Henry T. Hopkins was Professor Emeritus, UCLA Department of Art. Hopkins was formerly Director of the UCLA Armand
Hammer Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Among his books are Fifty West Coast Artists;
Clyfford Still; and California Painting and Sculpture: The Modern Era. He has published in numerous magazines,
including Artforum, Art in America, and ARTnews.
J E N N Y O K U N
H e n r y T. H o p k i n s
IN EVERY SUCCESSFUL LIFE there is a defining moment when all of the time spent in intensive labor, love, and creative input hits a high note. For Jenny Okun it was a moment during a recent reception in Italy when one of the guests, after looking at her portfolio, asked if he could
borrow an image, which he then took over to the piano and used as a musical score. It was a John Cage moment that combined every aspect of the creative process—an epiphany, a certification, and a moment of pure joy.
Jenny Okun was born on October 3, 1953, in New Jersey, which hardly counts, since within a year she was taken to Greenwich Village, and then ten years later to a suburb of Manhattan where she lived as a child of the Beat generation. She is the progeny of a music-producer father and an artistically inclined mother who early on instilled a love of art and music into their daughter through endless museum visits and concert attendances.
Okun considers her early public school education to be marginal, undoubtedly impacted by the fact that she was found to be dyslexic, a not uncommon malady for many who are drawn to the visual arts. She suffered through extensive “memory” training, which helped her manage her dyslexia and left her with a deep respect for rigorous mental exercise that she feels has had an ongoing influence on her work. During her high school years she became adept at landscape mural painting, and earned enough money to buy her first camera by decorating the walls of friends’ houses and painting stage scenery for local theater groups. The camera was a 35mm Konica.
In 1971, at the age of eighteen, the time came to further her education in the arts. She chose to go to British schools that didn’t impose academic courses as a degree requirement and where she could spend as much time as possible in the studio. She began at the Wimbledon School of Art, where she studied painting, photography, and filmmaking. She then transferred to the Chelsea School of Art, where she received her degree in painting, and finished in 1978 at the Slade School of Art as a postgraduate student in experimental media.
Okun’s achievement was recognized through offers of teaching jobs in painting, photography, and filmmaking at the Central School of Art and Design and, later, at the Chelsea School of Art. During this same period she was co-director of the London Film-makers’ Co-operative and
co-selected entries for “Film London,” an international avant-garde festival. In reflection she has stated, “For many years I have had one foot in America and one foot in England with studios in both countries. I have the ‘get up and go, let’s try anything’ attitude of an American and the ‘let’s sit back and analyze every detail before we start’ attitude of the British.”
From the outset Okun’s use of the camera has been experimental. She began by making sequential images by shooting the entire film and then rolling the film back to the start and superimposing a second set of shots on top. The results were not satisfactory, and she now
refers to the process as being too “hit and miss.” To gain more control over her medium she next experimented with projecting images onto the wall. By using multiple projectors she was able to superimpose one image over another until she achieved the desired “collage” effect. The results were not permanent so she used a Lindhoff plate camera to record the transient projected image onto film. The results were satisfactory but the process was cumbersome. This method did lead however to some early commissions from companies needing visuals for annual reports and helped to supplement her teaching income. The company would send her multiple transparencies, which she then projected and superimposed to create desirable commercial results.
Okun liked the square format of the projected images, so her next camera purchase was a two-and-a-quarter-inch square format Yashica that she found at a London police auction. This new format worked well, and she has used it ever since. In her own words, “This format allowed me to make successful sequences by exposing the film as I advanced it through the camera in small increments, producing what appeared to be overlapping superimposed images that had enough control and enough experimental surprise. This method also led to another surprise when, in London, I took my film to a local chemist for processing. The film was then sent off to
Kodak where it would be returned with a pleasant note saying that there must be something wrong with your camera. In my return package they also included a free role of film. I survived on these replacement rolls throughout my early career until I started using a
Okun’s early photographic interests were related to landscape and to a stunning, panoramic vista looking from the shores of England across the Irish Sea. This early image embodies all of the elements mentioned above, and still hangs on Okun’s studio wall. Soon, however, the fates stepped in, and a new latent passion that is the subject of this book grabbed her attention. The first signs of this passion are revealed in a statement about her work: “As a teenager I spent one summer in a rented house opposite the building site for Charles Gwathmey’s studio that he created for his father in Amagansett. My cousin, Richard Bender, who was also an architect and a friend of Gwathmey’s, took me around the building. It was the beginning of my love for the shapes and ideas in architecture. I was particularly entranced by a long, thin window near the ceiling that was placed there for watching the moon at night. I also loved the conical staircase
and the brilliant yellow I-beams that supported the structure. Years later I returned to photograph the studio, and it still had the quality of a perfect piece of architectural jewelry.
“Another turning point in my evolution occurred when I was commissioned by Peter Palumbo in London to photograph his Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House in Illinois. The house was more than anyone could describe. I photographed the structure, and then went on to the Aspen Design Conference where I met and listened to the architects Piers Gough, James Stirling, and Norman Foster. After that I was hooked, and I set out on my lifelong ambition to photograph great architecture.”
Since that time Okun has photographed the life force of hundreds of buildings and sites, most of them twentieth century in origin and classic. But scattered among the prints are those of older cathedrals and lesser structures that have also captured her imagination. She thinks of herself as a daylight photographer primarily so she can play with the atmospheric conditions that affect the building. And yet this body of work does include some night shots that deal more with the environment than with any specific structure.
When we look at or pass through architecture, most of us see it as a series of spaces created to function well and to enhance the lives of the people who use it. And, when most people think of architectural photography, they think of images that make these attributes visible. If this is true, then Jenny Okun is not an architectural photographer. She is an artist who uses the camera as a compositional and scanning device to capture the poetic essence of a structure without regard for its function. Her interest is not in the architecture itself but rather in the innovative and formal elements from which it is composed. It is this quality that makes her images unique and
memorable. Instead of looking at the whole, Okun becomes absorbed in the details: the planes, the angles, the transparencies that serve the building as overhanging eaves, windows, or entryways. The process of invention is to interpret how these elements interact to create
a multifaceted organism.
Certainly her early encounter with Cubism at the Museum of Modern Art holds a key. It is not surprising that her favorite artists are not Pablo Picasso or George Braque but rather Juan Gris, the most intellectual of the group, and Fernand Léger, the most architectonic. On a recent visit to Okun’s studio I was confronted with a monumental image of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, with its glorious synthesis of cool blues and grays. I couldn’t help but think of Charles Sheeler, the great American “Precisionist” who used the camera as a prop to create double-exposure images that he then turned into paintings of the American industrial landscape.
It should be remembered that Sheeler was painting his Cubist masterpieces during the Great Depression when most American art was dealing with issues of social unrest, as in the cases of Ben Shahn and Jack Levine; or with the glorification of the nation’s rural lifescape, as in the cases of the “Regionalists” Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. In his own mind Sheeler was a positivist who believed in picturing the advance of industry as an aid to soothing a limping economy. In this context, Okun is a Sheeler clone, which a recent quote makes clear: “This aspect of my work is an homage to the enjoyment of ideas embodied in the work of those lucky architects who were able to realize their dreams in concrete, glass, and steel. When I go to a construction site I feel that everything is well with the world. I am elated that someone has been able to move from theory to practice to produce something grand. This gives me great hope for
the human race. For me, architecture is a celebration of life, and I am appalled when a building is destroyed by a developer or by a force of nature. This is the only time that I become depressed.”
Even her process of collecting data within her camera is reflective of the inner workings of a Cubist painter. “As I work, I move the camera, photographing details, using the edges of the frame as a counterpoint to the subject as well as keeping an overall rhythm to the
angles. Also, depending on the sequence, I sometimes have to shoot in reverse with my last shot coming first to make the exposures in the right sequence to read from left to right. Sometimes I draw the sequence in a sketchbook, since it is very difficult to keep them all in
my head. Had it not been for my early memory training to correct my dyslexia I probably couldn’t do it at all.
