Ken Andersen’s Art and Science

A New Photography Exhibit @ HCSCC
(by Markus Krueger / from The Hourglass, Winter 2016)

It is often said that “art people” are somehow different than “science people.” It isn’t true. It’s a false dichotomy and we can point to countless examples, from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci to the geometry of Scandinavian chip carving patterns, to show that the arts and sciences both feed and need each other. One artist, West Fargo photographer Ken Andersen, proves the point even further as a renaissance man inspired by the science of his craft.

Dr. Kenneth Andersen owns a home building business, taught Construction Management at both MSUM and NDSU, was a Fulbright Scholar in Sierra Leone in 1996-97, climbed Devils Tower in Wyoming for fun, and his hobbies – fine woodworking and photography – are displayed in museums and published in national magazines.

His camera is not like yours. His Sinai monorail view camera looks like an accordion sitting on top of a bunch of knobs and doodads that he moves around with a pole on wheels, and it focuses like nobody’s business. The several precision lenses, German-made Rodenstock and Schneider, at the business end of the accordion cost several thousand dollars each. His other equipment is made up of worn wooden antiques and brass lenses, still good, and inherited from his father, a professional photographer in Staples, MN.

Andersen’s style is meticulous, patient, and detailed. He takes an hour or so fiddling with the knobs and doodads to get the perfect focus and composition before taking a picture. Much of his equipment is not high-tech but rather reliable, quality old technology that has been finetuned to perfection by German-speaking people in white lab coats. The camera produces a negative the size of a 4×5 inch recipe card. Dr. Andersen takes it into his basement dark room where he dips things in trays of precisely measured chemicals for exactly the right amount of time. After every step in the process is complete, Andersen emerges with a dripping wet work of art. It seems like magic to most, but this art is a science; and as you can tell from the previous paragraph, I have no idea how it works. Which is why I am so incredibly excited for our upcoming exhibit.

The exhibit, Focus on the Process: The Art, History, and Science of Photographic Printing, came while the artist and HCSCC staff were chatting about the historic photograph collection in the Clay County Archives. Dr. Andersen loves the history of his craft and is fascinated by the chemistry and physics that go into a photo. Wouldn’t it be great, we said to each other, to have an exhibit that showed, say, a dozen different historic photographic methods and taught you the step-by-step science and process behind each method? As far as we can tell, nobody has ever done that before. Well, the punishment for a good idea is having to follow through with it.

So with the generosity of grantors at The Arts Partnership and Lake Region Arts Council paying for thousands of dollars of chemicals, ranging from gold and silver to acid and rotten eggs, and the help of intern Louis Zurn, a graphic design student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Dr. Andersen’s vision began to take focus.

As Dr. Andersen made each photographic print, Mr. Zurn took notes and photos, documenting the various processes. With the broad scope of the project, those processes included etching copper with acid for photogravure prints, cooking light-sensitive black jello for carbon prints, and smearing photo paper with oil paint for gumoil prints.

The end result will be a dozen amazing photographic works of art from Ken Andersen (in frames he made himself, of course), accompanied by a series of pictures showing how those photographs came to be, along with an accessible step-by-step description of the science behind the art.

For the general public, the exhibit will give an appreciation for photography’s development as an incredibly sophisticated science, an art form, and a whole lot of work. For educators, it will be a way to bring science into art class and art into science class. For history lovers, the exhibit will show the influence of material culture and the role of mechanical and chemical evolution. For photographers and graphic designers, this exhibit explains the birth, development, and vocabulary of their art forms. For art lovers, the exhibit showcases the rugged, delicate, textured, precise and patient photography of Dr. Ken Andersen.

Focus on the Process: The Art, History, and Science of Photographic Printing will be up in early January and run through Sunday, April 9. The opening reception, free and open to the public, will be held at the Hjemkomst Center on Tuesday, January 19, and will include a presentation from Andersen and Zurn.