Essay by Brian Kubarycz for Eyemazing Magazine

His Life Had Stood—A Loaded Gun: Myth and Metamorphosis

in The Photography of Bear Kirkpatrick


My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away—

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him—
The Mountains straight reply—

 —Emily Dickinson


Bear Kirkpatrick’s photography delivers us from the world ruled by science, either modern or ancient.  His Earth is not the Galilean ball of rock orbiting a ball of burning gas.  Nor is it even the still and heavy center of the suite of heavenly spheres of Ptolemaic cosmology.  Far closer is it to the snowy disc, described by Emily Dickinson, over which “worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row.”  Indeed, Kirkpatrick’s world disk is still more primeval, a flat but living tissue, a tympanum.  Space, for him, is no neutral vacuum but always a scene of lively action, a setting separated momentarily from the surrounding darkness through a burst of light.  Like clusters of kites swooping and spinning overhead, his spaces collect and disperse, flock and scatter.   The light sources which open these spaces cast their heat and brilliance as hands cast rocks or bones, in a moment of passionate commitment, a judgment or a coup de dés.  

This madness to hazard contact with the wild is constantly acted out in the art of Bear Kirkpatrick.  His project is to experience and question what it means not merely to bide time in the worldly state, but far more actively and intimately, to have and to hold an only world, unto death, but in the expectation of new living creatures of awful energies.  Kirkpatrick’s art, from its first conception to the full arrival of its finished form, explores the ongoing adventure of creation one must take up and sustain in order to inhabit a world of one’s own, the sole world worth inhabiting. “I go out into the woods and streams,” Kirkpatrick says.  “Something I do every summer when it really hot here in Maine is hike out to the tidal creeks and strip down and swim in the salt water and cover myself with mud.  The more dogs I can bring the better, because dogs know what is going on and they can help you get there faster.  They sort of lose their minds, and so do I.”  This image of the visionary artist romping through nature, following his pack of dogs, can only conjure images of the quest, the hunt.  And this is in fact how I understand the photography of Bear Kirkpatrick.  Though Kirkpatrick’s could not be further removed from the modern sport requiring licenses, permits and passports, or the latest in tracking and aiming technologies.  Kirkpatrick’s hunt remains always a wild one.

Kirkpatrick describes the dreary days he spent in graduate school. “So many thousands of hours at the desk, so shut off from the world, so unengaged,” he says of academics.  “Photography helped me breach that, got me outside, in the swamps and marshes.”  Raw contact with nature became a way to regain a lost part of himself.  The path back to wilderness, which Kirkpatrick equates with the sacred, was opened for him by practicing photography as a kind of ritual.  “Mircea Eliade coined the term hierophany,” Kirkpatrick says, “for a rent in the fabric of the profane world, one in which a glimpse of the sacred world came through.  By sacred, I mean the time before time.  Primitive man recognized the power of certain places and often held rituals there, to transport themselves back to a sacred time in which they could relive the original creation and so learn how to live.”   

Picture lights tied to strings, fire pots swung like bolas.  Picture aboriginal hunting rites, staged before sunrise.  It’s this sense of rising anticipation, of spinning the world once more into being, which is everywhere apparent in Kirkpatrick’s work.  As is the case with ritual hunt, every minute aspect of preparation functions as part of the total act of photography.   Speaking of a particular shoot, Kirkpatrick says, “I had been scouting that location for over year.  I had to go back again and again, tromping up and down the salt-marsh flats, looking for the right manner of winter-killed grass before all the new spartina shoots come up.  I had to ship all the photo gear out there, fly out, spend a week scouting and staking off the area, mapping the image, then organizing a schedule to get models there.  Those trips are intense.”  The energies summoned up in these encounters with the elements—water, land and air—spill over into the shoot itself.  Their effects linger long after the work is done—potent as the “liquor never brewed” which sends Emily Dickinson “Reeling, through endless summer days / from inns of molten blue.”   “After photoshoots, when all the gear is packed up and out and loaded into the van, my brain releases.  I will not sleep, alcohol can add nothing to me.”  All the stuff of life are swept up into one vortex of activity which extends back through countless generations, which is part of eternal cycling time—circling and held fast by a centripetal force—a time which existed before our lapse into history, progress, applied technology, anything leading away from our vital beginnings.

In ritual, a set of standardized and received scenarios, provides the basic materials for art.  In Kirkpatrick’s work, this takes the form of basic narratives around which each picture is organized.  “I always approach a shoot with at least two narratives I want to try and capture,” he says.  “Often they do not work but I don't care because we must have something clear to start with.  You cannot tell a model, Oh, just sort of move around in a cool way.  You must discuss the narratives beforehand, let them chew on it, let them do their own inventing.”  While preparations of this sort could lead to predictable results, any sense of mechanism is overcome by Kirkpatrick’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the singularity of all situations.  For it is never the image, per se, which is beautiful, indeed magical, but always this image, this utterly unique instant of emergence.  In this way, each new image serves as model for all subsequent images, and forces us to adapt our understanding of image-making in general.  “The eternal return,” Kirkpatrick calls this singular moment.  Here, photography, like storytelling, constantly renews itself, by daring to enter into new outward territories, and simultaneously daring to sound unheard of chambers of the human heart.  In Kirkpatrick’s work, this is true of both artist and model.  “They must call on something else within them, something secretive and hidden and enormously powerful.”  Consequently, artistic production, like the ritual hunt, rejects all morbidity and remains a self-renewing form, a celebration of life.  Individual stories may begin and end, but the act of narration is inexhaustible.  The ideal object cannot ever be killed, just as the subjective interior, infinitely vast, cannot ever be fully mapped. There is a word reserved for this unlimited creation of scenarios, this constant testing and surpassing of known limits, this constant process of self-discovery and renewal.  We call it play.  And it is play, in the wildest and most childlike sense, which is at the heart of Bear Kirkpatrick’s photography.

