The Dock Walker
Kevin Gulstene is a thinker and that makes him rare among men.
Besides the fact that his photography is contemplative—you can see that in his work—he seems to be in a continual state of pondering.
Accordingly it seems his cameras are never far from his side, and although he will sometimes agonize that digital photography is too easy or too convenient he produces an unbroken array of images that give us a glimpse of what his mind is working away on.
Judging by what he keeps in his online gallery, Kevin Gulstene is captivated by his surroundings.
Whether it be a steamy landscape taken in his native British Columbia, or a simple object study—the solitary simplicity of a soy sauce bottle on a kitchen table; a bra on a bed—Gulstene is constantly visually exploring his environment.
We caught up with Mr. Gulstene via telephone, slowing him down just long enough to coax some self-examination out of him, to see what makes him tick. Turns out, he had as much to reveal about himself as his work reveals about his state of mind.
CoC: Are there any photographers whose work inspires you?
KG: I’m inspired by a lot of photography. I don’t ‘get’ all of it, but I’m inspired by a wide range of images and styles.
I’ve always loved B&W photography, so when I started I was, naturally, inundated by examples of Adams, Weston and the F64 crew. Their prints are masterfully done, and I spent much of the first year immersing myself in technical details and the zone system and a very structured approach to photography. But, I never really connected with their images or that style of photography. I can still drool a little at the printing quality but, in the end, for me they were masterfully done boring images.
Rolf Horn was the first photographer that I drew real inspiration from. He was a transition from the F64 stuff to work that I enjoy now. I still love his work and always will. He’s a gifted photographer and a brilliant printer. In fact, it was looking at an example of him printing a negative that it clicked for me just how much of the magic in a BW print is created in the dark room and not in the camera. It was like an Archimedes moment when I saw the crappy negative he started with and the print he ended with. From that day forward I was never disappointed with the negative that I got as long as I could see my way to a print that looked the way I felt when I released the shutter.
Michael Kenna is my all time favourite photographer. Hands down. End of story. His images are usually simple compositions with strong graphic elements. I can look at them for a long, long time.
There is another style that I love as well. It uses textures and extremely shallow depth of field to focus attention on the key elements of the composition. Mark Tucker is the master of this style for me.
Last, but definitely not least is Keith Carter for some more edgy and sometimes dark images. His “Holding Venus” book still stops me dead in my tracks.
CoC: What was the one thing that drew you to making pictures?
KG: A slippery slope.
I bought a Nikon N80 on the way back to the hospital after our second daughter was born because I wanted to get better pictures than the plastic point-and-shoot we had at the time.
Then I would get captivated by some of the images that came back. Not just the usual “my daughter’s the prettiest baby in the world” kind of captivated but some just had a visual hold on me.
The more I work at it the more I recognize that simple graphic images are the ones I connect to most.
CoC: If money were no object, would you shoot full time?
KG: Are you kidding? If I had no other obligations I’d put a dark room and a light room in the back of a big-ass Airstream trailer, and I’d spend the next three years travelling around Canada and the US taking pictures and printing them. Ideally, my wife would come with me and fulfill her empty threat to “carry your cameras and be your muse”; it’s probably a little much to hope for.
CoC: Are you self-educated as a photographer?
KG: Yes. I had a camera in high school and I took the usual visual arts B&W semester but other than that and one abortive attempt at attending a class last year I’ve muddled my way through on my own.
I’d like to be a little elitist about that and pretend that you can figure it all out yourself if you want to, but I’m not sure being self-taught is a wholly good thing. I can do what I can do but I think that to get to the next level, I’m going to have to look for some more insight into the creative process. It’s still a little hit and miss. I’ve considered doing a Bachelor of Fine Arts to fill in the enormous gaps in my understanding but at 45 I’m a little leery of the self-indulgent ‘I’m trying to find my vision’ kind of thinking that seems so prevalent.
CoC: Do you have a mentor or a friend with the same interest?
KG: No. Wish I did.
CoC: Do your kids pick up the camera?
KG: My older daughter is quite creative and does really nice work without much effort but it doesn’t do much for her. The 5 year-old is like a big Labrador puppy and isn’t really allowed closer that 3 feet to the cameras. Well, actually she has a little Canon Canonette that she wanders around with that keeps her paws off of the expensive gear.
