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Museum Guards

black and white prints, medium format

Once upon a time, I was a security guard at the Seattle Art Museum. I had just gotten out of grad school and moved to Seattle, and figured that being around the art would be a great way to start a career. Apparently I wasn't the only one thinking along these lines. Just about every guard I met was an artist of some sort; there were painters, photographers, musicians, actors, writers - all of us hoping to "move up" by getting our foot in the door.

Maybe we thought we would be discovered and given an exhibition. Maybe we thought we would end up assisting a curator. In the tradition of actors who wait tables, we were artists guarding art.

We walked. And walked. And walked. Once the excitement of looking at the art faded, the monotony set in. "Where's the bathroom?" Down the hall to the right. Excuse me, please don't touch the art. Thank you. For people who wanted so much to be a vital part of the art community, we were essentially anonymous.

The great thing about this, though, was the sense of comradery that grew among many of us. Someone was always doing something, having a show, recording an album, etc. I began to realize that this group of people was in many ways so much more vital than the institution in which we worked, and I wanted to document it.

Fortunately, I lived less than a block away from the museum. This made it easier for me to convince my co-workers to come over during lunch breaks and have their pictures taken. Breaks were only half an hour, so if I had more than one or two volunteers on any given day, I had to work fast.

The setup was pretty simple - I had a white wall, a medium format camera and a couple of lights with umbrellas. Each guard stood against the wall and posed however they liked; I wanted to capture each person's personality unadorned by props or stilted poses.

This approach is nothing new in photography. Although this plain backdrop look has become common in advertising, I was at the time thinking more along the lines of artists like Disfarmer, Richard Avedon and Chuck Close. These people let their subjects speak for themselves, in a way that was respectful and truthful.

I had no way to develop my photos. Fortunately, the then-Curator of Prints and Photography at the Seattle Art Museum, Rod Slemmons, took an interest in the project and offered to develop my film for me.

With generous support from Allied Arts of Seattle, I was then able to make prints from the negatives Rod developed for me.

John Kieltyka


Light Industry

C-Prints, 20” X 30” each

The Light Industry series was made in response to body burnout. Prior to my time in a Kinko’s apron, I knew nothing of repetitive stress injuries created by constant overuse. By the time I exited the copy business, I was crippled by severe plantar fasciitis from long hours of standing on a cement floor. Ultimately, surgery was the only option for relief. The nerves in my right arm were chronically inflamed, feeling as if a “hot rope” was leading to my neck. Even today, I cannot iron or knit for long periods without a physical reminder of this time. I was mystified that such a short stint in a simple, standing job could result in so much pain. The experience changed my view of workers, in general. I gained new respect for grocery clerks and movers, among others; I regarded my clothing and food with new eyes, acutely aware of the workers who spent long days hunched over sewing machines or picking crops in the fields.

Ironically for me, the job that caused so much physical pain was also one of the most pleasurable. I’ve spent some time thinking about the various jobs I’ve had in my life. Of these, only one stands out as maximum fun: Kinko’s. It undoubtedly provided the most laughter, as no matter what shift I worked, humor abounded. Hilarious exchanges sprang from a curious mix of wacky customers and the irreverent interpretations and banter of youthful, fellow workers. I wish everyone could experience this brand of glee, at least once in their working life.

I created the Light Industry series of self-portraits in total darkness with one- and two-second exposures, using low speed positive (slide) film. All available light was created by a string of red holiday lights, taped to my back and extending down my arm. In one shot, the viewer can observe the bulb at the end of the shutter release cable.

Some of the photos in this series were made by sandwiching my self-portraits with images from medical brochures relating to repetitive stress motion injuries.

-Monika Lidman


Cats and Guitars

For almost a year, Monika and I were babysitting a cat named Romeo. At some point, I realized how well he matched one of my guitars, a Rickenbacker 620. So, into the studio we went and took some photos. That's where this project began.

I put the word out for cat volunteers. Each cat was brought to my studio, where he/she stayed over for a weekend, to give them enough time to acclimate before I started taking pictures. This also allowed me to visit my buddies down at Emerald City Guitars and borrow a guitar overnight.

-John Kieltyka


Film Stills

Digitally manipulated images, 20" x 30"

Have you ever looked at a piece of film up close? You can see all the scratches and dirt that create the mesmerizing, moving texture we notice when the screen goes blank.

This texture has come to signify reality, authenticity, truth. We see it in car commercials, music videos and print ads. "Trust us. This is the real deal..."

But what if it's not? What if it never existed?

I wanted to see if this type of familiarity could be manufactured. I used old family photos, tourist slides and my own miscellaneous pictures as source material. Over these I imposed scratches and stains scanned from various weathered surfaces. In some cases, simply putting dust and fingerprints on the glass of the scanner worked wonders.

The next step was putting "subtitles" on several of the pieces. The trick to this seems to have been to create some sort of textual non sequitur. This created the filmic sense that something had preceded the moment, and that something would follow.

The first time I showed these large prints, several people asked me what movie particular "stills" had been taken from. "I know I've seen that movie before. What was the name of it?...."

I explained that this was the idea; the pieces had been designed to be recognizable, although they were based on nothing a viewer could possibly have seen in a theatre.

These photos were eventually shown in Los Angeles, as part of a group show of Seattle artists at Post gallery. The exhibit garnered a "Pick of the Week" review in the LA Weekly. In it, the esteemed art critic Peter Frank was quite generous, writing of the exhibiting artists that "each displays technical mastery, wit and poignancy."

When describing these photos, however, Mr. Frank wrote that "John Kieltyka blows up frames from found film footage, scratches, subtitles and all."

How perfect! I was trying to illustrate the idea that, in the digital age, you can't believe everything you see. And Mr. Frank reminded his readers that you can't believe everything you read.

John Kieltyka




White Portraits

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Lake Commute

For years I rode the bus from Downtown Seattle, across the SR-520 bridge over Lake Washington, and into Redmond, WA. The lake itself is quite cold and deep; its surface, however, manages to not only mirror its environment, but project its own array of moods. I never got tired of it, and always angled for a window seat, camera phone at the ready.