# 13 KATE KIRKWOOD, Lake District (United Kingdom) “Rural” Street Photographer
I think you will agree, when we speak of street photography, the first images or thoughts that come to mind are primarily humans interacting in city centers or city street scenes. Most likely because the majority of people live in cities. So the probability of photographs shot and published are naturally taken by city folk in their natural habitat. And if you are lucky to be living in the countryside or are a roving photographer, you might be shooting some from rural areas. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson who took photos of pigs looking out of their pigsty in Holland, a lone duck floating down a stream in the countryside of France or three geese walking towards an abandoned windmill on the plains of Tralee, Ireland. There’s a few rural life photographers out there. But these photographs are far and few between. Even the Flickr group, “Rural Street Photography”, has just a handful of members. So when I was introduced to Kate’s work, it was like looking at gems.
Kate’s photographs gently leads us into the intimate life of northwest England, where the landscape is a national treasure. It is also the home of romantic poet William Wordsworth and children’s book writer Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit. Their words and drawings conjure images of bucolic England. Kate’s images aspire to the same.
Surrounded by pure unquieted landscape and animals, where humans are far and few between, the idyllic life has definitely helped shape Kate’s vision of the world. The rich colors and raking light combined with powerful compositions showcases her emphasis of animals and humans living in harmony with nature, giving landscape photography new life. More importantly, she has been able to offer her unique definition of rural street photography.
an·thro·po·mor·phic [an-thruh-puh-mawr-fik] adjective
Ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human, especially to a deity.
However, what really draws you into Kate’s work is the unique voice she has given to her subjects, especially animals. Kate talks about looking for the “minuscule, heightened moments in rural spaces, where seemingly little happens…” Whether it is two doves having a chat about their day as they cross the country lane, or the silent response to her car light on a lamb caught enjoying a private moment. Subtle humorous moments. Each character has its own secret life.
Through Kate’s eyes, we can see a complex story being lived. We realize that, like humans, animals have a deep intelligence. Their lives are unwittingly anthropomorphized through her lens. And our empathy comes from connecting their daily routine with ours.
When you look at Kate’s work, you can’t help but feel you’ve shared a glimpse of ‘sublime life’. As if to say, as stewards of earth, we have a responsibility to respect all living beings. Perhaps it’s because Kate understands the devastation of prejudice when she and her ex-husband published anti-apartheid literature in their past. Or maybe it’s because she lives in a remote area where she interacts with animals more than with humans. Most likely all of the above. The result is not ‘minuscule moments’ as she modestly comments, but a profound look into the richness of life at its simplest.
Here’s my interview with KATE KIRKWOOD:
Nick Name: None
Currently living in: The Lake District, United Kingdom
Motto: Never seek what you’re expecting; set your camera and your heart to serendipity.
Street Photographer since: 2007-ish
Do you have formal photography training? No I don’t. I run a Bed and Breakfast where I live and had some fishermen stay with me who were gear heads. It was interesting overhearing them talk about equipment and techie things for hours, despite most of it going over my head. I try to keep up with developments, but things move fast. I think I have enough basic knowledge of how to use the camera so I can just get on with actually looking at the world. Perhaps I’m missing some tricks, but my primary pleasure is in fishing for images, trying things out, and then seeing what I’ve caught that day. I don’t mind bumbling along, learning as I go.
Profession/Job: Book production/design
Organizations or Group: None
Favorite Street Camera & Lens: Simply what I have: A Nikon D60 with a Nikkor 18-55mm lens.
Back-up Street Camera & Lens: Ha ha, my old little Fuji E900 P&S, which is held together with tape. I’m not very good on the techie side of things and find the options and discussions of such things overwhelming. I prefer a simple camera, simple settings (I use ‘Programme’ mostly), and concentrating on subjects.
Favorite photography gadget: A large farmer’s raincoat that I can zip up over my camera.
Favorite street food: A pocket of salted licorice, if I’m lucky.
Do you listen to music while shooting? Sometimes, but my old Shuffle went in the wash last week so that’s kiboshed that.
