Barbara Kyne’s Abstract Photography: Empathy for the “Other” and the Planet

Posted by: Andrea Hammer

In A Crack in the World, award-winning Northern California photographer Barbara Kyne focuses on the “consciousness of plants” as well as our shared awareness. The collection includes original essays by “eco-feminist” author Susan Griffin and Jasmine Moorhead, owner of Krowswork gallery. One of Barbara’s photos is also featured on Susan’s recently re-released 1978 book Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside.

Here are some of Barbara’s ideas about her creative process:

Could you elaborate on the inspiration and thought process behind your title A Crack in the World?
The title just came to me. I must have heard the phrase before but couldn’t pinpoint where or in what context. Cosmologists and astrophysicists confidently theorize extra dimensions in which we might be a tiny speck of someone else’s universe or parallel to other universes that we can’t perceive. Are there other beings in these universes that we can’t perceive? I imagined peering through and stepping into other dimensions via “a crack in the world.”

Please explain what made you start thinking about the “consciousness of plants” and your discoveries exploring this concept:
From childhood, my concept of the divine – of all that is – was as a network of intelligence or consciousness and that all biology is conscious because all species are obviously sentient. Science is confirming the idea that plant species communicate not only with each other, but with other species as well. They strategize and cooperate.

Biologist Stefano Mancuso outlines 15 senses that plants have – ten more than the human senses that we know of. One of them is photosynthesis, without which humans could not have evolved and could not even survive. Plants are evolutionarily superior to humans in that they have been here long before us, completely populated the earth and will be here long after we are gone. Aside from the scientific evidence, when we observe plant life, it is as obvious that they are sentient as that our pets have emotions – an idea that most scientists have resisted the entire past century. If it appears in my photos that trees dance and plants communicate with the light, it is not because I’m anthropomorphizing, but that all biological species are one – from the same material and of the same consciousness, so naturally we resemble each other as matter. We are not separate.

Can you describe your new approach to using a camera as a way to “perceive non-human sensory experience”?
Biologist Jakob von Uexkull introduced the idea around 1909 that each biological species perceives the environment, their umwelt, through its senses. Consequently our senses inform what we believe to be the nature of the universe or what is “real.” For example, a color-blind species thinks the universe is shades of gray. Most humans think the sky is blue, though some have more sensitive vision that sees an additional part of the color spectrum and would say the sky is purple. Honeybees see ultraviolet wavelengths that are not visible to the human eye.

I use my vision combined with visual limitations I place on the camera to create a new environment that my camera-being explores. We – the camera and I – see differently than humans. I hope from looking at the images that you get a glimpse of the idea that while there may be a “true” universe, we have no hope of discovering it or the extent of it, because we have no idea of what we are not perceiving. And I hope that leads to more humility as a species and more empathy for ourselves, each other and other biological species, including plant life.

What are some of the “secrets” that popped out at you as you made some of these photographs?
I can’t say that I discovered any secrets. But hanging out in this world confirmed a few things for me, such as when life beckons, try the scary, unknown path. There is beauty and sorrow and joy everywhere and they’re inextricably interconnected. And although we will never know reality, we can have a great time exploring it.

How does your work echo yet move in a different direction from photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand as well as other female photographers or artists?
In the afterward of my book, A Crack in the World, art historian and Krowswork Gallery Director Jasmine Moorhead likens my work to Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand. I was flattered as these men laid a foundation for me as a photographer. Stieglitz’ cloud series – the equivalent series – is an obvious parallel, but I found most of his work to be mystical, even if I couldn’t put a finger on why, except to say that there was presence in his photographs. Presence speaks to being.

Steichen’s early treatment of light and a willingness to utilize darkness in service of beauty remind me of the mystery and beauty inherent in my nature work. Strand did not buy into the attempt to elevate photography to an art form by imitating painting, as was the photo-secessionist tendency. He treated matter as vital and real and steered the work of early photography to treat it as such from a new photographic paradigm.

I have been more latterly influenced by Hiroshi Sugimoto whose time exposures of beachscapes, movies in theaters and modern buildings point to the timeless nature of existence and photography’s inherent ability to explore it. I think Bill Jacobson was also dealing with time in his blurry portraits. They were dreamlike and I think reflected an interior state. I would say Jacobson and Sugimoto materialize states that we think of as unreal. I aim to do that with my work, to show the ethereal and unknown materially, much like Strand showed solid matter such as crockery and picket fences.

How was your image selected for Susan Griffin’s book, and did you collaborate on this project in other ways? If so, please describe your experience working with Susan or other women on creative projects:
It was a surprise when Susan Griffin selected one of my images for the re-release of Woman and Nature. I was thrilled to be associated with this canonical feminist text. I have been reading Susan’s work for a couple decades now and was influenced by the way she thinks laterally.
She talks about feminism, politics, ecology and health in the same breath, so intelligently and poetically. I asked her to write the intro to the book because of my admiration for her intelligence and beautiful writing style. I hoped that she would connect with the work and feel extremely lucky that she immediately did and agreed to contribute to the project in this way.

I haven’t collaborated much with women in my artwork, though I would love to do so. I do feel that I have collaborated with women intellectually. The male canon was the basis for Western education, so women’s perspective includes it but adds the other half.

Why did you use black and white for By Fire, and how does that approach impact the concepts conveyed in this series?
I used black and white in By Fire for practical reasons. Since the scene was lit by firelight, the photos had an orange hue that I didn’t think contributed to the experience or understanding of the concept of the book, which is about the metaphorical transformation of trial by fire.

It was better to strip out that detail. In general, the less specificity, the more flexibility you have to convey an idea and the more mystery I could keep in the narrative.

Would you like to add any other points about your work?
Abstract photography is useful for expressing abstract thought. More literal photography is fine, but I think there is a bias for it in the photography world. It is my hope that if my viewer can see through the eyes of another species and experience a shake-up in their certain worldview, empathy for the “other” and for the planet that sustains us can occur. In this way, I see my work as having an activist component. I don’t just make this work for the intellectual elite. I would like any viewer to get something from immersing themselves in my work. In the new political climate, many see an ominous future for the planet and the sentient beings who live here. I see art and art making as a means to literally keep people from killing each other.


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