CoC: Does your wife understand your hobby?
KG: Yes, kinda. She has been known to complain about being a camera widow but she’s very supportive. Actually I think she’s so damn grateful that I’m primarily responsible for raising the kids that anything that keeps me happy with that role is pretty cool with her.
CoC: Are there any photographers in your extended family?
KG: My brother makes some nice images; he’s also a B& W nut and my great uncle Nicholais ran around the homestead in Saskatchewan in the late 1800s and early 1900s making glass plate negatives of family, friends and tractors.
CoC: Whose side of the family do you credit for your artistic side?
KG: That’s a little tough actually. My dad can produce some very nice pen and ink drawings; very precise, very well done. As a painter, my mom was less structured, more intuitive. I think I took a little from each of them although it requires more effort for me to be structured now; which is odd for an engineer I suppose. It tends to rely more on an intuitive approach now. It’s a kind of quiet, heightened awareness.
CoC: Whose side of the family do you get your competitive streak from?
KG: Don’t know. Random collision of genes probably.
I am incredibly competitive but not in a way that is obvious to a lot of people. It’s a mild dysfunction in that I think it sometimes gets in the way of seeing the world around me but, truth be told, I enjoy it. I think some of the Buddhist teachings help bring competitiveness into better alignment. It’s not that competitiveness is inherently bad or good: you need to look at your motivations at the time to better understand whether or not you’re acting properly.
Playing sports, or business for that matter, would not be any fun if you were not going all-out to win. That is the purpose of the sport: to compete whole-heartedly within the rules. But if you’re motivation is wrong, if it is not the spirit of competition and love of the sport but a need to feel superior at others’ expense or if you invest too much of your self-image in winning then you’re no longer acting properly.
CoC: You live on the West Coast, a place that lends itself to year-round beauty. Does that opportunity fill you with glee or dread?
KG: We lived in Sydney Australia, a truly beautiful place, and Chicago, a much less beautiful place, for a decade before returning to Canada and landing in BC. In all honesty, I think BC is the greatest place on the planet. It’s safe, it’s prosperous by almost any standard, it has mountains, it has the ocean, it has a temperate climate and it has wilderness left (wilderness is when you have to travel more that a day to find the nearest RV park).
We are very fortunate and live in a part of North Vancouver with a view of English Bay, Lions Gate Bridge and our back yard is, literally, a forest.
Glee is the only way to describe how I feel about BC and the photo opportunities here. To date I haven’t made as much of the opportunity as I might have but I have three projects on the go or planned right now. A large format B&W project on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the start of an ongoing project to document pristine wilderness (colour) and a long exposure LF waterfront project that I’ve been plotting since I got here.
Seriously, we are all very lucky to live in Canada. Most of us have no idea how lucky we are.
CoC: You lived a typical two-income life and then left it all behind to raise your two girls, whom you refer to as the ‘best girls on earth’. What did that sudden new reality do for your photography?
KG: Well, it created the opportunity. Literally. There was no real photography to speak of while I was working. It was the stereotypical drill: 50 to 70 hours a week working, a lot of it overseas or out of town in the later years. After getting the driveway shovelled, the bills paid and some time with the family there wasn’t any time, or energy, for photography. So, in a real way, unplugging from the two-income programme created the opportunity to do any photography at all.
Without the pressure of work life and professional objectives there is lot more time for reflection. It’s a very humanizing experience to have spare intellectual time on your hands and to actually be a responsible adult at home and not just the best horse-back-ride-giver. So, in that your photography reflects the way you see the world, it changed my photographs. They are much less stressed, less angsty and less angry.
CoC: You’ve said that there is a place of ‘quiet awareness’ that you go to when you’re making your best pictures, that you become focused on all of the minutiae one typically misses in the daily grind. Is this spontaneous, or can you go there when you need to?
KG: Quiet awareness is the best way I have to describe it. It’s an unhurried way of looking at things; shape and form become much more obvious. This may sound odd but it’s similar to the way my mind gets when I’m in the shower or when I’m just about to fall asleep: your thinking is more relaxed, less rigid, it’s also more logical but at an intuitive level not logical in the linear plodding way it is when you force it to be.