There has been a basic assumption operating throughout this entire discussion however, that it is the photographer who is always self and the model or the landscape which always functions as the other. But no story is ever so simple.  Nor is any photograph. A photograph is a complex totality including not only seen but also unseen objects, the most important of which is of the photographer’s body.  It is the instance around which all other bodies of the photographic image converge, against which they conspire.  The seen world, the other, captures light, and casts light back.  The more we recognize this fact, the more we are able to see the self undergo a metamorphosis.  From this perspective, the self, captured by its own techniques of vision, becomes the other.  Kirkpatrick comprehends this dialectic, and enjoys it.  “Here is the fun,” he says.  “I am doing the same thing to [the models and] myself as I shoot these images.  I am pushing them, us, to a place where we no longer have time to think, where all we can do is move.”  Such ironic reversals are epitomized in Ovid’s myth of Acteon.  Pledged to Diana, the goddess of the hunt, Acteon turns from all polite pastimes and embraces the life of the chase.  But his exertions in service of Diana eventually lead him to the very glade where she takes her bath.  In a dazzling hierophany, the hunter beholds Diana’s naked form exposed.  But the goddess returns the gaze of Acteon, and punishes him.  Having glimpsed the pure spirit of the hunt, the hunter is altered.  Beneath the divine gaze, Acteon become a stag.  His own hounds turn upon him.  There is violence in this undoing, but also ecstasy, emancipation from the finitude of the self.  The Greek term sparagmos refers to the rending of the Dionysian body, but always with the expectation of its eventual restoration.  This burst is but one moment in an endless cycle of creation, destruction and recreation in which all life participates.

Finally, Kirkpatrick’s photographs bear witness to a kindred moment of liberation in their ostensible objects.  His narratives and images reveal bodies at their most extreme, exceptional, intense.   They rear up and stand forth in ways which defy our normal expectations, yet somehow feel remotely known to us.   It is Kirkpatrick’s talent, his gift, to secure the light of bodies spontaneously possessed of “ancient muscle memory, some bloody quicksilver in their marrow,” as he puts it.  They warp the surrounding air, gather it about themselves, don or doff it like a primal garment.  This spectacle, which lures us back into the grasp of magic, frightens and fascinates at once. The classic statement on such uncanny phenomena is Freud’s essay on E.T.A Hoffman’s “The Sandman.”  In that tale, the protagonist Daniel becomes entranced by a beautiful young woman, Olympia.  He will learn to his dismay, however, that she is no human but in fact a mechanical doll.  For Freud this illustrates the mighty allure of the inorganic, the primeval state of matter—an observation prized by both the surrealists and their contemporary Walter Benjamin.

The uncanny allure of ancient memories pervades Kirkpatrick’s photography.  But it is not Hoffman’s Olympia which it evokes so much as that of the painter Édouard Manet. Much has been made of Manet’s parody of the classical nude—so nude as to be stark naked.  As in Titian’s famous Urbino Venus, which Manet’s Olympia powerfully misreads, the woman’s hand is placed between her thighs.  In Titian, the gesture is provocative, but not aggressively so. By contrast, Manet substitutes a hand powerfully tensed.  Set against a body manifestly made of paint, its five fingers appear shockingly animate and grasping—a haunting “living hand” like that described by Dickinson’s poetic mentor Keats.  Fixed squarely at the center of the canvas, the hand at once anchors the composition and overcomes the flat surface of the body behind it.  In an event Kirkpatrick would call “self-birth, passage, transformation,” the hand figures forth as an autonomous living form, some pale amphibian crawling from the foam to take up life on land.  At once, the sentimental veil is torn off Botticelli.  No Birth of Venus could be more alarming. 

But is not this moment of emergence exactly what arrests us in Bear Kirkpatrick’s “All Night The Ship Took On Water”?  Here, the body, simultaneously crouching and rearing, unmistakably bears the shape and pallor, and indeed the inner tension of Olympia’s clutching hand.  And it opens a vision similar to that created by Manet’s painting, an unexpected glimpse of naked life revealed.  Here is the body at its newest, most energetic and most sacred.  The vision of it rouses the viewer’s body with an cold frisson.  In an instant, vision is both captured and liberated, redeemed.  It is this ongoing search for deliverance, deliverance from the present self and deliverance to an earlier one, which is the essence and goal of Bear Kirkpatrick’s photographic adventure.

Brian Kubarycz is a writer, artist, and professor of philosophy and English literature at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, UT.