“I never use a tripod unless I have to, and I usually hold my camera sideways with my left arm extended. More recently, when I began using a Hasselblad, people would become distressed while watching what I was doing and interrupt my shoot to explain the proper use
of the camera. I must look like a lunatic shooting one shot and then advancing the film slightly and then opening the back of the camera to cock the shutter and then replacing the back and repeating the whole process again. I guess you could say that I have an ‘Alice in
Wonderland’ upside-down and backward experience looking through my viewfinder. Many times I will have to reshoot, visiting a site as many as a dozen times. After analyzing the first attempts in my studio I then draw new sequences to try on location, and if they work I
am ready to print.
“Now, in my Los Angeles studio, I am working with a Canon digital camera, and I do not need to revisit a location unless I want a different light situation. I am printing my editions digitally with pigmented inks on an Epson 9600. For this I owe a great debt of gratitude to R. Mac Holbert of Nash Editions, who convinced me to stop printing photographically and to start using an Iris Printer on Arches paper. My photographs came alive, and it was as if I had cataracts removed from my eyes. New colors materialized and details became hyperreal. It took me a while to learn to tone down the color and get the correct appearance of grain, but under Holbert’s tutelage I became a master printer.”
In the early days of photography, after the development of the glass negative and light-sensitive paper, the great breakthrough was that one could produce an endless number of prints of the same image. This had never been possible before. Even the surface of the printmaker’s plate or stone eventually wore out. Photography was to become the medium for every day and every man. Now, when merchandizing and the concern of collectors has so much to do with the art world, the issue of editioning has become a factor that has to be taken into account.
As an idealist, Okun would like it if she could hand out prints to anyone who asked, the more the merrier. With her the issue is not about wealth but about maintenance and getting the work out there. Keeping two large studios and the equipment to run them is an increasingly costly venture. She is pleasantly self-effacing but this is not to say that she lacks ambition and ego, which remain absolutely necessary ingredients for any successful practitioner of the arts.
When she began exhibiting her work in 1978, Okun declared an edition to be one hundred identical prints but, unlike a lithographer or etcher, the images were produced only on an as-needed basis. This means that in much of the early work only three or four images of
the one hundred have actually been printed. More recently she has reduced her editions to ten. Since her photography has commercial appeal along with artistic merit she is sometimes approached for particular commissions. To insure the integrity of her creative input she
produces a series of acceptable prints that she then submits to her clients. From these they may choose without exerting any influence on the image. A case in point is the popular poster she produced for the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The list of galleries that represent Okun’s work in the United States and Europe is impressive,
and most are not photography galleries as such. It is her feeling that her work is too painterly and too experimental for most collectors of photography, and she feels more at home in galleries that have a broader vision. To say that Okun is in real life much like her work is an absolute. During a three-hour interview I realized that I was dealing with a person who from the day she was old enough to hold a thought has simply piled one on top of another so that today, in her mid-fifties, she embodies every moment of her existence. Perhaps, this too can be traced to her early memory training. The experience is truly Proustian. . . .
Okun talks the way that she sees through her camera’s lens in composites and overlaps where time disappears. One loses track of when something happened in the past since her memory speaks of it as if it is happening right now. It is really quite remarkable when one recognizes that in this kind of mind nothing is ever old and everything is still in play. To say that she lives and works in the moment is an understatement. Her spacious Los Angeles studio is filled with work. The walls, the tables, and the floor are neatly hung, stacked, and piled with images framed and unframed. Her preferred size is monumental and her preferred compositional layout takes the form of a triptych. When I asked her about this she replied that the large-scale and triptych format was “more painterly and looked less like a photograph.” I was also struck by the thought that when installed on the wall they became like windows opening up the space. With its controlled light, the studio is a pleasant and professional working environment. Okun is a prolific producer. The images at hand cover an extended period of time and yet one feels a sense of timelessness. This is particularly true since what may have been a twenty-year-old photographic image is now a brand-new inkjet print.
Among the many photographic images are a large number of handsome charcoal drawings for which the photographs serve as inspiration. The drawings are done in serial fashion and represent the primary forms included in a given photograph. As the series evolves the forms are abstracted and simplified. And, even though the drawings are abstract, the process is not unlike the one used by Henri Matisse to transpose, through a series of drawings, a naturalistic figure into a simplified decorative motif.
As a final thought I would add that even though this volume documents Jenny Okun’s deep affection for the elemental creative force behind architecture, one should not be seduced into thinking that this is the only arrow in her quiver. There is much else yet to come.