over ‘til they see Bill Clinton’s face on the lick-a-chick!!” Carol can make you laugh. And when see picks up her camera, she can make you see.
Twenty-Eight Years With a Camera: A Retrospective of Photographic Works, on display until November 26 at the UCCB art gallery, is Carol latest exhibition. On opening night I went not only to support my friend, but because I like her work. As Carol herself says “I have a distinctive style and you either like it, or get another photographer.” Her style has changed over the course of 28 years, but her eye has remained constant. A walk through her work is a treatment to her changing lifestyle and the influences that shaped her perspective. She says, “I see art as a pleasurable experience to be enjoyed. I prefer to make images that embellish that world rather than rip it off its mask and expose the seedy underbelly.”
In 1975, Carol received a Canada Council grant, and traveled to the Maritimes in her newly purchased van, which she had hand-painted in white, fluffy clouds. She spent six weeks on the road, stopping in Cape Breton to snap a few black and white photos, and was anxious to meet Robert Frank, a well-known documentarian vacationing at his home in Mabou. Though he was tolerant, his reception was less than warm, and with Cape Breton’s sometimes intolerable weather, Carol was not impressed with her first visit to the island. As strictly a women of the city, she says, “Cape Breton was too wild for me.” She returned to Cape Breton on several occasions, but was not yet ready to succumb to its charms.
Carol began experimenting with dark room techniques as she traveled to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and California in the winter and spring of 1977. As I viewed her work, I was intrigued by her use of color in the process of development. The tricks she used to conjure images from her darkroom were sometimes experimental, and sometimes even toxic. Cibachrome, a relatively new process introduced to photographic art in the ‘70s, involved the use of highly hazardous materials. Carol liked the effect the process created by printing directly from the positive (a transparency, a slide), onto paper, and used it with her captured images to comment on humorous juxtapositions, strange shapes and objects she encountered in her travels.
She settled in England during 1978, working with framed photographer John Hedgecoe at the Royal College of Art in London. She gave up her street photography, looking for more control over her images, to somehow make them more theatrical and began hand tinted her prints, using transparent waters colors, paint brushes, silk rags to build up the color, creating unique and laborious works. “I paint on my photographs to illuminate the subject, to bring it closer to a dream light, and take the image further away from actual representation.” With the success of several gallery exhibits, Carol returned to Ottawa as a freelance photographer. On the strength of her style and coloring with hand-tinted photos, carol started winning fashion commissions. Her shots of model and friend Joan McCarthy show the meticulous detail Carol incorporates into each image. I’m particularly partial to the tinted Irish Lads. A self-processed romantic, Carol used feminine imagery not only into her fashion photographs, but also in pieces that made a social statement. “I like to show women as cool, aloof, self-confident, mysterious; goddesses rather than objects.” In her most recent piece, In the Temple of Freedom, complied from ten different images, she used classical photographic poses to project an image of a Greek goddess, awakening in stages of awareness. The LED technology used in this piece is relatively new to Carol’s work, but the technique of tinting and toning the silver for a brown and white effect, is not. She has played with the bleaching process, toning the browns from hard to soft, changing paper to achieve the right development. Perhaps because it is still so new to her, fresh from her studio, Carol picks this piece as her favorite. “My recent work is a reflection of my physical surroundings and my spiritual journey.” Her growth as an artist, her journey with a camera, is the focus of the UCCB exhibit.
Carol began as a biologist, receiving her degree in science from Queens University, in Kingston, moving her from her home-town of Ottawa. Taking a job in Bacterial Genetics at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Carol found herself hanging around the city’s institute of design, hooking up with the visual artists, discussing and debating social and philosophical issues long into the night. It was time of heavy political and moral issues in American History; the ongoing Vietnam War, the conspiracy trials of the Chicago Seven, and racial and gender injustices were beginning to play out in the media. Riots and protests were prevailing, and rather than “fold one’s hands and sit down to bewail in abject horror,” Carol took Catherine Parr Traill at her word, and got up to do something. She continued to work at the hospital, studying photography at the Institute and in the museums she haunted. In her free time, she prowled the streets of Chicago with her Leica camera, and collected books of visual artists, examining the history and documentation of photography as an art form. After three years tinkering with courses at the institute, she knew she didn’t want to continue working as a lab tech, and she knew she didn’t want to further her study in micro-biology for the academic reward. Instead she chose to move back to Ontario, and embrace the life of an artist. With so little experience as a professional photographer, Carol now sees the move not such as a bold step, but as a rather unrealistic one. Her work in the medical field came to her aid and she supported her increasing habit of playing with paper and chemicals, light and structure, with work at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto. For two years she worked the medical field of employment, moving from Toronto to Ottawa, and spent her summers traveling to Wisconsin workshops to learn more of the developing art, and the art of printing black and white images. The workshop also offered her the opportunity to study with her hero, Lee Friedlander, whom she considers one of America’s leading art photographers.