I’m much better at doing that spontaneously now. I take a few deep breaths, try and clear the clutter of thoughts that are always clamouring for attention and spend a few minutes moving physically slower and focusing all my attention on what I’m doing. If it’s loading film, then all of my attention is on the film, the shape of the canister the smooth metal film rails of the camera back, just getting absorbed in the task. It sounds a little new-age wonky but a few minutes of this really helps me.
CoC: You have a background in Information Technology. Has this in any way helped your photography and your transition to digital photography?
KG: I’m an electrical engineer by education and worked with software and IT projects pretty much from university on. I’d have to say that made the accoutrements of digital photography second nature. I remember having to work out how much charge a charge coupled device (CCD) element could hold and leakage rates and all kinds of horrible things so I understand the technology.
CoC: Your competitive nature: Does this play at all when you’re making images?
KG: No, it’s a bad habit. I have to put it in a box.
CoC: If you were offered a job tomorrow as a photographer -a hired gun- and it didn’t interfere with your life as a full-time dad, would you take it?
KG: Hmmm, if I had to make a living doing it then, no I probably wouldn’t. If it were a ‘fine-art’ kind of gig then I’d leap at it. I think that to make a living as a photographer you have to shoot weddings, or do product or food shots. I think it would change photography from the fulfilling thing it is today to something else. Something less. I’m sure there are thousands of people who make a living doing photography they don’t like, so they can afford to do the photography that they do like, but I don’t think it would work for me.
CoC: You have a deep appreciation for black and white photography. Describe that, and how you view the medium.
KG: Ack, I’ve saved this question for last because it’s the hardest to answer. Good B&W photography is enthralling for me. I can sit a look at good B&W for hours.
There is a quote I heard somewhere that said: if you take a picture of someone in colour you take a picture of their clothes; if you take the picture in B&W you take a picture of their soul. When it’s done well, that is absolutely true.
Great B&W photography is what I’m heading for; what I’m trying to do. A lot of what I do casually is colour because it’s easier to make a decent colour image than a decent B&W image and most people like colour photos.
Images in B& W are not distracted by colour. They must have content. Obviously, some images only work in colour; that’s not what I’m talking about.
CoC: On a recent trip to San Francisco you agonized over taking a full digital kit and a basic film kit. You ultimately chose film. Why?
KG: I flip-flop on the question of carrying film or digital all the time. Film and digital feel different to me. It’s odd, but film and digital feel a little different when I’m shooting. The same way I look at things differently whether the camera has B&W or colour film in it. It’s dopey, but it’s real.
I suppose for the most part it’s just an indulgence. You can make great images with either and you can make good B&W from colour too if you have some Photoshop skills.
I credit digital for a year of rapid learning. There is nothing like the instant turnaround that digital cameras provide. Looking at the back of the camera and the histogram just after the taking the photo is much better feedback than taking notes, bracketing and waiting to finish the roll, have it processed and then scanning it. It is a phenomenal teaching tool.
But, having said that, I find at times that I rely on the feedback and don’t really think enough about the image and exposure when I have the D100 around my neck. Slowing down a little, thinking about the exposure, the meter reading, the composition usually makes a better photo. So, many times I pick film to make myself think a little more.
CoC: You said on your site: “photography is good for the soul”. What has it done for yours?
KG: Photography is good for the soul. I think modern life is incredible complicated, much more complicated than at any time in history. There is pressure to consume, pressure to achieve career goals, pressure to ‘succeed’, pressure to get the kids in the right schools in the right neighbourhood. The news is filled with dread and what goes for entertainment now is often either emotionally searing or mind-numbingly formulaic and banal.
Photography is great way to unplug from all that. It is peaceful, for the most part solitary, and it’s a craft. You get to create something with your own skills that is unique.
Along the same lines about a year and a half ago we disconnected almost all the cable channels, moved the TV to the basement and made a few other changes to put a little more family back in the family. More reading, more books, more yoga (OK, well no yoga for me ’cause I get tired of the Pooh Bear jokes) less Hollywood, less violence and less agro.
CoC: You’re a self-described gear head. You’ve had a Nikon F80, a Lieca M6, a Yashicamat 124G, and a Shen Hoa 4×5. You no longer have the Leica. If you could do it all over again, would you have kept the Leica? Are there any other cameras you wish you still had?
