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Mona Kuhn’s Private Goes Public

A prolific artist and photographer for the last 15 years, Mona Kuhn’s first monograph Photographs (Steidl, 2004) gained international recognition and made Kuhn a favorite among collectors. Known for her large scale nudes and lush environmental portraits inspired by early influences like Lucian Freud and Eric Fischl, the São Paulo-born Kuhn has since collaborated with Steidl on several more books and exhibitions. Based in Los Angeles, Kuhn’s newest series (and fifth monograph), Private, which will be at ParisPhoto Grand Palais November 13-16th. An independent scholar at the J. Paul Getty Research Institute, Kuhn was also invited to curate two exhibitions about nudes in contemporary photography, opening a dialogue among her peers. She shares some images from Private and explains how its arid wildness came to be. 

©Mona Kuhn, Portrait

Private was shot in the American desert, while you were traveling through Arizona and the Mojave. How did that color palette inspire you in a way that was different than your previous work?

When I start a new series, my personal guide and instinct is to follow my intuition and start imagining colors. For “Private,” I knew I was drawn to the light and sandy tonalities of the desert, paired with the golden sunlight and deep shades of black.

Mona Kuhn, GigiMona Kuhn, Gigi 

How long has Private been in the works? What does the title imply?

Over a period of two years, I drove many times away from Los Angeles and into the Mojave desert, following the desert heat and light. At times I would get lucky and stay with friends, but most of the times I was camping or staying in the car. It was important for me to be physically close to this vast landscape to understand it better.

The cover [of the book] was one of the first images in the series, taken in Winslow, Arizona. It set the tone of what I was looking for; I like that the image was taken from the inside looking out, from an insider’s perspective. Private is an introspective series—a deeper kind of poetry, evoking emotions we usually hold close to the heart and keep private.

Mona Kuhn, Desert CrestMona Kuhn, Desert Crest

How does the environment in which you’re shooting change the characteristics you look for in the models?

I photographed mostly people I met along the way. Some of them I approached directly, others were friends of close friends. It takes time for someone to trust that moment, and to feel so comfortable and in tune with me, that they forget they are naked. That’s when magic starts to happen and we create images I haven’t seen before.

What kind of camera are you shooting with? Film or digital for this project, and was it all natural light?

Private was all shot with an analog Hasselblad and 120mm film. There is something desolate yet rich about the desert—I knew from the start that film would be the right choice for this series.

Mona Kuhn, DaisyMona Kuhn, Daisy

Do you pair a subject with an aspect of nature after the fact, or do you have a pairing in mind when you create the images?

When I photograph, I feel connected to my emotions and allow myself to forget about the outside world and focus on just my instincts. I work intuitively and this concentrated connection is key to my inspiration.  Later, when I am editing the work, I start playing with the images and pairings and create a collage of emotions and thoughts. It is only much later in the process—together with the publisher—that we decide what goes on a right or left page of a book. The book pairings are a consequence of this visual poetry.

Mona Kuhn, ThundermesaMona Kuhn, Thundermesa

On the cusp of finally releasing this series, I hate to ask what’s next—that implies a sense of pressure. But are any areas itching at you for future projects?

Life is fascinating at times, if you pay close attention, one thing usually ends up leading into another. In one of my last trips to the Mojave desert, I stumbled into a place I was dreaming about for years without knowing it existed. After finishing the “Private” series, I went back to that place and ended up creating a series of images with a long time collaborator Jacintha. That series, titled “Acido Dorado,” made its debut earlier this year at Flowers Gallery in London, and at Edwynn Houk Gallery where it opened the fall season in New York with a solo exhibition.  We are now finalizing the design for the upcoming book to be released sometime in 2015!

Mona Kuhn, Desert NoirMona Kuhn, Desert Noir
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Images courtesy Jackson Fine Art

text by: Jessica Gordon

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