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Just Passing By, Intimately and Unforgettably
by David Pagel, August 2008
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      Kirk Pedersen's pictures of the things he sees as he walks along the bustling streets and meandering alleys of big cities all over Asia take viewers into a world that's a lot like our own yet significantly different: chaotic and crowded yet tinged with a trace of exoticism and charged with the thrill of the unfamiliar. It's also far easier to get lost in than the places we call home, wherever they may be.

Although Pedersen begins his vividly detailed photographs by traveling halfway around the world, he is not, properly speaking, a travel photographer. His images never take viewers to famous sites or tourist destinations. Nor do they promise or pretend to take us off the beaten path, to out-of-the-way places where facades and clich's fall away and behind-the-scenes authenticity is revealed - stripped of stereotypes and dressed up with the idea that they are available to you and you alone (never mind your trustworthy guide or boutique tour organizer, who made it all possible). Pedersen's unembellished pictures are unaccompanied by texts or captions, sentences and paragraphs that ordinarily explain the essentials of what one needs to know about the peoples and places, customs and histories depicted. His crisp, see-it-all-in-the-present photographs do not even attempt to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, which, as far as travel photography goes, generally follows a tried-and-true format: fall in love with the fantasy of a distant land, embark on a trip to it, be surprised by its multilayered complexities, uncover some of its secrets, make a few unexpected discoveries, and, finally, return home, wiser and more worldly than before - and eager to share one's story with other dreamers of far-off places and peoples.

In a sense, the color prints that Pedersen has been making on his lengthy visits to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Taipei, and Kuala Lumpur over the last three years identify him as an inventive, even original contributor to a branch of photography best described as anti-commuter imagery: slow, satisfying pictures of the stuff of life that hasty commuters not only miss in their rush to get where they're going as quickly as possible but also treat as time-wasting impediments to their goal of squeezing as much as they can into over-crowded schedules and over-burdened lives. As commuters, we live as if distance were the enemy: The single thing, which, if eliminated, would change our lives for the better, forever. The daily commute forces us to travel the same route repeatedly, eventually not even noticing our surroundings and, settling into the mind-numbing routine, experiencing the indistinguishable, run-of-the-mill minutes stretch into hours of dead-time: a type of existential emptiness to be filled by the distractions provided by modern technology - cell phones, iPods, and text-messaging - so that it passes more swiftly and has less impact on our emotions, attitudes, outlooks, that is, our selves.

As a photographer, Pedersen's goals are the opposite. His photographs belong to an alternative universe, one that delights in all kinds of distance; one that prefers paths that make no sense if one's goal is to get from one point to another as swiftly and efficiently as possible; and one that relishes the singularity and specificity of the here and now: the utter uniqueness of every single moment of one's life, as well as the pathos and poignancy that accompanies the melancholic knowledge that none of those moments can be experienced again. The blink-and-you-missed-it ephemerality of such instants makes sharing them with other lovers of the quotidian poetry of everyday existence all the more urgent and worthy a purpose, especially for someone like Pedersen, who is excited by the possibilities presented by the global world yet at odds with its tendency to speed up our experiences of everything around us so that life's little pleasures get lost in the blur - in the overwhelming onslaught of the image glut of modern life, its false promise of instantaneous gratification, and the diminished attentions spans that seem to be an unavoidable consequence of its rapid-fire pace.

From the get-go, Pedersen builds distance into his pictures. As a Westerner, he neither strives to ingratiate himself with the members of another culture so that he may appear to be integrated or embedded in its fabric, nor does he struggle to immerse himself in a way of life that is not his own. Instead, the restless, peripatetic photographer shows up in cities he has never visited with nothing but a couple of cameras, a handful of maps, his wits, and a deadline: the time and date his flight leaves for the next city on his itinerary. No family, friends, or contacts are available to make his transition to the urban sprawl he has thrown himself into any easier. And no appointments, commitments, or scheduled events structure his day or shape his thinking. His only plan is to lose himself in the city's streets, falling into its syncopated rhythms and finding the visual equivalent of those delicious little pauses in its pulse and pace that provide respite, quiet, and tranquility, always unexpectedly and often serendipitously. There is great freedom to Pedersen's way of proceeding, whether it involves making photographs or making one's life. There's also more than a trace of Zen simplicity to it, but Pedersen prefers to deal with such potentially high-minded notions with a humble and light touch, leaving viewers free to make of them what we will, on our own. For his part, he goes out of his way to take viewers to places that cannot be found on maps but are so much a part of our subjectivities that we go there emotionally when we see his photographs, imaginatively transporting ourselves not to some back alley in Bangkok (as a strict Realist would), but taking us to a similar moment (in the manner of a pragmatic Romantic), whether in memory or the present, when our perceptions of our surroundings are so sharp that every blade of grass, grain of wood, and ray of light is so vivid and sensuous and suffused with the wonder of life that it all seems miraculous.

Part of the power of Pedersen's photographs is that they never pretend to get into the heads of the people who sometimes appear in them. For the most part, Pedersen leaves locals out of his pictures, preferring, instead, to let his images work their way into the mind's-eye of anyone who happens to see them. When people do appear in Pedersen's street-scenes, they are never the subject or the centerpiece. More often than not, they are, like Pedersen, anonymous passersby, casual stand-ins for the so-called Man-in-the-Street, the contemporary version of Everyman, who played an important role in Medieval literature and drama by inviting every member of the audience to see themselves in the story and, equally important, anticipated the emphasis that would be placed on individual citizens when industrialization created both big cities and the democratized ways of life they made possible.

As an artist, Pedersen never pries or intrudes into other peoples' inner worlds. He does not even enter their private spaces, preferring the shared social space of the street and the fully visible world of the public realm to the sheltered intimacy of private domiciles and domestic retreats. Yet his pictures are intimate. He is a street photographer in the sense that all his images are shot in city streets. But he steers clear of the human drama that is typically the subject of street photography. He also avoids the haunting emptiness of much large-scale contemporary photography, which dwarfs individuals, depicts cities as gargantuan still lifes, and strives to give shape to those rare moments when no people or vehicles are moving on streets and sidewalks and the cities depicted appear to be desolate, abandoned, the last things left after humans have vanished from the planet in some apocalyptic, antiseptic catastrophe. Instead, Pedersen's bold, often brightly colored photographs give stunning shape to human-scaled activities and decisions, to the residue and by-products of social exchanges and interactions that are purposeful and pragmatic but rarely romanticized, idealized, or commonly exploited as springboards for nostalgic trips down memory lane.

Stacks of wooden palettes and aluminum cooking-oil cans, tangled clusters of electrical wires, and rows and columns of single-room air conditioners bear witness, in many of Pedersen's pictures, to the myriad ways individuals inhabit cramped quarters and, more important, come together as massive groups - cohering as societies that are sometimes vulgar, sometimes urbane, sometimes boisterous, sometimes serene, but in all cases civilized: part of a larger social fabric that is distinct from rural existence and even further removed from the raw basics of nature, and, more often than not, cosmopolitan in their tolerance of others and open-minded in their acceptance of difference. In other photographs, fragments of torn posters, painted-over signs, broken-down billboards, hand-written advertisements, and all sorts of faded, ripped, weathered, and worn imagery send a Babel-style slew of mixed messages. In Pedersen's hands, this cacophonous polyglot of various languages and dialects effectively suggests that the meanings of the original statements are less important than the form of their conveyance: the public places where information is transmitted - sent and received by an open and ever-changing constellation of interested parties. A third cluster of photographs depicts the ingeniously adaptive walls and roofs of homes and businesses, each a unique, crazy-quilt patchwork of plywood, sheet metal, and corrugated plastic, as well as tarps, blankets, and burlap, pieced together with ropes and nails and held in place with tires and mortar, mud and hope, to form a funky yet functional kind of three-dimensional collage, its scrappy beauty enhanced by its low-budget, do-it-yourself utilitarianism.

To see a group of Pedersen's photographs is to experience, in condensed, intensified form, the suddenness and the surprise the photographer must have experienced when he turned a corner or crossed a street and saw the original scene laid out before him in three dimensions. His prints do not form sequential groupings, creating the consistent, step-by-step passages through time on which coherent narrative are built. On the contrary, each photograph stands on its own: a single, split-second view selected from among the myriad scenes, glimpses, and snippets of imagery that every pedestrian sees every moment he walks down a busy city street. From this it is clear that Pedersen is a wanderer, a meanderer with no planned path to follow, a seeker who avoids the deadening repetition of going the same way twice, not to mention the burden of great expectations, the portentousness of must-see highlights, and the grandeur of greatest-hits-style sightseeing.

His love of doing things differently every time matches the hodge-podge adaptivity and ad hoc uniqueness depicted in many of his photographs. Although Pedersen is driven by a deep curiosity about his surroundings, he is less a detective looking for clues to resolve a mystery than an connoisseur of the human imprint left on things, an aficionado of adaptability, ingenuity, and inventiveness. Not so long ago, such attributes described what was thought of as the American character, which also included the optimism of a can-do work ethic, the youthful focus on the present's possibilities, and the unsentimental willingness to take chances, to risk failure because not trying was not an option. In the United States today, such hopeful, forward-looking innocence is in short supply. To find it, Pedersen has gone East. There is a pedestrian plainness, and profoundly American ethos, to his art, which celebrates the same democratic openness and come-one, come-all accessibility of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman; photographs by Walker Evans and Aaron Siskind; and sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg.

Like these Americans, Pedersen treats form and content as two sides of the same coin: equally essential components in capturing the complexity of any subject or sentiment. This distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries, who treat form as an excessively aestheticized distraction and believe that content is the real meat-and-potatoes substance of art, which is best served when formal considerations are kept to a minimum - or out of the picture altogether. Unlike them, Pedersen neither buys into the idea that experiences are interesting simply because they happened to him nor behaves as if all that a photographer has to do to capture the vernacular magic of city life is to point and shoot. It's never as easy as that. The trick is to fuse the casual, off-handed sense that scenes are simply stumbled upon with the fact that the resulting pictures are rigorously composed: that every little detail contributes to a whole that comes off as deliberate and considered but never forced or contrived or artificial. It's a precarious balance, and one managed with aplomb and panache by Pedersen, whose photographs combine the sudden impact of unexpected discoveries with the long-lasting resonance of carefully considered compositions. Their structural rigor makes them stick in the mind's-eye long after you stop looking at them. It's not that they couldn't be composed any other way; it's just that the way that Pedersen has judged best - intuitively, analytically, and on-the-fly - works wonderfully: immediately immersing viewers in an expansive world, focusing your attention on specific things, and leaving you plenty of freedom to discover others for yourself, at your own pace and pleasure.

The specificity of locales and histories is less important than the specificity of colors, shapes, and textures - rhyming lines and echoing forms that complement and conflict with one another to create pulsing rhythms, sensuous atmospheres, and complex emotions. As a photographer, Pedersen makes an art of being an anonymous passerby. His pictures invite viewers into a world in which much has already happened, plenty is taking place, and still more remains to unfold.

Copyright, David Pagel, Los Angeles, August 2008 Back to essays
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