KG: Oh, I gave the F80 to my brother and got an F100 just before the San Francisco trip.
Yeah, it’s a little like alternating between film and digital. For me there is a certain feeling that you get from a certain tool. I know that an M6 can’t really take better images than an F100 but there is a feeling you get from holding and using a really fine piece of machinery like that.
Sometimes all that stuff gets in the way though. I have a backpack that I can put all the 35 mm stuff in and tie a tripod to. I’ll have everything I need: a flash, a long zoom, a short zoom, a general purpose zoom, four fixed focal length lenses and batteries and filters and all kinds of other essential stuff. While it’s nice to have what you need should the image of a lifetime show up, I now think that mostly all the time spent thinking about what equipment to use isn’t necessarily productive.
When I was in these minimalist moods I used to take the Leica out with a 50mm Summicron and just use that for a while. I do miss that camera. Never, ever sell a Leica; it’s like selling your sister, except you miss it more.
Right now I am fighting the dangerous possibility that I’ll convince myself I need a Hasselblad 501cm. Wish me luck.
CoC: How long have you published your photography online?
KG: I’ve put my photos online for about a year and a half. I had a ‘blog’ (we don’t mention it anymore) for a while. It started out as a political blog and a safe place to rant a bit. Later it evolved, and at one point I wanted to make it a clearinghouse for a number of efforts: writing, photography, and environmental research. I lost interest in the political stuff and left it for a while.
I resurrected the photos and created a new site that is much like a photoblog, at least it has regular photos posted to it. I think that will stay for a while, but I do have a short attention span and I like to cycle between things: kind of like the film/digital and minimalist/gearhead phases.
CoC: You run a photoblog, a form of Weblog. By their nature, Weblogs are more popular if they’re updated frequently. Do you ever feel like a slave to the machine?
KG: Nope. When I was writing the political stuff (I like to call it analysis but others would probably call that an overbilling) I felt enormous pressure to produce something good every day. I think this is not unusual for self-publishing. There is a toe-in-the-water phase followed by bolder and bolder style, followed by pressure to attract readers/viewers and be more creative/controversial/insightful than the previous day followed by burnout.
It’s funny but I knew all this when I started the second site and still, I got sucked in a bit. I wanted to get the site in front of some people. No one likes putting their stuff in an empty gallery at the end of a dead end street, so I did the http://photoblogs.org/ registration.
Then I did the usual things needed to attract some attention: read and comment on other peoples sites, update regularly with good material, referrer spam, the whole nine yards. This time it only lasted a couple of weeks until reason set in again.
Now it is just what it should be. It’s a site that I update regularly with whatever it is I’m doing and thinking at the time. If people visit great; if they don’t that fine too. Besides, I can always count on my mother-in-law to visit and give me good feedback; she has great taste.
CoC: What advice would you give to a photographer who might just now be looking at the Weblog/Photoblog scene for the first time?
KG: Figure out what your goals are first. Think carefully. Treat everything you do and say online the same way you would a customer or friend. The relative anonymity of online publishing can be seductive and lots of people say things they would not normally say. Often, not always, but often there is some regret, so make sure you are comfortable with what you publish online.
Probably the best advice would be: be honest. Do things that are meaningful to you at the time. An interesting characteristic of the Internet is that it rewards honesty of opinion almost at much as it rewards flatulent fools; which is to say, a lot.
CoC: Do online photography groups’ forums, or discussion forums have any appeal or benefit to you?
KG: No. I only look at one.
CoC: I feel a rant coming on, or at least a critiquing of a medium that needs it.
KG: No rant. I just don’t find them useful enough to frequent very often.
Many of the online forums suffer from the usual problems of online forums-participants with inadequate self-discipline and teeny tiny cognitive ability-and that makes them difficult to wade through. I’ve actually seen people threaten each other with legal action and invitations to “settle this in the alley”. Who knew chromatic aberration was such a hot button issue for people?
More seriously, I do have lots of browser bookmarks for online galleries, personal sites, and online magazines, but the discussion forums almost never talk about what interests me most: the motivation of photography, how people pursue their visions, story telling. The right brain side of photography is much more interesting than the technical details.
by Raymond A. van der Woning
Ray is a freelance writer, Web designer, and photographer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta.