Kurt Simonson (b. 1977 in St Paul, Minnesota) is an artist/educator based in Long Beach, California, whose work explores the longings and tensions that surround our ideas of home, community, and identity. Whether connecting the myth and memory of his own upbringing in Minnesota or taking intimate portraits of his closest friends, questions about family, story, and belonging remain at the heart of his curiosity. He received an MFA in Photography from California State University Long Beach, and a BS in Studio Art from Biola University in Los Angeles, where he since created the photography program and has been teaching for 15 years.
Kurt's work is regularly exhibited throughout the country and internationally, including solo exhibitions at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon, and the Earl & Virginia Green Gallery in Los Angeles, California, as well as group exhibits at the San Diego Museum of Art, the Center for Fine Art Photography (Fort Collins, Colorado), RayKo Photo Center (San Francisco, California), and the Foto8 Gallery in London, England. His work has been published in the London Sunday Times Magazine, American Photo, Fraction, Lenscratch, AintBad, The Ones We Love, Strant, and Dodho Magazine, and has received awards from CENTER Santa Fe and Photolucida’s Critical Mass. In 2015 Kurt was named one of LensCulture’s 50 Emerging Talents.
His first monograph, Northwoods Journals, was published in 2015 by Flash Powder Projects and has been featured in reviews and year-end best lists from PhotoEye, American Photo, Lenscratch, LensCulture, Flak Photo, and Photo Independent. The book was also featured in the 2017 Month of Photography Los Angeles photobook showcase, and was exhibited at the Benaki Museum in Greece as part of the 2017 Athens Photo Festival.
Images 2001-2015, Published 2015
I must have been ten or eleven years old when I first ran across the peculiar envelope that bore my grandmother’s shaky handwriting: “not to be opened until my death.” Tucked in her top dresser drawer amidst other valuables, its striking phrase burned into my memory at a young age. I don’t know exactly when, and I don’t know how often, but I know I visited the envelope numerous times, pondering what could be inside. What could be so important (or tragic) that it must be kept secret in this way?
I left Minnesota nearly twenty years ago, and yet it has never left me. The images in this project are artifacts of the myths and memories that have distressed me, challenged me, and shaped me.
There are the woods—a place of childhood adventures, and yet a place of fear, a place where things go to hide (or be buried). There are the rivers and lakes, sources of both life and death in my family’s story. There are the afghan blankets, hand-crocheted by my grandmother, objects that both comfort and conceal. There are also my grandmothers’ Bibles with evidence of struggles unspoken, prayers of sincere faith in a different reality.
But most of all, there is that envelope. I have never been able to shake the hold that piece of paper had over me. More than just a letter—I was haunted by what it represented. Loaded with latent meaning, yet withholding its story, that envelope is my experience of growing up in Minnesota. Northwoods Journals is largely about bearing the weight of secrets, living with the tension of things unknown, and searching for a different way forward.
Q&A: BIOLA UNIVERSITY
Why Biola University?
Why I am at Biola: I did my undergrad degree at Biola, and at the time, they didn't have a photography emphasis in the art program. I enjoyed studying and making work from other mediums, but I wanted to focus on photography, so I started doing photo projects in my painting classes (which was wonderfully encouraged) and taking photo classes on the side at a community college (Cypress College). The faculty took note of this, and a few years after I graduated, they were ready to develop a photo program. So they asked me to come back to create it and teach it.
Why someone should study art at Biola: Biola’s art department is peculiar, a unique community within a curious place. Biola is a private Christian liberal arts university, with historic roots in theological studies. In a school like that, the art department tends to be home to those students who are the curious, the questioners, the provocateurs. We take advantage of our location in Los Angeles, a complex multicultural center of contemporary art, and push our students to be active participants in the conversations of the moment, in the art world and in the world at large.
Students interested in Photography can choose the flagship program, which is one of five emphases within our BFA Degree, or they can choose a BS in Studio Art, an option that allows for double-majoring in things like psychology, sociology, cultural studies, etc. While all art students will begin with a two-year sequence of core classes in traditional mediums and art history, we strongly encourage multi-disciplinary investigation, collaboration, integration, and unconventional approaches to work. At the end of the program, students take a sequence of classes to prepare for a senior thesis solo exhibition, internships, and professional practice outside of school. All students have 24/7 secure access to all labs and classrooms, including a full black and white darkroom and a computer lab with Epson & Hasselblad scanners and Epson large-format printers. In addition, all senior BFA students get a studio space for making their senior exhibit.
What courses do you teach?
I am the only full-time photography professor, so I teach across the entire curriculum. Courses include Photo 1: Intro to Darkroom & Digital; Photo 2: Studies in Color; Photo 3: Advanced Black and White; History & Criticism of Photography; Contemporary Photo Practices; Narrative Photography; and Professional Photo Practices (senior portfolio seminar).
How does your program bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary photographic practices?
When I crafted the curriculum, it was at the time of the introduction of the Digital SLR, when many programs were hastily gutting their darkrooms. I decided that I wanted our program to be about image-making and conceptual communication, and not about the tools-- so I integrated film and digital media into all of the courses, so that both the darkroom and the digital lab would be essential to every photo class experience. For example, Photo 1 became a course that was grounded in film and darkroom approaches, but utilized digital for smaller skill-building projects, and introduced other mixed media tools as well. In the upper-level classes, we use medium and large format cameras (6x6, 645, 67, 4x5, and 8x10) and have 4x5 and 8x10 enlargers for large-format black & white fiber-based printing. We also have Epson and Hasselblad scanners for moving those images into the digital realm, and Epson 4900 and 9900 printers for learning color-managed printing on fine-art papers. Our Contemporary Photo class encourages students to work in non-traditional forms, with whatever cameras and toys and tools are available to them, and has recently turned more toward photobook making. Ultimately my goal is for students to experience as many tools and processes as possible in order to know which one is the right one for their vision and concept, especially as they work toward a solo thesis exhibition.
Describe the process of output for photographs. Are students encouraged or required to make prints?
We are very much a print and object-based program. Whether darkroom RC or Fiber prints, or color-managed digital prints, students will learn how to output their images to the highest professional standards (and will learn to do it themselves, not leave it for a lab tech). However with our interdisciplinary approach, we also encourage non-traditional forms of mixed-media or new media as well (video, social practice, participatory, web-based, etc).
Describe the critique format.
All projects culminate with critiques, which are a central value to our curriculum. We try to mix-up our critique methods, placing a different emphasis on different parts of the crit process at different times. We’ll have the traditional “one-by-one” whole-class crits, as well as small group crits, written critiques, anonymous critiques, etc. Whenever possible we’ll have visiting artists serve as guest critics, and in the senior photo course, final portfolios are critiqued by visiting professionals. My philosophy of critique is to do as much as possible to honor the artist’s intentions with respect, while carefully helping them see how or where the work succeeds (or fails) at their intentions. I want critiques to be helpful, not sites for grandstanding or bloodbaths, as much fun as those can be for some people. =)
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?