Favorite music when shooting and/or editing Photos: All sorts – Bach; PJ Harvey; Cinematic Orchestra; Mercedes Sosa; Cocorosie; Bill Evans; Lou Reid, Schoenberg Anouar Brahem; the Pixies…. I’m listening to Jocelyn Pooks as I write.
Favorite photo software: I’ve only ever used Photoshop and I currently have version CS5.
3 Favorite Master Photographers: Only three? I’d like to mention Helen Levitt, Fay Godwin and Ruth Orkin as there are few women in the usual lists and organisations. There are many whose photographs I look at again and again. I love Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, many others … (and of course HCB goes without saying).
3 Favorite Contemporary Photographers: Only three? How about Pentti Sammallahti, Sally Mann and Josef Koudelka.
Which 3 photographers’ prints do you own? It would be easier to answer the question ‘Which three prints would you like to own?’ I have wonderful prints from my photographer boyfriend who is one of the best in the street field. Otherwise, I have plenty of well-loved postcards of favourite images on my pinboards – does that count? And a lovely poster of Sirkka-Liisa Kontinnen’s photo ‘Girl on a Spacehopper’, and one by Lee Miller from a V&A exhibition.
Color or Black and White? Colour, though I’d like to play with monochrome.
Shoot Film or Digital? Digital. For me the absolute magic of the immediacy of digital still thrills; I remember very clearly the afternoon that someone showed me a small point-and-shoot in operation for the first time. It was as riveting and exciting as the occasion, when, as a small child, I saw a zoetrope in action. I began trying to photograph more than just family snaps in the age of digital so it was hardly a consideration, and it’s more affordable and simpler, though I’d love to experiment with older cameras.
Is there a special time of the day you like to shoot or is any time good? I enjoy shooting in the first and the last light of day; right at the edges.
How do you define street photography? Perhaps many genres can be “street” if you don’t determine what you’re going to shoot before hand. A few years ago I had the experience of seeing the best photographic exhibition in my life; was a huge show of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. I was immediately afflicted, I wanted to try this art, street photography, too. But where I live, I see the postman once a day and sometimes I don’t see anyone else for days. When I go to the city, the best treat is to simply wander the streets. However, because I live out in a rural area, I enjoy what I have, approaching moments and unfolding spaces in rural spaces with the mindset of a street photographer, even though I don’t live in a place with people. I suppose I try for a kind of rural street photography, although I’m also trying to find fresh ways with the possibilities of landscape photography.
Street photography requires an abandoned sense of wonderment, an openness. But you can’t just click away and assume that the act in itself will muster up an image. It’s so rare; it’s that little crucial moment that I think might be symbolized by the way Cartier-Bresson used to pop up on his tippy toes as he pressed the shutter. Seldom, if ever, can I claim to have snaffled what Roland Barthe’s calls ‘punctum’. Street photography offers a kind of slow accretion of modest wisdom. The more you photograph, the keener your observation, the more you notice about the world … perhaps you grow a little wiser each time because you’re in a state of watching out.
Decades ago I was involved with an anti-apartheid publishing house my then husband ran and some of the ground-breaking young photographers of that time in Johannesburg had a dark room at the back of the place and they offered my first understanding of what documentary photography is about. I often consider and puzzle over the difference between documentary and street photography. Documentary photography has a responsibility while street photography doesn’t. Yet it tells a lot of truths. Street brings attention to our foibles and reminds us of delight. It’s lovely to go to exhibitions of street photographers you know and see the public responding to the delight in everyday life. It’s like enhancing all the little things that happen when we don’t have our cameras.
I’m not so keen on street photography which is malicious, grossly intrusive or that pokes fun at vulnerable people. I prefer and enjoy photographs which are taken with a kind of tenderness and respect. This is a tricky differentiation; I enjoy much of Martin Parr’s work and he’s a great one at poking fun, of celebrating our ludicrious possibilities. Perhaps it should be celebratory rather than derisory, although I strongly believe we should always deride misused or misplaced power….
