ELEGANT CITY SOLO EXHIBITION
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-ST. LOUIS
ST. LOUIS, MO
September 22 – November 18, 2006
Ken Konchel An Architectural Focus
by Robert W. Duffy
Teacher, University College & the School of Architecture
Washington University in St. Louis;
Past Cultural News Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
One early morning I joined a friend for a cup of coffee at his house after a crack-of-dawn run. I remember little or nothing about this breather except this: My friend and his wife had photographs by a St. Louis photographer, Ken Konchel, on their walls. Even at that hour of the day, just about dawn, before the culture cylinders were clicking, I was struck by the exceptional quality of these pictures. I was taken not so much by their subject matter but by the richness of the architectural forms they examined in such keen and thoughtful detail.
I’ve been drawn to photographic images for well over 50 years. I maintain that if they’re strong enough, if they are artistically successful enough to occupy a place beyond the ordinary, photographs imbed themselves in our memories permanently, either literally or on a symbolic plane, or both. Such photographs, images that qualify as special and meritorious, or frightening, or uplifting, photographs that challenge or instruct in some extraordinary way magically endure in a complex mental maze-gallery that is a universal fixture in the conscious and unconscious mind.
Although resistance to accepting the importance of something so commonplace as a photograph may prevent such an assimilation, photographs are such potent images that they insinuate themselves forcefully against whatever barriers we might throw up to forestall their absorption. As the photographer Berenice Abbott proclaimed, photographs show us how to see, and I take her infinitive “to see” to mean both literal vision and enlightenment. Once a receptive viewer allows photographs to come to dwell in the mind, the IMAGES HANG there, often in remarkable detail, as a part of our perception and our experience of the world, and indeed, of ourselves.
The images hovering in memory often are not deliberate, intellectually focused and aesthetically accomplished pictures at all. Be the affecting photographs accidentally powerful snapshots or brilliantly communicative news photographs or a connoisseur-anointed works of art, they are haunting, perplexing at times, illustrative, illuminating, confounding, clarifying printed in the mind as if its memory itself were a photosensitive emulsion: indelible. A photograph is a product of moment in time and a particular sliver of space. An array of technologies contributes to its creation. But great photographs are more than physics and chemistry. They operate outside time and space and occupy a quicksilverly dimension that is at once unique to them and wondrous to us, the viewers.
Architecture’s service as an appropriate subject matter for photographs is nothing new. Architecture, in fact is center stage on the imagistic foundation on which the medium was constructed. Joseph Nicephore Niepce created the first photograph, or “heliograph”, as he called it, in the summer of 1826. The image is a view from his workroom in the main house of his family’s estate, “Le Gras,” as Saint-Loup-de-Varennes in Bourgogne, France and it shows outbuildings viewed from a window of that room. The exposure took an astonishing eight hours, but in the course of that third of a day, photography was born, and Nicephore Niepce bent the arc of history and we were changed forever. Miss Abbott, like her muse, Eugene Atget, understood architecture’s appropriateness and fell under its spell. Konchel’s mentors – Margaret Bourke-White, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, and Julius Shulman – understood. Ken Konchel understands as well.
The drive to look at buildings for both the formal and metaphysical qualities they express came gradually to Konchel, who turned 47 this September. He was born and reared in Detroit, a rust-belt city of paradox that figures powerfully in American history and mythology. In Detroit, the automobile rolled off assembly lines and came to dominance as a conveyance for Everyman. The automobile also emerged as a psychosocial phenomenon in American life. It was and is both a means of transportation and an instrument of self-expression. Similarly, the buildings of Detroit and its environ were vessels of utility and expressions of achievement, wealth and strength and artistic progressivism and originality.
Architects such as Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Minoru Yamasaki and Albert Kahn contributed to the architectural legacy of Detroit and all of them received economic sustenance and visual stimulation from Motown’s pocketbook. In the course of the 20th century, Detroit provided dramatic demonstration also of the price Americans pay for using automobiles to escape the central city. As the suburbs grew, and the middle class shifted the gears of industry of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, Detroit’s central city began its decline and eventually collapsed in upon itself.
