Karen Sinsheimer is Curator of Photography at the Santa Barbara
Museum of Art, a position she has held for nearly two decades. During
her tenure at the museum, Sinsheimer has curated more than sixty
exhibitions, and has contributed to numerous books and catalogues,
including In Good Light: Photographs by Roger Eberhard, Chaotic Harmony:
Contemporary Korean Photography, and Meditations in Silver: Photographic
Studies by Paul Caponigro. She is a member of the Board of JGS, Inc.,
a nonprofit organization that has funded more than sixty single-artist
books of contemporary photography.
The Photographic Art of Jenny Okun
Introduction by Karen Sinsheimer
To enter Jenny Okun ’s photographic world is to enter a timeless, spatial fantasy where the only l
imit is the viewer’s imagination .
Okun’s self-described working method provides an invaluable insight into her photographic
images: “I guess you could say that I have an upside-down and backward ‘Alice in
Wonderland’ experience.” So too the viewer, if one allows oneself to follow her down the
rabbit hole of discovery, and to experience the photographer’s world of seemingly familiar
yet surprising and unexpected places.
The child of artistic parents—her father a music producer, her mother an artist and writer—
Okun grew up in New York City, where music and art were an essential part of her upbringing.
She was dyslexic, a condition that forced her to develop a prodigious memory and to learn in
untraditional ways, often through creating art.
By the time she reached high school, she was already adept at landscape painting. She chose
to further hereducation in drawing, painting, film, and photography in London, finishing with
a graduate degree in experimental media from the Slade School of Art. Okun began working
simultaneously in painting, photography, and film in art school, and has continued to pursue
these three disciplines by making charcoal drawings, film projections for the stage, and inkjet
photographic editions. Ideas from each discipline continuously feed the others. Her films have
been shown at museums, including the Tate Britain, and at international film festivals, rock
concerts, and opera productions. Her charcoal drawings—the most private of her works—
have rarely been seen except by a handful of people who have visited her Los Angeles
studio. Okun’s photography has thus far had the broadest appeal, and her more than
sixty one-person exhibitions have given her the opportunity to travel and photograph on a
For more than three decades, Okun roamed the world to photograph architecture. Her take,
however, is unlike any other, given that she is primarily interested in the shapes and ideas
that bring structural forms to life, in essence rather than mere description. It’s an outlook
borne in part from the constant presence of music in her life. “Looking at architecture is
like listening to music,” she has said, and like the Cubist painters, Okun created multilayered
images to reveal the many-faceted aspects of the buildings that drew her attention. For that
body of work, she produced her images in the camera, a technique she refined over the years
and which is something of a technical tour-de-force, requiring her to shoot from the street
at all hours of the day and night.
In her architectural work, Okun composed and distilled form, texture, color, and detail into
One filmic frame. As she constructed and deconstructed a building on film in the camera,
her prismatic views embraced successive forms in time and space in lieu of a traditional
pictorial narrative. In some cases she returned to a site a dozen times in order to capture
the power and presence of her subject. Almost every image in her first book, Variations:
The Architecture Photographs of Jenny Okun, was created using this painstaking process,
which meant that her output was formerly about fifteen completed photographs a year.
Like many photographers at the turn of the twentyfirst century, however, Okun began to
world of digital photography, and has since become a master printer of her own digital
pigment prints. “It was as if I had cataracts removed from my eyes,” she says. “New
colors materialized, and details became hyper-real.” She still makes photographs on
location, but is now able to orchestrate her final digital images in Photoshop, generally
from five or six views.
The desire to explore a location in different light and shadows may draw her back to a
location for a second look, but Okun has found a new and more nuanced language with
which to communicate her visual ideas. With this new language, the artist has expanded
her field of vision to include gardens and landscapes, flora and fauna, nudes and sculpture,
among many other subjects.
As in her earlier work, the images featured in the present volume display an evolving
aesthetic that harks back to the Romantic pursuit of essence and feeling rather than
realistic depiction. From Spain to Thailand, Las Vegas to Costa Rica, and England to
California (she has studios in London and Los Angeles), the world offers Okun unlimited
experiential richness. Her images of Italian gardens and villas transcend time and place,
while the boogie-woogie neon rhythms of nighttime Las Vegas pulse with energy and
excitement. One can hear the roar and feel the force of gushing waters in her Yosemite
Waterfall images, and sink into the sensuous, luxuriant beauty of the human nude, clothed
or veiled or dancing in projected light forms. A silent benediction seems to emanate from
the filtered light of Salisbury Cathedral’s stained-glass windows, and angelic presences
reach down from their lofty perches to grace human frailty.
The photographs in Dreamscapes reflect travel to ten countries, several American states,
and multiple cities, but for Okun the locations are only important in so far as she is able
to capture and communicate her subjective memory of experiencing them, of what it felt
like to be there. In the reimagined scenes and tableaux that follow, Okun seeks to make
visible the melodies and emotions that underscore reality. Her latest images reach beyond
Earth to planets and galaxies as visualized through data produced by NASA. Like many
scientists past and present, Okun sees infinite interpretations of beauty in the universe,
which, to paraphrase the pioneering British scientist J. B. S. Haldane, is not only more
strange and wonderful than we imagine, but perhaps stranger and more wonderful than
we can imagine.
Okun’s newest venture is the creation of elaborate, multi-image stage sets for both theater
and opera, which involve highly technical projections that have propelled her into yet
another realm for depicting beauty and drama. In 2009 she created a thirty-minute looped
backdrop video for the rock group The Brazilian Girls, seen by a sell-out audience of 12,000
during a performance at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival. Prior to that,
she created projections for a Los Angeles production of Don Giovanni, on sets by Yael
Pardess, and the two artists are collaborating on a new work commissioned by the Los
Angeles Opera, Dulce Rosa, with music composed by Lee Holdridge.
Jenny Okun’s images begin with reality and then evolve through artistic manipulation
into an open-ended invitation to experience. In offering up the magic of the world as she
sees it, she invites the viewer into her experience without comment or prejudice.
Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century definition of Romanticism seems best to describe Okun’s
twenty-first century vision: “[It] is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact
truth , but in the way of feeling.”