In conversation with MIXD, photographer and visual artist Andrew Kilgore discusses his philosophy behind the lens, where he’s been since 1968, along with the many other journeys that brought him there.
A signature black-and-white portrait may identify Kilgore’s iconic style of shooting, yet it’s his diverse cast of subjects that ultimately fulfills the artist’s creative mission. While he has made a career for himself as a fine art photographer in Fayetteville, Ark., there’s much more to his becoming an artist than his utter talent and chance. Rather, through his raw adoration for finding the intrinsic humanity in front of his camera, Kilgore has used his art to inform his activism.
Can you describe a bit of your background for us?
Andrew Kilgore One of the stories I like to tell is that I majored in philosophy, religion, and studied a lot of literature, but my intention was to go to seminary and become a minister—Presbyterian or Methodist. But after one year of seminary in New York City, I realized that I had some of the skills that were appropriate for the career, but didn’t have some of the others, particularly the political ones. The church is so political and if you don’t have political skills then you’re just going to get run over, which I did. After that, I was in the Peace Corps for a couple of years. I ended up teaching developmentally disabled, totally blind children in an institution in Austin. I then got into the whole hippie thing and came up here to Fayetteville.
The story I like to tell though is that when I was in philosophy, I took thirteen courses for my degree, including one in aesthetics and one in logic. Out of all the courses I took, my best grade was in logic, and my worst was in aesthetics. So, I became an artist. Artists always know exactly what I’m talking about because artists are less interested in those kinds of philosophical values of their work and more interested in how to solve problems, how to make stuff work. So, logic is really more appropriate than aesthetics in so many ways.
I always kind of wanted to be an artist, but I was horrible at drawing. I just couldn’t draw, and I figured if you couldn’t draw then you couldn’t be an artist. So, I just never thought about it.
Then, when I was in Austin, my next-door neighbor had built a darkroom, and she knew that I’d bought a camera on my way home from the Peace Corps, and invited me to share this darkroom. I took my camera out to the school, where I’d worked with these really fascinating children and shot a couple rolls of film, and then came back home and developed my film. The first time I saw a print come up in the developer tray, it was like I was home.
Photography became a way for me to be an artist, and a serious artist in what I think of as fine art, without needing the ability to draw.
When did this passion for photography emerge in your life?
AK In 1970, when I was thirty. I’ve been photographing for fifty-two years now.
Had you always wanted to be an artist prior to your earlier studies?
AK I did. I remember one time in college, I was standing on a street corner and saw this beautiful child, maybe four or five years old, in a white dress. This was sixty-some years ago. I remember wishing I could somehow make a picture of what I was experiencing visually, and feeling a sadness for not being able to draw.
How do you describe your work to others, either your photography or your digital illustrations?
AK Sometimes I say that I practice photographic advocacy, or that I’m an artist activist. The work that is most important to me is almost always about creating connections between people and celebrating the true, beautiful nature of every single human being.
What is one of the most challenging aspects of your practice? Easiest?
AK I’m going to twist that question a little bit. What I’ve ended up being good at is establishing rapport with people. And not letting the camera and the process of photographing intrude on that sense of rapport, but rather allowing that sense of rapport to inform the photographic experience.
I tell people all the time that what I do as a fine art portrait photographer is a collaborative art form. The person I’m photographing is an equal partner in this process. What we’re creating is a relationship, and my job is to create a visual record of that experience of connection between me and the person that I’m photographing.
For me, the challenge, but also the thing I think I’m good at, is basically making friends with people. And for me, friendship is the most precious and the most important relationship that we ever have with anyone. Even spouses, when they’ve been together a long time, realize their most basic connection is not romantic but it’s the friendship they develop.
What do you most want to convey through your work?
AK The intrinsic value and beauty of every single human being. To be able to take a photograph and through it see a person, despite age, wrinkles, scarring, or weariness, is to be able to see beyond social standards, and instead the beauty of life.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
AK I think a lot of people don’t realize that, although my background is and continues to be very non-religious, my work itself is greatly informed by my faith.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
AK I like Kandinsky a lot. And Rothko, I’m a huge Rothko fan. It’s interesting, the names that immediately come to mind are Abstract Expressionist painters, and when I go to New York or D.C., I always want to go to the art museums, and I always end up in those [galleries]. In the last few years, I’ve begun to paint myself, not anything even remotely like the level of the painters I’ve mentioned, but that’s kind of where I go. Painting out of imagination and a kind of pure awareness, rather than trying to create something that is representational.
Which is so different from your photography work. How do you balance your painting and photography conceptually?
AK I think they’re the same. I think a lot of people, when they look at my work, because it is a very relatively common form of art, they don’t see the care that I’ve taken in the design aspect. My photographs are very highly designed, but I think a lot of people don’t see that because they’re looking at the subject and how they connect with the person in the photo. They don’t necessarily see the extent to which that photograph is a highly designed and crafted piece of art.
MATCHBOOK Issue 001
Read the rest of this exclusive feature now
Is that a challenge to not be able control how others perceive your work, maybe missing that level of intent?
AK That’s on them. T.S. Elliot used to do a lot of public readings in England, and often people would come up to him and ask, ‘Does this line mean X?’ and they’d give their interpretation of the meaning. And his answer was always, ‘Yes, and so much more.’
Going back to favorite artists, are there any prominent musicians or music that have had an influence on you?
AK I love Bach, particularly Bach’s keyboard music. And Bob Dylan, always. You know, The Band and Dire Straits, a lot of the music of the sixties and seventies, popular music. I discovered classical music as a teenager and have always loved music of the Baroque period, but even earlier than that, Gregorian chant music.
How does having a creative mind impact other aspects of your life?
AK One of the things I like to tell people is that while some people work at home, some of us live at work. This is my home and my studio. I live in my work.
What do you find most inspiring?
AK Other people, and oddly enough, color. I love color but it’s ironic because I’ve spent fifty years making black and white portraits.
What has been a seminal experience in your life or in photography?
AK There have been several. When I was in India, one of the things that I did was help this village to build a school. It was ten miles from where I stayed and in those days in India, ten miles was like a whole day deal. There’s a season in Northern India where it doesn’t rain for months, and everything just completely dries out. There’s this wind that blows constantly and strong enough that you have to practically lean into it. When I would go out to this village, I would have to walk a couple miles, and by the time I would walk back to the bus back to the town where I lived, I would be really dehydrated. One day, I had walked back and was sitting by this dirt road waiting for the bus and I saw this stick figure emerge from the heat mirage. It was this tiny man, naked except for a simple cloth around his loins. He had this huge basket on his head and sat down next to me. I realized he was, what was called in India at the time, an “untouchable.” He was probably the poorest person you could find, barely surviving. The calluses on his feet were cracked probably a quarter-inch deep. What I realized was that there was nowhere I could go on the face of the earth and find someone who was more different than me, but what I experienced with him was not the difference, but rather the experience of life that we had in common, the ways in which we were the same. When confronted by somebody so different from myself, what I experienced was that deep sense of sameness.
What are you excited about next in your work? AK The Walton Arts Center has invited me to have a one-man retrospective in January. I’m enjoying working with curator Kathy Thompson and putting that exhibit together. I just continue to love photographing people, and I would like to be able to do some more advocacy work. My photographic work breaks down basically to client work and advocacy work, where I’m commissioned to photograph a special population, usually people who’ve been pushed aside, undervalued, stigmatized, and to photograph those people in a way that celebrates their lives. I’d really like to be able to do more advocacy work.
Interview + Transcription by Kaitlin Morelock
Introduction by Rachel Roberts