The secrets behind Collusion

An interview with Seattle photographer
and gallery owner Denis Kempe

by Sienna Reid



The work of Seattle photographer and gallery owner Denis Kempe has gone through a variety of subject matter focuses but has always been primarily concerned with looking at light more than anything, specifically the look of light compositionally. "There are photographers who use light by lighting things and there are photographers who find light. I pretty much find light. I don’t orchestrate images."

"I find that to do work I need to go places. I don’t necessarily think that you have to have something 'exotic' in a photograph just to warrant taking the picture, because a place is exotic to me simply because I went there, but to the person who lived there it's obviously not an exotic place. But if you can make that person see something exotic in a photograph of a place that ceased being exotic to them ages ago, then I will have succeeded. You can find the most interesting images in the commonplace, which I really like: simple brevity that is not necessarily banal. I don’t think the images should be boring but at the same time I don’t think that they have to be something that’s jumping up and down. I think that is an advantage that photography really has.

"With Andre Cortege’s work he could make any photograph he did of any object on this table (an ashtray, a pack of cigarettes, a beer, a pitcher) and it would be incredible. His pictures of a dinner fork are just astounding. I mean, you use one every day but when you pick it up you don’t go ‘This is the most exquisite item! Its the fork I stole from the last restaurant I was at!' He’s a photographer I have always really admired. He went through so many...I wouldn’t really call them 'style changes,' but he photographed over such a long period of time that when he died he had probably photographed half of the time that photography had been in existence, so he saw a lot of changes. But you can always recognize a Cortege image even if it's one of his very early images when he was in Hungary all the way up to when he ended his career in Florence. His signature is a very definitive stroke."

Kempe has been using photography as his medium for more than ten years now, has shown at Benham Gallery in downtown Seattle on First Avenue several times and was picked as their resident artist about seven years ago. The Benham Gallery will always be significant to Kempe because he first showed his work there, precipitated by the work he had done in a workshop he took through the gallery in figure photography with only seven people in it. The owners liked the results of the work so much that they gave them a show.

"That was a very interesting experience because I hadn’t been into photography very long at all and it happened in a very short time-period: between the time of the final critique of the workshop and a couple of months later they gave us a show. I printed four-hundred or so images for that show!

"I went into the photography workshop with a background of simple street shooting and you go through a lot of film doing that because you have to be able to get an image while it happens because you can't back the model up and say 'do that again, I missed it!' So I went absolutely hog-wild in this workshop -- using two cameras at once so I could keep them loaded at all times and shooting constantly. I had forty or fifty good images at the final critique! I mean the models probably thought I was crazy!"

That was the first time he worked with models, which not only does he still enjoy but he still likes some of the work he did back then although he says he wouldn’t really want to show it to anybody now.

Showing his work has led to both absolute exhilaration as well as extreme feelings of desiring never to show his work ever again. He’s often thought that he’d be better off spending his time learning more about the medium than trying to get his work out in public to be seen, and doesn’t think that ten years is a very long timeframe to draw a bead on something that you are into.

"I believe it takes a lot longer. But patience is not the most human thing to inflict upon myself!"

There have been times when he’s felt like he’s shown really good work and other times when he’s felt like he hasn’t, and has regretted spending those times in the gallery as opposed to the darkroom. Yet he agrees with me that the negative experiences one has in exhibiting ones work can act as a great impetus to get back to work in the studio, to learn from the pain of feeling like you’ve failed in some way.

"I could think I am making better use of my time by just working with the materials and learning more about my medium, but realistically I may not learn anything new about my medium just hiding in the dark without having that input that other people are going to give me! It can also make you feel very fortunate just having someone to show your work. Sometimes people who are showing your work understand it much better than you do."



When contemplating how so much of his life came to be linked with emulsion and darkrooms, Kempe reveals that photography happened "kinda by accident...kinda not by accident."

As far as his beginnings in photography are concerned, Kempe cites a former coworker named David as a very good early influence. David, who had always been a prolific artist, had tons of art books that he would let Denis borrow. Because Kempe knew nothing about art and had no art background he would look at the books and wonder "Why is this in a book?"

After receiving a camera from a friend for his 30th birthday, it only took one month before Kempe had a darkroom, and only a few years before he decided to quit his day job because he didn’t have enough time to do the amount of photography he desired doing. Although he didn’t have any concrete goals for himself he knew he didn’t want a job as a professional photographer and worked as a tool maker, thinking that he would do that for the rest of his life. But then he got his camera and things changed at his job.

