Q&A With Mikael Kennedy, Polaroid Photographer Extraordinaire

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Three Polaroids by Mikael Kennedy
  • Three Polaroids by Mikael Kennedy

Mikael Kennedy is tall and thin, with blond eyelashes and a few tattoos that are visible beneath his worn chambray shirt. He looks like a handsomer version of novelist Jonathan Ames, but his calm demeanor is the polar opposite of Ames’ turbulent anxiety. I met him at the Joint pop-up over the weekend, but only after I’d decided that his triptych of Polaroids in rustic wooden frames were my favorite pieces in the exhibit. Kennedy is currently based in Brooklyn, but he spoke of Nashville with such fascination that I have a strong feeling he’ll plan to come back soon. We corresponded over a few emails recently, and you can read that exchange below.


Country Life: So why are you so in love with Nashville? Had you had any preconceived notions about what it would be like here?

Mikael Kennedy: You know, I don't really often think that much about a place before I go there, I have a bad habit of doing zero research and just showing up. It's how I ended up in Serbia one summer in 2005, I didn't really even have any idea on a map where I was I just got off the plane and started wandering around. I'd rolled through Nashville a few times in the past, either when I was roaming the country by myself or on tour with a friend's band, but the last time was probably seven or more years ago.

A lot's changed here, and it's been great to stick around for a week [after the Joint pop-up last weekend] and just settle in. Nashville feels really welcoming and supportive, but at the same time feels like a place where you can actually get things done, which i don't always feel like is the case in other cities with such a laid-back feeling. Coming here for the Joint exhibit was exciting also because my girl, Melaena Cadiz, is a folk singer up in NYC and she's never been through here before (she also has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop country songs that are out right now). It was really great to be able to have her see Nashville from a musician's perspective.

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Were there any particular highlights from your trip?

Lord, at this point I think we've been everywhere: Mas Tacos twice, and I had been trying to meet up with the good folks over at Imogene + Willie for sometime now, so it was really nice to connect with them. All the buildings and architecture here are so beautiful, so just walking around East Nashville has been a highlight. I'm pretty sure that every shop or store I fell in love with was designed by Nick Dryden, who owned the house we exhibited in as well. It was really nice to feel like we just slipped into a community here and were so welcomed mostly in part, thanks to our host Susan Sherrick.

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What is it about Polaroids that attracts you? I feel like a lot of people who work with Polaroid veer toward unposed, snapshot-style photos, but yours strike me as much more formally composed, and I'm not sure I've ever seen such ambitious travel photography in Polaroid form. How did your relationship with Polaroid begin?

I've done a lot of writing about Polaroids and the theory behind them, but right now the most important thing to me is that they are one-of-a-kinds, that each one is a unique piece of art, one that was held in my hands in the place and time it was taken. I think that adds a weight to the work that other photography loses out on a bit. What first attracted me to Polaroid was purely aesthetic — they are beautiful little objects, and as I was traveling so much I couldn't really develop my photos, so having a self-contained process was necessary.

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The shots are a mixture of composed and captured. Oftentimes I will see something and then spend a few minutes trying to capture or recreate what I just saw, and other times it will be caught purely on accident. There are also a lot in inherent limitations in Polaroids that I think add to the process, along with the fact that as the film gets older and more expired there is a beauty in its unpredictability. I often quote Pollock in this when he says, "I deny the accidents." It becomes part of the process, part of the art.

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How do you think the shots would be different if they were 35mm? Digital?

In terms of digital, that's a difficult one for me right now. I have a lot of beautiful images that I've shot digitally as I've been traveling, but they don't have the same weight that a Polaroid does for me, so I feel odd exhibiting and selling them as art. That is just me though, I'm not judging what anyone else does.

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Don't Polaroid photos age poorly? And aren't the film cartridges hard to come by these days? It must be hard to think of each photo you take as so highly valuable — like every one had better be a winner or you've just wasted precious resources! Do you end up throwing many shots out?

Polaroids are technically not archival, that is true. But I've seen original Polaroids that were shot 30 years ago and they are beautiful, whether or not they look exactly as they did I can't say, but I don't think it matters. I think the aging is part of the beauty — everything ends, that is part of it. Death gives things their value.

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The film is extremely difficult to find and expensive. I think now it costs roughly $50 for a pack of 10 for the film type I use, but I try to not be too precious about it. When the film is gone, it's gone, and that will give it more meaning. I probably have about 300 packs in storage in my house right now, so I will be OK for a while. The act of documenting a life that will one day end in a medium that will one day end is an interesting idea though, now that I think about it. I don't throw any of them away. I have boxes and boxes and filing cabinets filled in my studio, and even the ones that don't develop I keep. I don't know why though.

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You told me you found the three frames you used in the Joint show in a barn (am I remembering that right?). What else have you found on your travels? Do you document it all?

I found the frames in an old wood shop I was working at in New Hampshire back in 2001/2002. I've just been carrying them with me ever since, waiting to find the right time to use them. I end up carrying around a weird assortment of things from my travels: I have jars of dirt from all over the world in my kitchen. I have an old pot I found on the side of the street in Seattle in 2003 that I've moved all over the country, and even when I was throwing out stuff so I could fit everything in my suitcase or backpack I would keep this random object. I have a series I started a few years ago called Polaroid Vitae that kind of delves into the documentation of the objects.

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