Q&A: Michelle Keim

Quenching Tower, Acme Steel
© Michelle Keim

Michelle Keim is a photographer out of Chicago, who like me, really enjoys photographing at night. I first saw her work on our class visit to the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago, Il. “The ultimate goal for Keim is to emphasize the force and drama with which active industrial structures rise up from the contemporary landscape. Steel mills and power plants contain the same tense beauty and spectacular power as volcanoes and electrical storms, and serve as a reminder that industrial age technology is powerfully in the present.” - Taken from her page on the Catherine Edelman Gallery website

Tom Owens: I’m curious as to how you first got into night photography? Was there a certain time/place that got you into night shooting?

Michelle Keim: When I first began photographing industry at night, I was driven by astonishment and fascination. I grew up in rural Ohio on my uncle’s farm in an Amish and Mennonite community. Horse and buggy were a common sight for me, but Cooling towers and Blast Furnaces weren’t anywhere near my radar until I went away to college. There was a power plant and a paper mill that I would pass by on my 2-hour drive from home to college. These places were completely strange to me at the time, their scale and function were hard to fathom. I would always slow down to look at these places as I drove by. Later, I would park nearby and just stare at one or the other of these factories. Eventually I checked out a camera from school to see if I could actually capture all the spectacularity on film. To me, these places might as well have been the mother ship that dropped down into a corn field. My goal was to capture that weirdness and scariness of these places glowing in the darkness. The artificial lighting at night, the creepy sunless shadows captured with long time exposures turned the subjects into the science fiction I had been seeing in my mind’s eye. At night the forms of industry are even more menacing and ominous; yet sometimes graceful and most certainly beautiful.

Plus photographing at night eliminates a lot of otherwise distracting details. Trees, signs, cars, corn fields and all kinds of stuff just drops into shadow. I love that so many mundane objects disappear because without them in the image it skews the sense of scale and it creates a totally new reality. One that can be hard to figure out.

Now that I’ve been photographing this subject for, well, a pretty long time - my fascination has shifted a bit. Now, of course, I understand the intricacies of my own relationship with the industrial landscape. Working at night is still important because of the drama and tension it creates. Its a way to exaggerate the potential for disaster in the subjects and create a feeling that is pleasant and unnerving all at once. And that’s a reflection of the tension I feel between enjoying a comfortable life and understanding the cost (environmentally) for just living as an average American.

Tom Owens: How long have you been working on the series Iron Beauties? I saw the dates from 1993 to 2002. Did it start before that? Are you continuing to make new work?

Michelle Keim: I started photographing industrial architecture when I was exactly where you are - a junior in college in a Midwestern city. (I went to CCAD in Columbus, OH). Some of the images in Iron Beauties, the cover image for example, were made while I was still a student back in 1993. I am making new work and hope to show it soon.

Pallet Company - Dover, OH © Michelle Keim

Tom Owens: Traveling from place to place, have you ever had any trouble gaining access? Especially after 9/11?

Michelle Keim: Gaining access has varied from not an issue at all to taking over a year to finally being granted admittance. Many of the small-town factories are accessible from a vantage point that is public property. In that case sometimes security guards may check to see what I’m up to, but certainly could not ask me to leave. But most often I scout my locations first and then work through corporate channels to get access. I certainly have encountered resistance. As far as I know their concerns are things like fear of EPA non-compliance being exposed in one of my photos or fear that I could become injured while there. Plus, it can be hard to find someone willing to spend extra time at work to show me around. I’ve never had the impression that homeland security was an issue. I find that if I can do a good enough job of explaining who I am, what I want to do and let them know I’m definitely not interested in exposing anything overtly negative about the place, much of the time people will work with me. I always promise (and follow through) to provide contact sheets of everything I’ve photographed after a shoot to make sure they are ok with what I’ve made. I mean ok by industrial standards, of course, and not by artistic merit. And, importantly I always, always give proofs to anyone who helps me - I let them pick from the contact sheets. Some of the guys I work with are a million miles away from the art world; I try my best to make sure I leave them with a good feeling about the whole thing.

My best advice, if you’re going to try to get in somewhere is to, well, first of all be patient. Second, be nice. Be friendly but professional. Its okay to be persistent, but don’t be a maniac. Oh, and once you’re “in” Its a good idea to ask if there’s special safety equipment required. I have my own hard hat, steel-toe boots and safety glasses which I use on almost all of the industrial shoots.

Incidentally, sometimes its NOT hard to get in! There’s a small place in Indiana where the director told me to just flash my ID at security as I drive through the gate. And further instructed to be careful.

Tom Owens: What is it like gaining access to a place far way? Do you only get a night or two to shoot? What do you show the people you ask for permission?

Michelle Keim: It can be time consuming, but as I mentioned earlier, I do a lot of scouting and make careful notes - sometimes I make sketches or quick snapshots - and then start making phone calls once I’m back in the studio. I generally ask for 3 nights of shooting. It can be hard, there are schedules to work around and weather to consider. As far as work samples, before Iron Beauties was published, I often sent a packet with good quality color copies of my work along with show reviews and my resume (which I’m sure was pretty meaningless to the average PR person at a steel company). But, these days the internet is a very handy tool for immediate image samples. I still try to make an impression, though, by sending something well-prepared by mail.

Tom Owens: What do you primarily shoot with? Digital? Medium or large format?

Michelle Keim: Iron Beauties is all 4x5 negative. OK, a couple were chrome, but mostly negatives. I truly loved shooting with my bottom-of-the-line Calumet 4x5. Everything I shoot now is digital capture (35mm). I do miss the ground glass and the full movements, but certainly not film. I don’t miss the lab and I don’t miss color chemicals in my studio/home.

Power Station - Toledo, OH
© Michelle Keim

Tom Owens: I am currently at the point where I would like to start contacting little galleries and start to get my name out there. When you first started showing your work, what kind of places/ galleries did you contact? Any advise?

Michelle Keim: My breakthrough show was at the Chicago Cultural Center. My advice is to get your work out there as much as possible without showing anywhere undignified. And be sure to pay close attention to presentation. Its important. Also, let your work guide you. There’s a million different things going on in the art world - it can be hard to find the right place for your work, but that’s what you have to do. And as hard as it is, try not to be devastated by rejection. That happens a lot to just about all of the artists I know, including me of course. Because it really is about finding the right place for the right work.

Tom Owens: Real briefly, what are some of the steps that lead to getting your book published?

Michelle Keim: I’m lucky enough to be represented by a great and reputable dealer here in Chicago, Catherine Edelman. She shows my work at the art fairs which is where Chris from Nazraeli Press saw the work.

Tom Owens: Are there any other projects that you are currently working on that deal with night photography?

Michelle Keim: I’m not done with night photography or industry. But, recently I’ve been looking at the sky a lot more. Sometimes I like to drop off into abstraction just for my own satisfaction. God, its so easy to get lost in the viewfinder. There are other subjects that I am pursuing, but that’s nowhere near enough to resolution to even talk about.

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