In 1974, Carol presented her first exhibit at the SAW Gallery in Ottawa. She now had the creditability she needed to secure funding, and Carol decided once and for all move her lab coat from the halls of science and study to the more introspective and fulfilling space of her dark room. In her pursuit of living the life of an artist, she traveled extensively, using her camera as a guide, developing techniques she learned and adapted from study and experience. However, her years of gainful employment in her first field of interest must have proved helpful. Her knowledge of mixing and measuring chemical components, as she experimented with reaction times and exposures, complemented the eye Carol was now using; exploring her world through a camera lens, instead of viewing a different world through a microscope.
In 1981, Carol met Gordon Kennedy, an artist originally from Vancouver. They moved from their funky artist building, in the hopes of finding a home they could build together. Property values around Toronto were skyrocketing, and well beyond their financial grasp. Some old friends told the couple of a property for rent on the North Shore of Cape Breton, and familiar with the “Banana Farm”, Carol and Gordon packed up their belongings and headed east to live the rural life. Their son Gordie was born in the spring of 1983, and their second son, James, arrived the following year. Carol continued to shoot commercial pieces for her Ontario commissions, and worked with Ron Caplan on his Cape Breton’s Magazine. Totally enamoured with her two young boys, she threw herself into motherhood, letting that passion and emotion spill into her collected images. Knowing the life of an artist “would be difficult anywhere,” she felt that “one could lead a lovely life style here, near the sea and the high lands.” To lessen the effects of isolation, the women of the community and their families gathered regularly, and strong friendships were cultivated. A popular theatre group, The St. Ann’s Bay Players emerged, and Carol as one of the players, acted and participated in several of their productions. A thriving and growing artist’s community was spreading from St. Ann’s to Tarbot, and Carol credits herself fortunate to have been part of the burgeoning music scene. In 1989, she did the first two album covers for John Allan Cameron, Winnie Chafe and Rita MacNeil. Natalie MacMaster has used Carol work for two of her releases, and Bruce Guthro for his first release. Elizabeth Patterson, Duncan Wells and the now defunct band realworld, all chose Carol’s pictures to grace their productions. Her work with Cape Breton musicians led to commissioned portraits for families and actors‚ portfolios, and eventually to the world of graphic design. She says, “One has to be resourceful to make a living. Photography is a skill as well as an art form and can lead itself to many creative jobs and commissions.” Faced with a life threatening illness in the early 1990s, and the radical treatment she had to endure, Carol emerged from the ordeal with a new spiritual philosophy; a new maturity to her style. Not wanting to become part of the situation and bombardment of two-dimensional images in our sour society through computer manipulated images, her personal choice was to try to “speak of higher ideals, deeper subjects. I want to stimulate thought on the human condition: Society, Death, Spiritual growth. What do I want to say? What is the questioned? What is needed? What is lacking, and maybe even, what is disturbing?”
I would not presume, nor would I dare to critique someone’s life work. What I dare to feel or visualize, analyze and process, is shaped by my perspective, my understanding of the artist’s concept. It may not be yours. As a woman with the gift of sight, I can readily shut my eyes and imagine colours and shadows, shapes and shades. Everything I see is processed in some form. But to see and witness, sharpens the eye, and hones the detail. A sudden rain shower in the heat of the summer’s day maybe over looked if not the photographic view of a lone iridescent raindrop afloat on a parched open leaf. I welcome the chance to see what others see, and to see if I see it too. If not, there is always the chance to meet and explore each other’s perspectives; be it in art galleries or coffee shop parking lots, let it be seen.