"Someone told me at work one day that I made these tools too well and I asked him what that meant and he wouldn’t answer me. I asked if I was taking too long and he said 'No.' No one will ever tell you your photography is too good. No one will EVER tell you that. You can never win. Its a bigger deal than you are. I like that about photography. Its a very simple medium, its extraordinarily simple. There are people who practice it with no machine whatsoever, just a box with a hole in it. No lens, no shutter, just very sensitized paper. Photography can also be very spatial and very abstract. Not to mention the fact that it's also very versatile, too: you can sell Toyotas with it as well as decorate walls with it.

Immersing himself in history Kempe learned that the art of photography grew out of the printmaking field and realized that in the very early days of photography printmakers were the first photographers and came at the new art from that standpoint. "They made all their own materials and came up with amazing results. Now it has suffered in many ways because people have gotten so far away from this. For example, Daguerreotypes -- in the old wet plate days one had to coat a glass plate with emulsion, take the photograph and expose and develop it while it was still wet. If it dried out the image was lost because the sensitizer would lose its ability to record the image. Survey photographs from the 1860s were extraordinary because the person was out in the field with all their equipment ready to record and expose the images on the spot in outdoor conditions. Henry Jackson worked for the railways and made his images in the outdoors and talked about an exceptional day making eleven images. Eleven exposures today can be made in seconds but in those times was a whole day's work."

"I pretty much use the camera I started out with - Range Finder Likas. I use other cameras to do certain things but I don't use them nearly as often as I use the Lika. I pretty much shoot everything with a Lika. They're a very easy camera to become familiar with, a very simple camera. They work in a wide variety of situations and have a real advantage in certain situations, especially with low light. They are supreme for composition: The viewfinder lets you see an area larger than the size of the picture framed and doesn’t require you to look at one side of the frame at a time within the camera to see what’s outside of the frame. Also the focus and viewing is not part of the camera. With most cameras these two things are tied together.

"While using a camera I try not to let the instrument that I am using take over. I think that is something that is really easy to happen to photographers. I hear very few painters go into it at length about what brushes they use, whereas for photographers it is a very easy trap to fall into."



Collusion, the gallery in Pioneer Square that Kempe opened and still runs, wasn’t designed or planned out whatsoever. It just came about when he and a couple of other studio mates realized that the live in studio space they were looking for and found had enough room in fact to be an exhibition space. Further impetus was knowing a lot of people with talent who weren't strictly "artists" who couldn't afford a place to show their own work "because not all of them think of themselves as artists, and they would not think of approaching a gallery, and as such, not a lot of galleries would ever think of approaching them, so having the kind of exhibition space mentality that we have is definitely a little different. I look at it as a freedom, not as a hindrance. When you don’t make any money you look at it as a hindrance when every month you have to pay for what the gallery consumes, which isn’t that much, but month after month you know you can add it up at the end of the year and go 'Wow! I could have gone to Hawaii! I could have bought another camera!'."

He emphasized that he and his business partners, brother Charlie Kempe and Scot Stevens, all work well together and are able to work out conflicts which may arise and everyone realizes when a disagreement comes up that the task at hand is up to them to then come to an agreement.

But as far as the gallery is concerned he admits that "I didn’t start it as a business, didn’t run it as a business," but over the last year they’ve realized that things have been going in the right direction to a degree where they could make it as a business and have been exploring the issues which come with that type of contemplation such as whether to go non-profit, etc.

When asked if there are any problems in running a gallery that disturb his personal work as an artist Kempe replied that they are "the same problems that come from trying to support oneself -- lack of time coupled with lack of time from having a day job. But the good that comes out of it far outweighs the negative."

He doesn’t dislike the menial tasks and day to day upkeep of the gallery ("yeah, we get to paint the wall again") but is certain that if that was all there was to it he wouldn’t be interested in running the gallery anymore.

"The most pleasure I get out of this is seeing people have a really good time at an opening, seeing someone move some work is pretty cool, especially when you see someone do this that you didn’t expect to. They’ll make some money which is cool but of course its usually a drop in the bucket compared to the time and effort they have put into exhibiting their work, but what’s really nice is that someone else put out some hard-earned money from their dayjob so that that could own this piece of art."

Collusion Unlimited is located at 163 South Jackson Street, Seattle WA (206) 382-1173

Sienna Reid can be reached at: