Interviewed by Claire Rabkin
From the breathtaking black and white images of solitary, bold spear fishers and turbulent breaking waves that are common to Kanoa Zimmerman’s photography, I’m surprised to find the artist slightly shy to talk about his work. Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that his first priority is to enjoy himself in the contexts of his projects and that the photographs themselves are almost secondary to the athleticism of the events. It’s as though taking a beautiful photograph is no challenge compared to the feats of surfing and free diving.
He’s almost surprised when I let him know that not everyone has access to the things he sees regularly underwater and, while he finds some of the images surreal, his demeanor makes me think that he is more unfamiliar with the events on dry land than under the sea. He tells me about his most abstract images, explains how he took them, and that their total improbability make them his favorites in light of the specificity of his subject matter.
Kanoa experiences his work through two lenses: first through water and then through the camera. He finds himself constantly experimenting with both of these tools in ways that, he admits, are not the most efficient but are true to himself as an explorer.
CR: The ocean is the essential subject to most of your photography. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the beach? Is your art inherently tied to your relationship with the ocean?
KZ: I think my whole lifestyle is affected by that relationship. I grew up in Hawaii and I think that when you enjoy being near the ocean, it really influences you. I was definitely drawn to the ocean and enjoyed being around it. Later in life, I’ve found myself scheming ways to stay closer to it. Like, I get a little, not nervous, but I’m always wondering what the ocean is doing when I’m away from it. A lot of that has to do with surfing. Not just needing to check up on the ocean but thinking: what are the surf conditions?
CR: The free dive and surfing are such visceral and athletic experiences. How does that translate to the photographic image?
KZ: That is really the enjoyment for me in the process. You get lost in the physical aspect of the experience and then the photograph — particularly if it´s film — is like a by-product of that experience. For me, film is nice because you don’t even remember the photos. I know I shot a roll or two in a day, but when I’m traveling I can’t look at them. For instance, when I was in Fiji on a spear fishing trip for a little over a month, I came back to Hawaii and I didn’t even process my film for maybe two more months. The photos I had been really excited about didn’t come out. I like to use film when I travel because it allows you to be in the moment more. It doesn’t take you out of the place as much as when you go back and look at the images right away on your laptop, already cataloging them.
CR: Do you always shoot with film?
KZ: I do shoot digital for jobs and more commercial work, but it’s all film for personal works and art projects. I use a self-contained underwater camera called a Nikonos. I have a Canon film camera and Mamiya rangefinder.
CR: Where do you take your photos?
KZ: This series is mostly from Fiji. I recently went to the gulf of Texas. It was a short trip but pretty amazing. It was pretty surreal being about 120 miles off the coast. It’s not that deep because the continental shelf goes out a long ways. There are all these oil rigs, like a strange city dotted along. I take photos here in California — San Francisco — and I’ve done a fair amount of surf travel. I went to Sao Tome (a small island off of West Africa), and Indonesia, Australia, India. Mexico was a favorite. I was recently in the Marshall Islands, south and west of Hawaii, for a surf trip. The water there is really amazing. It has a really nice clarity.
CR: The quality of light filtered through the water gives some of your photos an otherworldly quality. How have you experimented with underwater photography and what are the most interesting things you’ve learned about the technique?
KZ: It’s still a little tricky. There are more acute variables under water. You can have hazy days photographing in L.A. where the smog gives you a lot different quality of light than photographing in San Francisco. And I do like that quality of softer light. That variable is exponentially multiplied under water. If there is a particle strip in the water and it’s a little murky then you get different effects. It’s fun to see them and try to photograph subjects using that light. The way I looked at that, at the time, looked very different from how it looks on film. Underwater light is more unpredictable. I was introduced with Wayne Levine’s work when I was already doing a little bit of underwater work, but I was mostly shooting in color. I didn’t really like how it looked in color. I saw his work and realized that the tonality and gradation of underwater black and white photography translates really well. And grain, you get a lot of grain.
I really do think that the photographs are influenced by the activity, particularly with free diving.”
CR: Is it easier to create an abstract image under water because it’s sort of an unreal world?
KZ: I do think so. Things behave so differently underwater. Gravity isn’t acting on you as much. That distinction makes them more surreal than when they are above water. Some photographs are very graphic but lack in some of the subtleties, whereas the abstract ones — like the one that kind of looks like clouds, which is underwater turbulence of the waves breaking — conjures less of a specific point in time and more of a general feeling. Conceptually, the athleticism of diving or surfing contrasts the still image. I really do think that the photographs are influenced by the activity, particularly with free diving. For me, it’s meditative. You really have to relax and then you are able to use less oxygen. The more relaxed you are, the longer you can stay underwater.
CR: Do you find that having your camera with you inhibits that at all? Are you able to stay relaxed?
KZ: I think it does pull your mind in another direction. In addition to diving and maintaining a relaxed state, you also need to be observing what’s around you. KZ:The equipment is secondary; it doesn’t take away form your concentration.
CR: That adds a really interesting layer to the images of the diving figure suspended in what looks like light. Sometimes the water disappears and you have no context of the environment, but other times when the light is refracted, the water appears in so many different ways. Can you speak to how the images reflect that feeling of being relaxed in the water?
KZ: My interpretation is that part of the reason why these images create a relaxing feeling is because the conditions were that way when they were taken. I do think things are slowed down under water. You move a lot slower. It is a more soothing environment. That’s really evident. Even though the images of spear fishing are violent in nature, the texture of the water above the surface appears much more intense than the action below. It seems more surreal to me than dark. My lasting feeling isn’t that it’s violent; it’s more that it’s solemn and definitely abstracted. I am more connected to the conditions of the event, which has a much different connotation.
CONTACT KANOA ZIMMERMAN: kanoazimmerman.com kanoaz[at]gmail[dot]com