Book Review: Ken Van Sickle Photography 1954-2019
By Ashley Yu
After his tour in the Korean War, Ken Van Sickle picked up a Leica camera with only 60 rolls of 35mm film and, with the money from the G.I. Bill, moved to Paris. At the age of 82, the photographer finally published his first monograph Ken Van Sickle Photography 1954-2009.
Split into two different sections, the majority of Van Sickle’s book contains snapshots of his life in Paris as an American expat and later, New York during the 50s. Though captured over 60 years ago, there is this sense of cinematic framing and experimentation that makes his photography perpetually contemporary and modern.
Not only does Van Sickle play with the refraction of mirrors, but he also experiments with the prototype of bokeh--a photographic aesthetic of the blur produced in an out-of-focus parts of an image--as he blurs the photographic subject out by capturing the image during a snowstorm. By experimental technique alone could his photography capture the eyes of many. However, it is his uncanny friendships with artists in the Parisian and New York art scene that makes his work iconic. His images of Andy Warhol or Allen Ginsberg, feel like candids of friends just hanging out.
Meanwhile, the latter portion of the book is dedicated to his experimental photographs of double exposure titled “Second Sites.” Van Sickle’s double exposure photography is a result of pure coincidence and “happenstance,” creating surprisingly beautiful and surreal images. In one image, he combines a lush landscape of flowers and shrubs with the naked body of his lover. In another, the haunting silhouettes of children seem to run away from the camera, dissolving into a superimposed image of New York’s cityscape. Now don’t forget: this is way before Photoshop was even conceivable.
With over 50 years of work, Van Sickle’s cheeky attitude towards his photographic subjects situates the quotidian quirks of life into sites of beauty and curiosity. Sometimes shrouded in the shadows; sometimes obscured by sheets of rain or snow; other times refracted with infinite mirrors, his photographs are simultaneously candid and meticulously framed. The zeitgeist of the 50s are preserved so precisely between the pages of his book, yet they feel so fleeting and intransigent, almost on the verge of transforming into something else entirely.