Dreamscapes: The Photographic Art of Jenny Okun


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.


Dreamscapes 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 limit 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 Angelesstudio.  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 major scale.


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 explore theworld 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.”