Some of your images remind us of the comic strips of Gary Larson, where the animals take on human or at least anthropomorphic intelligence. Is that how you see them? Perhaps. I have this one very tame hen that sits next to me when I am in the sun. So I painted her nails. One day a builder was here fixing the chimney and after a cup of tea and a chat he bounced off in his van and ten minutes later he came bouncing back and in a rather matter of fact way handed me the hen through his window. She had got into the van and settled down in the passenger seat when he wasn’t looking. I suppose she wanted a little expedition. Yes, animals have huge intelligence but it’s of their own complex sort. I love being in a position to try and capture some of that.
Why did you choose Street Photography and not another form of photography or stamp collecting? To me Street is more an attitude than a genre, a way of encountering the world, without too many preconceptions, wherever one happens to be. It invites intuition rather than rationality; it requires an emotional response before an understanding. I also love the excitement of anticipation, seeing a moment coming.… What I do to earn a living requires planning, organization, parameters, words; wandering around with my camera is an antidote to that. We don’t have to prepare anything, and we don’t have to tell the whole story – suggestion and puzzlement are good intentions.
What motivates you to photograph the streets? The world is a different place when we’ve a camera in our hand. I love having this reason to be out in the world, in the sun and the rain, instead of hunched at my computer where I spend my working day. It’s a bit like taking a dog for a walk. I live a quiet life in the countryside and when I get out the world has a wam-bam! impact on me. I think, crikey! look at what’s going on, look at what all these people or dogs or cows or buses or road signs are up to! What havoc, what strange order, too…Photographing out there is a sort of gesture of love; kind of blowing a kiss to the world.
Is Street Photography an obsession? Perhaps, yes. I drive with my camera on my lap. I feel undressed if I chance out of the door without it, and return in panic to fetch it.
Are you a lone shooter or do you like shooting with friends or a group? I find it a meditative practice – if that doesn’t sound too pretentious – best carried out alone. I get into a ‘dwaal’, as Afrikaners say. But I take my camera where ever I go, whether I’m in company or not; I just don’t go on group shoots. I don’t go on ‘shoots’ per se, I just take my camera along in life.
Favorite street photography city: I don’t get about much, and photograph mostly in rural areas. I enjoy the quirky small towns on the coast near where I live, and I get to London when I can.
What inspires your photography? I think everything we encounter can inform our photography; current politics for example. I enjoy all sorts of art and literature and go to galleries when I can, and if I can’t, well, I count myself fortunate that I have Google Search and the Internet, which can be like making a big Christmas pudding every day; loads and loads of ingredients at our fingertips! Recently I saw Grayson Perry’s tapestries; and marveled at the small details of contemporary life he’s observed in them. I also saw Munch’s paintings and was very moved and also inspired by the daring and photographic points of view in his compositions. Things I’ve read recently? Will Self’s Psychogeography was big for me, as was Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Of course I read a couple of blogs, and I try to find out what other photographers are saying, and enjoy their biographies, but mostly I soak up their images, as much as I can and as often as I can.
Is there a philosophy, concept or aesthetic behind your compositions that you apply to your photos? I suppose the isolation. In the last 4 years I’ve been mostly on my own here. Roaming around the area is very solitary. There is a state of grace to be learned from that. England is a small, crowded place but the gaps of space and silence and minimalism are there. I find it easier to compose with simpler and fewer elements.
When I am in London I like to go out early in the morning. If you go out to somewhere like Oxford street in the middle of the day and people stream by you can invariably dredge up an image. But perhaps because I am used to country life, I find the empty streets of the early hours more manageable. Maybe it’s a bit of a cop-out, but I find myself doing it.
On the other hand, I have a problem with some landscape photography which is often quite dull or clichéd. Landscape images become beautiful or beguiling or special when something unique happens in them, when the photographer invests some emotional intelligence in her or his summoning of the landscape. Some of Ansel Adams’ photographs manage that; a small spark, that tiny black horse, a living spirit.
Do you think your work in typography, proofreading and publishing has an impact on how you shoot and view street photographs? Perhaps because I’m making decisions about color, line and form in the earning work. The world can be compositionally structured through a viewfinder much like the graphics on a page. I work on academic books, mostly about Africa and global issues So I often browse for images for book covers and illustrations, looking through stock photos, finding fresh elements for design.