The empty promises of the New and the concomitant neglect of the Old, along with the fading of the American dream, the grind of poverty, destructive impulses born of ignorance and frustration, the collapse of public education, the near-institutionalization of displays of fearsome urban pathologies such as Devil’s Night, all this conspired to create in Detroit a definition of urban blight that was in constant tension with its role – actual and symbolic – of America’s automotive powerhouse. Attempts such as the Renaissance Center, built in the 1970s and recently renovated, aimed to transfuse energy back into the city through architecture, only recently though, have redevelopment efforts begun to pay off.
If one has the blessing or the curse of whatever gene or mental wiring it is that drives a person to artistic expression, surroundings inevitably score his or her development. Thus, a man such as Konchel, growing up in Detroit, possessed of the quality, must have absorbed from his hometown both a sense of the vitality and fragility of architecture, and its power.
He came late to this awareness, conscious or not. After high school, he enrolled in Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. He studied pre-law and political science. He got a job. In the mid-1980’s he visited St. Louis, and was enamored of it. He moved here permanently in the late 1980s. He made photographs as a hobby and friends said they liked his work. Naively, he said he ventured into photography as a vocation.
He is a photographer of the old school, and an exacting technician. He works in black and white, and uses a 4-by-5 inch Linhof view camera, the better to photograph buildings, which tend to appear to be falling backward in 35-mm images. He learned how to make photographs and to print them in classes at St. Louis Community College, where he said dedicated and generous instructors taught him the craft.
The art part evolved gradually. It started, he said with an interest in buildings as buildings and evolved into a more complex study and employment of architectural form as a source of visual problems. Solving these problems, or challenges, was a ticket used for entrance into a garden of almost limitless aesthetic delights.
St. Louis, for all its problems, for all its fragmentation, for all the cynically calculated and casually careless knocking down of buildings and the greed that drives such destruction, remains a golden vein streaking through the American architectural geology. Old buildings, new buildings and buildings in between stand to remind us of the wealth that is ours. Capt. James B. Eads, Eero Saarinen, Lois Henri Sullivan, William B. Ittner, Tadao Ando, Fumihiko Maki – all these manipulators of material and space applied their talents to St. Louis buildings, as have many respected local architects and firms.
The venerated photographic historian and curator Jean S. Tucker, a former member of the faculty of the University of Missouri-St. Louis was instrumental in bringing to this region a clear and emphatic understanding of photography’s eminence in the history of art and the art of our time.
She was founder in 1976 of Gallery 210, born in entirely modest circumstances in classroom 210 in UMSL’s Lucas Hall. This gallery was a launching pad for serious consideration of photography-as-art in St. Louis and was Mrs. Tucker’s laboratory and teaching center. Exhibitions mounted in Gallery 210 by Mrs. Tucker, such as the “Light Abstractions” show in 1980, won national recognition.
In 2002, Mrs. Tucker mounted an exhibition of Konchel’s work in the Public Policy Research Center’s gallery. Four years and numerous exhibitions later, Konchel returns with this work to the UMSL campus, to a new Gallery 210, at the invitation of its director, Terry Suhre.
Showing work in a gallery such as 210, rich in artistic history and distinguished particularly by its role in advancing photography and photographers, is appropriate and exhilarating and ratchets up Konchel’s reputation significantly.
Although Konchel’s work provides vigorous advocacy for historic preservation and serves to document the history of the building art in St. Louis, it goes beyond advocacy and documentation. As Jean Tucker said in 2002, Konchel “doesn’t try to make documentary pictures” but “creates his own art forms out of portions of buildings.”
Photography enables us to see. Konchel’s work, in his technical assiduity and its aesthetic rigor, educates the eye and enriches the mind. In this assembly of literal and abstract reckonings, a photographer in a marriage with architecture gives expression to humankind’s most noble impulses.