Gene Kennedy: Progress and Paradox

Words: David Best

Like many photographers of a certain age, Gene Kennedy became inspired by the idea that he could help save the wilderness through his photographs. But the more pretty nature pictures he made, and the more he learned about environmental issues, the more he felt like he was heading in the wrong direction.

“I soon realized that photographs of nature were mostly being seen and appreciated by people already convinced that the wilderness needed protection. I thought I might make a more powerful statement by embracing the power lines, and accepting the telephone poles and concrete, the fences and the asphalt. That U-turn led to a 20-year examination of the suburban development that was literally eating up the landscape I had known since childhood.”

What Kennedy discovered by turning around, sometimes literally, was an alternative view of encroaching suburbs and the relentless development of Southern California in the latter half of the 20th century. He documented this activity without necessarily editorializing or proselytizing against the builders. Environmentalists can view his photographs as an indictment against development, while developers might see them as skillfully constructed pictures of development. His intent was simply to document this tsunami-like transformation of the landscape. Beginning his work in San Diego County, he continued the “California Carcinoma” project in Orange County with the help of a 1984 NEA grant.

“I was mesmerized by the process of taking these photographs,” Kennedy says, “because the subject matter was astonishing. It was truly a case of ‘fascinated revulsion.’ While I didn’t like seeing the rampant development occurring everywhere, I would get all excited about photographing this stuff that I hated, because I thought it made really interesting pictures. I found it easier to make successful images because the lines and shapes provided by the man-made landscapes gave me the structural parts for more effective picture organization.

“I was addicted to cul-de-sacs in the beginning,” Kennedy adds. “The lines of the streets fit nicely into the 6” x 9” and 6” x 12” formats I use, and made for clean, graphic compositions. I saw cul-de-sacs as metaphors because I saw all this development as a dead end. It doesn’t seem sustainable. Another thing I like is that when you shoot from the end of the cul-de-sac, viewing the image upside-down in the view camera, the cul-de-sac becomes a question mark, which seemed like a fitting symbol during this period of unbridled growth.”

A sobering example of such growth is Kennedy’s photographic time-lapse diptych “Cottonwood Pair,” which spans eight years and was made in El Cajon in San Diego County. On his first visit in 1983 there were just outlines of the grand design scratched in the dirt, with perhaps ten houses completed. When he returned later there were possibly thousands of people living within the frame of his image. It is often difficult to find the exact location when he returns years later to re-photograph, because everything is so drastically altered; even street names change, or entire developments are sold and renamed. But luckily for him this spot was still called “Cottonwood.”

When Kennedy moved to Sacramento in the early 1980s, he thought he would continue his land-development project. But the flatness of the Great Central Valley seemed boring and difficult to photograph, and didn’t add anything to the portfolio. He’d read somewhere that next to Paris, Sacramento has more trees than any city in the world, so this seemed the next logical place to focus his lens.

“I didn’t go out to take pretty pictures of trees,” he explains. “When I went out looking for trees, I found them in the same predicaments as people in this urban/suburban landscape. I took pictures of trees in dilemmas. One I remember well was in Folsom: a scraggly tree amongst houses with wooden fences around. The title I gave this was ‘Contemplating the Afterlife,’ the idea being that this living tree was standing there surrounded by the wooden fence slats that all his friends had become. Nobody got it. But for me it was a powerful metaphor for the predicaments trees face in our culture.”

More recently, Kennedy has added urban buildings to his repertoire, an interest that grew out of his involvement with Gladding, McBean & Co., a 136-year-old ceramics factory in Lincoln, California, which specializes in architectural terra cotta, as well as clay sewer pipe. He has led photography workshops in the pottery for the past 16 years.

Kennedy likes to work on big projects. When a lengthy drought struck California in the early 1990s, he noted the effects of our passive ignorance, observing the oases of green lawns and brimming swimming pools at a time our reservoirs were dropping to historic levels. He went out to photograph the reservoirs.

“I found, in those reservoirs, a stark reminder of how dependent we are on water, and how ignorant we are of the delicate line where ‘just enough’ becomes a desperate emergency. Like ongoing suburban development, reservoirs are places that most of us never see, except when they’re nice enough to visit or live in. The realities they represent are out of sight, out of mind.”

Reflecting on what he describes as “Lighthearted Landscrapes,” Kennedy concedes that “Photography has provided me with a way to go out and reflect on the world, and humor is an important part of who I am as a photographer. Many of these images are just for smiling at. They celebrate the luck of finding humorous, ironic or perverse events and juxtapositions in both expected and unexpected places. They honor the photographic tradition of ‘being there,’ and prove, in the end, that luck is where you find it.”

Kennedy describes himself as a documentary-style photographer, because he tries to present clearly articulated descriptions of the interesting things and combinations of things he finds in the world. He provides the viewer with as much information as possible.

“I sometimes think I should describe my work as ‘Art. Photography’ (with a period after art),” he muses. “The abbreviated word ‘art.’ stands for ‘articulate,’ which my dictionary defines as ‘expressed with clarity and effectiveness’ and ‘organized into a coherent whole.’ That would make me an, though I prefer photographer.”

Equally important, he has been able to use photography to make connections with friends; he likes to go out photographing with other people better than going by himself. In fact, Kennedy has been a lodestone for attracting fellow photographers (including this writer), and mentoring them. For years he owned a rental darkroom in Sacramento, where a core group of photographers gathered on Friday nights, printing late into the evening, then retreating to a local pie shop for dessert. This group morphed into a monthly dinner group that holds an annual camping and photo trip going into its 18th year. He has always been a generous mentor, friend and facilitator.

“It’s an important part of my life,” Kennedy says. “Especially the camping trips. There’s such a life-fulfilling quality and camaraderie without it being the typical male, thoughtless, crude, drunken debacle that often results when guys get together. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve always been a gatherer, and I’ve managed to attract a phenomenal group of friends who share my values and a passion for photography’s place in the world.”

Fact File
To view all of Kennedy’s unique series, make print inquiries, or read his witty and erudite article on the zone system, visit

Cottonwood Meadows Tract - Time Lapse #1, El Cajon, California, 1983