This is part of an intermittent series of interviews with the artists who illustrate the wonderful stories we publish. Below, art editor Ashley Inguanta chats with Alex C. Kafka. Yes, we are jealous of his name.
Alexander C. Kafka is a photographer, journalist, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland. Publications featuring his photography include Whisperings magazine; Quail Bell, Forty Ounce Bachelors, and Mongoose webzines; AllThingsFashionDC.com; and The Washington Post (as a travel photography contest finalist). His deepest influences are surrealist and expressionist photography, painting, and film; fashion photography; and Diane Arbus and other mid-century portrait and street photographers.
How would you describe your art?
I’m a photographer who veers sometimes into related forms of digital art, usually some kind of collage or layering.
When did you understand that you wanted to pursue art? Tell me about this discovery.
I’m a late bloomer. For me the photography fuse was lit in my 30s and the explosion has occurred in my 40s. I met my wife, Lauren, in 1994. Trained as a photojournalist and photo editor, she exposed me to the works of a variety of sterling photographers, some of whom she’d worked or studied with (Henry Horenstein, Bill Burke, Jim Dow, and others), and some of whom she’d learned about as a master’s student at the University of Missouri. We went to a zillion photo exhibits and I started reading a lot about photography too. First, my photo mania exhibited itself indirectly: I wrote a screenplay in which a main character is a photographer. By the time I got a souped-up digital Nikon SLR, I was a full-blown obsessive photog raring to go. The timing of that digital technology was lucky for me, because I don’t have the patience, the budget, the space, or the coordination for darkroom work. In that sense late-blooming worked out for me, I suppose.
When it comes to illustrating stories here at SmokeLong, where does your art begin? Take me through your process.
It varies. Sometimes it’s a story’s specifics. More often it’s the story’s mood that compels me, but with some strong visual cues. With this evocative Jason Jackson flash fiction I’ve illustrated for you, for instance, I tried to take as my emotional and visual prompts the notions of ice, water, volcano, loss, and the fading and negativity (in photographic and other senses) of a picture memory. I tried to center those aspects around the figure of a boy’s face, thinking of Jackson’s references to the puddle and the fountain injury.
I experimented with including some horse, skater, and other figures too, but that just distracted and confused and cluttered. So instead I focused on the boy’s face and tried to convey the atmosphere, rather than the other specific references, using color and texture. Then with the two-sided red framing, I tried to emphasize that flesh-and-blood, vulnerable, human factor, but also the notion of memory as something of a dangerous edge.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
They’re a mix of photographers, filmmakers, and painters. Each of those realms has about an equal hold on my visual imagination and history. Among the photographers: Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tina Modotti, Gordon Parks, Man Ray, Mark Sink, and Edward Weston, plus the 60s English fashion and music portraitists David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Brian Duffy. Among filmmakers, Luis Bunuel, Charlie Chaplin, David Cronenberg, Bob Fosse, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian de Palma, Philip Kaufman, and Francois Truffaut. Among painters, Salvador Dali; German expressionists, especially Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele; the pre-Raphaelites, particularly John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and to a lesser extent the cubists and abstract expressionists.
Tell me about the wildest piece you’ve done.
Probably the wildest series I did was a surreal set of images called “Pierre’s Nightmares.” And among those, perhaps one of the wildest was “An Old Friend Reproached Him.” I mean, talk about influences and favorite artists. That whole series was, I see in retrospect, about introducing my inner Bunuel and Dali to my inner Cronenberg.
If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be and why? Tell me about the project you two would create.
Great question, and I’ll answer it as though career savvy, connections, commercial prospects, and money couldn’t possibly interfere. (Ha!) I mentioned my screenwriting and I’m also a composer. My dream would be to have a film director like Allison Anders, Lisa Cholodenko, Jonathan Demme, Alan Parker, or Philip Kaufman direct my script Contents Under Pressure and enjoy it as an opportunity to feature some great talent, including a singer/actress in the lead role, some superb photographers, dancers, and choreographers, and so on. If you look at the script, you’ll see what I mean–it’s essentially a celebration of the arts and the creative spirit, of taking one’s muse seriously even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Being part of a project like that would be heaven. I know that’s a grandiose answer, but hey, you asked and a fella can dream, right?
Are you working on any new projects?
I am, and I’m very excited about it. I’m working on a series of 31 images that will be paired with 31 poems by my exceptionally talented poet friend Doritt Carroll. We’ve collaborated before, including a multi-collaboration with the photographer Anna Morosini, an image and a poem called “Cloud Woman.” This new series I’m working on with Doritt is tentatively themed “Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner.” I think the images will be a mix of noir and street photography, portraits, and collage, but I’m not sure yet.
I’m hoping someday soon also to find a longer-term project that would employ my text journalism and photojournalism skills in harmony. A year-in-the-life-of kind of thing, though I don’t know whether the subject would be a neighborhood, a musician, a jazz club, a dance company, a homeless shelter, a trapeze artist, an animal-rescue farm, or what. I’m looking around the D.C. area and kind of waiting for that bell to ring, the one that says, Yeah, there’s your subject, so pull out the notebook and the Nikon. I also seem to be working through a mild preoccupation with mannequins. And I want to steadily enhance my portrait and fashion portfolios.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just my heartfelt thanks to you and Tara Laskowski at SmokeLong, Christine Stoddard at Quail Bell, Carl D. Fredsti at Whisperings, and other editors and publications that have been kind enough to feature my work and encourage me. A big kiss for my wife, Lauren. Not every photographer gets a soulmate, muse, mentor, and coach all in one amazing human being. I’m very lucky that way. And big nerdy shoutouts as well to our incredible twins, J. and A., whom I should thank for not smirking and shaking their heads even more over my quixotic artistic pursuits. They’re good sports and talented, hard-working young artists in their own right. It’ll be so much fun watching them continue to develop and enjoy their skills and creativity. I’m a very proud papa.