Q/A W Cristina Kahlo
Cristina Kahlo, great-granddaughter of Guillermo Kahlo and great-niece of Frida Kahlo, is a practicing photographer and member of Maestro Julio Galindo’s Platinum Print Workshop in Mexico City. She visited Santa Fe this October to attend the Alternative Photographic International Symposium sponsored by Bostick and Sullivan, Inc. and chatted with The Jackalope Magazine about her relationship to photography.
Kahlo’s photographs will be on exhibit at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Marion Center Gallery with four other photographers until Nov. 8.
The following interview has been edited for brevity.
Jackalope Magazine: When did you discover photography?
Cristina Kahlo: My father was an amateur photographer—he was always playing with cameras. The darkroom was a place for adults. Children were not allowed. There was a special lock on the door so that children could not get in.
So when I was 10 or 11 years old and my father invited me in, it was like I was being allowed into a forbidden room.
He enlarged a picture of a family picnic and showed me how to submerge the photo paper in the chemicals, and that moment of seeing the image appear on the paper was magic. That is when I discovered what it means to make a photograph, and the moment when I fell in love with photography.
JM: How did you pursue that newfound love?
CK: My father died young. He was 42, and I was 13. But after he died, his darkroom was still in the house. A brother of a friend of mine did photography, and he said, ‘you like photography, don’t you,’ and he showed me the ABCs.
That’s how I started printing.
Then when I was 16 years old, I started at the Escuela Activa de Photographia, the only school for photography in Mexico at the time, which happened to be two blocks from my parents’ house. Since then, I have never wanted to change my profession. People ask, ‘if you were not a photographer, what would you want to be?’ But I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. Even just talking about photography makes me happy.
JM: What does ‘making a photograph’ mean to you?
CK: For me, photography is about capturing and making an interpretation of reality. It looks like you’re taking an exact image of reality, but you really reduce reality. You choose which part to capture. With painting or sculpting, you have a relation to the object you are capturing. With photography, this is where the printing is important. I don’t like to look at photographs on computers, because I like to have an object to interact with. I use computers as a tool—I get what I need from them, but I am happier to be in the darkroom. I work with music on, and it’s a sort of meditative process. It’s a personal place.
JM: Do you feel that each of your photographs have a story to tell?
CK: There is always a story. The image must talk, so I give a little clue to the viewer in the title. That’s the beauty of art: You make a story, but others do, too. The story is different for everybody, because everybody interprets the image a little bit differently.
JM: What is your favorite type of processing?
CK: Platinum. It’s sophisticated. I like cyanotype also, but platinum is more exact: One drop of this chemical or one drop of that chemical changes everything.
JM: Do you ever go through periods of not wanting to take pictures, of being tired of the work?
CK: I am always thinking about photography. My head is always full of chemical formulas and composing pictures from my surroundings.
What’s hard for me is to make a living off of my art form. It’s not enough to live off of just selling prints, so I have to take hired portraits or give workshops. That is the hard part of photography for me: making a living doing it.
Maybe someday when I am older I will get tired of making pictures, but for now I am crazy, always thinking of the next picture.
JM: Do you think you would have been an artist without the influence and legacy of your family?
CK: Absolutely. I didn’t discover that my great grandfather was a photographer until I was 17, and by then I was already in love with photography. As a kid, I hated Frida’s paintings. I remember my father showing me a book of her work and telling me that his aunt had painted them. I thought, ‘your aunt must have been crazy,’ but that was because I was young, and you have to understand Frida’s life to understand her work.
But even without having her as a great-aunt or my great grandfather’s work in the field, I would still be a photographer. I am an artist, no matter what.
JM: What do you think characterizes photography now?
CK: We are at a very interesting moment in photography. We are experiencing the birth of the digital era. In the last nine or 10 years, everybody has shifted to working digitally. Eight years ago I was reviewing the portfolios of photography students at Dallas University, and they all gave me digital portfolios and digital prints.
Now, eight years later, analog is coming back. Digital is easy: everybody can use Photoshop, or even their cell phones, to get effects that look like analog processes. Platinum, Polaroid, cyanotype—you name it. So now the same young photographers want to know the magic of the darkroom that is behind those effects. Effects aren’t special anymore but, every day, less and less people know how to develop film.
My students are totally excited to develop film and make contact sheets. It’s like magic to them.