What do you look for in a good photograph by others and by yourself? A difficult question, often asked. I know the effect of a good photograph: it’s a sort of searing prod, like with a branding iron; a prod in the head or a prod in the heart or even the funny-bone; and then the day is different after that.…
How do you go about shooting a street photograph? I do not have a plan or a way of doing things. I just make sure I have my camera and that the battery is charged, and I try to remember to check that I haven’t left exposure compensation on, which I frequently do! I simply take my camera along and don’t feel a desperation to find a shot, to make a catch. I take quite a lot of photos while en route on country roads – grinding to a halt, reversing, causing mahem, plunging into muddy fields ….
How do you go about composing a shot? If there’s time I’ll check if there’s an alternative point of view; an element that could be included, a framing shape I might not have seen at first. I once took a landscape photograph, which ended up in the Tate archives, of a farmhouse and snowy mountains in the background, but I was bothered by some pesky black silage bags and old tyres cluttering the foreground. Then, as I adjusted my position, I realized that filling half the frame with this detritus actually made a better photo. This can happen in street situations, when you take a few shots and then notice that things might line up or juxtapose or create a better shot if you just shift a little. But you need the luxury of time for that. Mostly taking a photo is a sort of blurred panic.
Best 3 tips for shooting the streets): When I got my little DSLR a friend picked it up to admire it and promptly threw the lens cap in the bin. ‘You won’t be needing that’, he said, ‘you won’t take street photographs with a lens cap on’. So perhaps that’s some good advice: throw away your lens cap and get a UV filter to protect your lens instead. Another tip I learned is to carry on shooting even after it feels like a moment is over. I’ve found that if a person who’s in my shot is curious or put out by my including them they mellow if I try find something nice or respectful to say, to explain that I thought they looked wonderful there in that light, or that I liked their nice jumper or that their kiss looked so loving.
Best single advice on how to improve your work: I don’t really like the word ‘work’; people who toil away in paddy fields or down mines or in garment factories do ‘work’. We photographers who’re not doing it to earn bread or rent, are just enjoying ourselves, making our projects, dilly-dallying, learning to look and understand a little more.
Best single advice on how to edit your work: I spend some of my working time cutting and paring book texts down to the bones, and it’s good to try to do this with photographs. I find it a good challenge to be really strict and honest with myself when it comes to sorting through images. You know that an image is actually not very good, you just do, and it’s better not to try to persuade yourself it is and to just move on. So being ruthless helps. Distilling, from a big fat mush of stuff, just one brief succinct or poetic phrase.
Best single advice for someone who wants to get into street photography: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘get into’. There’s no right way to do it, no club, no certificates. Just walk out with a camera and see what happens. It’s fun to share the results and learn from others on websites like Flickr, to become savvy and enter competitions and things, but it can get hectic and misleading.
What’s the best moment in your street photography career? It’s not a ‘career’, it’s a hobby really; I don’t have grand ambitions. I do take it seriously and am passionate about it, but I have no pretensions to a career. Street photography is not really about that; even master street photographers do mostly commercial work to survive. The delight in getting a satisfying photo is a very rare and ‘best’ moment, every time.
What’s the worst moment in your street photography career? I haven’t had any ‘worst’ moment I don’t think. Being shooed off down the street in a local town by two big lads who could shout ‘fuck off’ and fire half-eaten chips from their mouths simultaneously was a bit exciting.
Other than that, because I live in a small community, the people, farmers, are all generally wary about being photographed. The older folks aren’t too bothered by it but the younger ones are.
What projects are you working on? With street images things perhaps become projects as they accumulate. I am also trying to start a couple of documentary projects about things that I feel are important and if anything I’d hope to develop in that direction.
Where do you want to be in 5 years with regard to street photography? Simply to still be looking, snapping and learning for the enjoyment of it. With perhaps a little more technical savvy and perhaps a project I’m proud of…
Are there exhibitions planned in the future? A small presentation in Amsterdam, and a selection in Life Force magazine are coming up soon.
Leica Liker thanks Kate for sharing her experience and inspirational advice with us. We look forward to checking in on her in the future.
We also want to thank Richard Bram for introducing Kate to us.
You can check out Kate’s gear in “Liker Bags ‘n Gear” here.
Here is Kate’s self portrait.