The following first appeared in the March 2008 issue of inspire[d] magazine. More important than my observations about these two fine photographers are their photos, which can be seen on the websites noted at the end of the article.
Shedding Light: The Photography of Jason and Seth Elkins
Even the closest of brothers don’t always see eye to eye, but when two brothers are both accomplished photographers, their individual perspectives can forever alter our vision of the world.
In 1993, artist and educator Linda Elkins accepted what she thought would be a temporary position at Luther College and brought her young sons, Jason and Seth, to Decorah. That position evolved into a more permanent one and, growing up, both boys were nurtured by small town life—and rebelled against its constraints—while they acquired, almost by osmosis, a love of art and a sophisticated way of seeing.
Jason, now 26 and living in Seattle, Washington, cites his mother as a major influence and mentor. He recalls, "She had—and still has, I hope—a 30-some-year-old Olympus OM-1 that I would steal every chance I had and take wherever I went." Though he enrolled in a photography course at Luther College, it was primarily a darkroom class, and he sees the time he spent on his own with a camera as his real photographic education: "My own persistence mentored my addiction."
That persistence unquestionably paid off. The technical perfection of his breathtaking images is immediately apparent. His lens has a precise taste for detail and he isolates out of the surrounding visual noise striking aspects of form and light for our undistracted contemplation.
His photos taken at the abandoned plant in Seattle’s Gas Works Park turn its skeletal plumbing into formal abstractions that elicit meditative, elemental responses in the viewer. Machinery never served a profounder purpose. It is as if, by turning his concentrated attention to the surfaces of things, he, through some photographic alchemy, reveals the intangible.
This is equally true when his camera takes in broader panoramas. His landscapes are photos of form and light as much as they are of terrain. Abstracted in black-and-white, fence lines geometrically partition a snow-covered field at sunset, or low-lying clouds battle the last light at the top of a ridge. But this is not standard nature photography—the real subject is something else, something soulful that is difficult to point to. His night shots may be among the best you’ll see, and color photographs like Shedding Light, with its eerie golden glow, capture and hold your muted gaze.
Even in his more playful photos, like Seattle Reflections or A Hundred Windows, Jason never really abandons his sense of form, and nothing seems totally off-hand. In this, he recalls modernist photographers of the last century: Paul Strand, Edward Weston, André Kertész. However, these are not the photographers he says he admires. He mentions only one—the great documentary photographer Robert Capa, whose war photographs are among the most famous ever taken. "Unfortunately you don’t see many things about all his photographs of children during wartime," Jason says. "He has, in my opinion, some of the best photography I have seen of children in a war setting."
Ironically, the same sensitivity that allows Jason to admire Capa’s photographs may keep him, for the moment, from following the trail Capa blazed. "I have longed to be more ’ballsy’ with taking pictures of others. I just haven’t built that up yet," Jason explains. "Now, photography of a model is one thing—you have their permission. But photography of the homeless is a little more difficult for me. I feel like I’m degrading them in some way. But I have some ideas that I think would allow me to capture their lives and not feel like I’m imposing."
Jason lacks no courage when it comes to turning the camera on himself, however. With varying success, in some of his most expressionistic work, his alternately tender and savage lens coaxes and batters his own image. Sometimes his skin takes on the same metal texture as the machinery in his Gas Works shots, sometimes it disappears entirely into light, leaving only eyes and the vague outline of features—as if, by inflicting these distortions, he might force the real Jason Elkins to emerge. If he someday succeeds, the resulting photograph, whatever else it reveals, will show a photographer of immense power and mature talent.
Seth Elkins works, not just in photography, but in many media: poetry, drawing, collage—even the permanently wearable art of tattoo. His one-man company, Strait-Jacket Photography, specializes in live-music shoots. Seth cites as his influences "street art, people living in cardboard boxes, subway terminals, drugs, prison, knives, guns, war, pop culture," and truly his art is as youthful, energetic, and reactive as this list suggests. Seth turned 25 in February. As he celebrated, he was planning a trip away from Decorah to New York City—perhaps a move, perhaps just a long vacation—time would tell.
This kind of spontaneity is reflected in his work. What you also notice immediately about both Seth and his art photography is his compassion and sense of humor. His poetry often expresses the darker side of this compassion in bold, sometimes disconnected howls of empathy for the disenfranchised and the disenchanted. But like the man himself, his photography is warmer, mostly light-hearted, and full of the energy and movement of the cinematography he so admires.
Seth’s work is less introverted and enthralled than his brother’s, and it pivots on incongruity and humor—though frequently there is a heart tug involved somewhere, too. He says that, in his photography, he wants to express that "the world is alive, and kicking and screaming for you to see it for what it is, not what you would like it to be." He adds, "I guess, more than anything, I want people to see what art lies in the random placement of life." The emotions he portrays are accessible ones and, even in his most formal urban abstractions, there is some stubborn residue of the real.
Seth is not particularly deliberate when he shoots—it is more like a wonderful chance encounter. Self-deprecating and insightful, he explains, "I take pictures of things as I see them, and I often notice the humor later, when I am trying to figure out why I took the shot. I like that randomness of life. It’s hilarious, if you watch it play out long enough. I think it is proof of the close intricate connections between all things. It’s always laughing at us for thinking we are separate in some way."
His process may well be random, but there is always a substantial artistic sensibility at play. He doesn’t just take a photograph of a man sleeping on the park lawn. He positions him in a bottom corner of the frame, almost dwarfed by the expanse of grass and an arc of road. At first glance, this quirky, slightly oriental composition adds humor to the scene, though on longer viewing, it lends an increasing sense of poignancy and isolation to the photo.
In a comparable picture, three ducks move out of the upper left-hand corner of a vertical frame, one with a leg extended in mid-waddle. The rest of the picture, all foreground, is a fascinating texture of twigs and gravel. Another duck shot is taken at extremely close range with a flash. Again the subject is kept off-center in the frame, though this time occupying most of it, and the flash freezes the drops of water on its down. One tongue-in-cheek photo of a bar stool and tiled floor is also an aesthetic study in geometry. Random, but artful nonetheless.
Seth claims he is not influenced by any particular photographer, but risking a little hyperbole, one might say his pictures are reminiscent of Elliot Erwitt, Lartigue, or even an American street-kid version of Cartier-Bresson. Like theirs, his photos are typically warm, empathetic encounters with life and, like them, he does not shy away from the more serious aspects of human existence either. In one powerful shot, a man sits at the side of an underpass, hands on his cheeks, his mouth open in a full-throated scream of despair. And in a multi-layered photographic social comment, Some Things Should Never Be Forgotten, Seth snaps a crumpled advertisement: Printed on it, though reversed, is Eddie Adam’s famous photo, Saigon 1968—a bound Vietnamese prisoner recoiling from the pistol held to his head by General Loan—just commercial city litter now.
Photography is light, and light is a wondrous plaything for these two brothers, who are alike and different, as all brothers are: One a transcendent visual poet, the other an artistic catalyst for engaged living—and both more alike in their differences, resonating with each other, shedding light to illuminate the world.
More of Jason Elkins’s work can be seen on the web at <www.ipernity.com/home/j.e
More of Seth Elkins’s photography and artwork can be seen on the web at <www.ipernity.com/home/36590>. Other photographs and poetry by Seth can be found at <www.myspace.com/known_felon>.