Karen Kuehn: A Career Case Study

How one woman's quest for a simpler life led her to photographic purgatory and back again.

Career paths are rarely straight lines, especially in photography. In the September/October issue of American Photo we looked at just how hard it is for photo assistants to successfully launch their own careers. In our November/December issue, we examine the careers of photographers who have made it big, but who, for one reason or another, are now overlooked or underrated. There are a hundred reasons why one talented photographer becomes a success and another, equally gifted, never quite makes it, or having made it can't hang onto it. You can explain it by talking about the vagaries of the art world, about bad luck or bad timing, or you can do what I often do and simply chalk it up to fate.

My favorite career stories are the ones with second acts. Recently I received an e-mail from photographer Karen Kuehn, whom I have known since the 1980s but in recent years had lost track of. That's because in 2002 she left a thriving career in New York City and moved to Peralta, N.M., a small town down the road from Albuquerque. My first encounter with Karen came when American Photographer magazine profiled three young shooters who were taking New York by storm. (She was one; the others were Chip Simons and a guy named Mark Seliger.) Karen was the crazy surfer girl (she grew up in Long Beach, Calif.) who rode her bike all around Manhattan, from her apartment on the Lower East Side to the midtown offices of magazines like Rolling Stone, for which she worked regularly. Her biggest gig was a 15-year stint shooting for the New York Times Magazine. "That really put me on the map," Kuehn says.

Then life got in the way of her career. A single mother, she decided to leave New York. Her old friend Simons had already opted for a different lifestyle by moving his family to New Mexico, where he established a solid career. So Kuehn headed there also. " I needed to raise my son in a place where I could work and have him rooted in an earthy place," she says. "That's what I traded for -- a new home where my kid would ride bikes with his friends and swim in irrigation ditches."

But the price was steep, she admits. "I am by no means making any money here," Kuehn says. "I have chickens and fresh eggs every morning, but getting fresh photo assignments is a struggle when you live in the middle of nowhere." In photography, an industry that seems to get more competitive every day, it is easy -- very easy -- to become forgotten. Kuehn told me how one young photo editor greeted her at a meeting: "She said, 'I know your pictures, but I don't know you."

These days, happily, Kuehn is getting known again. She's been picked up by a new rep, @radical.media, and her own Website, karenkuehn.com, is up and running. She's been working on a spectacular new personal project -- portraits of New Mexican artists. The highlight of the project, she says, was shooting Albuquerque-based artist Joel-Peter Witkin.

"I met him a few years ago and tried to shoot him, but he was difficult and tried to control everything," says Kuehn. "Then I met him again recently at a wedding, and his wife Barb had him make up with me. His house isn't at all what you might expect from someone who makes the kind of images he does. It's like your grandma's house -- warm and friendly."

The shoot, which took place in late September, went well, reports Kuehn -- even if Witkin maintained a controlling presence. "He wanted to be photographed between an image of God and an image of Satan," says Kuehn. "Does that mean he's in purgatory?" On reflection, the photograph is an entirely appropriate depiction of an artist who leapt to the height of fame by creating visual allegories about life, death, and the states of being that exists between the two. "I didn't take this picture; Joel basically directed it," says Kuehn. "I was his gift to me."

The mark of a brilliant portraitist is to recognize when the gift is of real value. Kuehn, having spent her own season in photographic purgatory, has been around photography long enough now to know how to accept the gift graciously. "After all that's happened, I think I value photography more now than I ever did," she says. "I don't just want to do it; I need to do it."

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