Ken Van Sickle’s photographs summon a tart romanticism. They fulfill the time-traveling brief of all great photography, granting onlookers intimate, keyhole access to Paris in fifties, the New York Beat scene, Andy Warhol’s Factory. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke in that Greenwich village club. You can feel the sunlight on that sleeping cat’s back. And yet time and again you find yourself you have to check the date on the photographs, so contemporary do some of Van Sickle’s more experimental effects seem — his fondness for smoke and blur, for double and pinhole exposures, smudges and superimpositions all lending his work a sense of haloed perception, of fresh apprehension furred with the workings of mind and memory. These photographs are taken with more than just a recording eye. They have the sweet ache of dreams awoken from just this morning.
A native of New Brunswick, New Jersey, Van Sickle learned the basics of drawing, painting and composition from his grandfather and later studied under George Grosz at the Art Students League and cubist painter André Lhote in Paris. Compositionally, he is capable of both a sinewy elegance of line and graphic boldness: a deep vertical slash of sunlight illuminates the dark well of a Grasse alleyway; the steep climb of a biplane above a spit of land offers an airy reprieve from the forces of gravity. There is something of Chagall to his work — a sense of playful dislocation. He may not be the first photographer to bounce skylight off the wet streets of New York, or to seize on the compositional opportunities afforded by the city under snow, but when melting snowflakes smudge his lens, creating little coronas of light that merge with billowing steam from a subway grate, the result is magical, synesthetic: an image of steam and snow, fire and ice, both hot and cold at once. The city seems prowled by dragons.
The warmth is more than just a matter of temperature. As keen an eye as Van Sickle has for the city’s powers of accidental abstraction — a conga-line of umbrellas on a cross-walk, the owners’ faces obscured, a ring of balloons encircling their sellers heads — he has too much curiosity about human motive to use his subjects merely for decoration. Those umbrella-bearers have their heads down for a reason. His en passant portraitsevince a deep, unfakeable relish for idiosyncracy and human kink: a woman’s arm, draped across her partner’s forest of belly hair, suggests a Coney island reworking of Cocteau’sBeauty and the Beast; a biker incongruously tans himself using sun reflectors like a New Jersey housewife; a street trader, his face obscured by cigarette smoke but for his furry, steepled eyebrows, nonetheless communicates with them as amply as Chaplin; a young boy on the streets of Paris, surrounded by his gang, smokes with such comical pugnacity he seems to be defying you to do something about it.
It’s hard not to feel in Van Sickle’s Parisian photographs the unavoidable influence of Cartier Bresson, with whom he shared a teacher in Lhote, and a lifelong love of the Leica camera. Van Sickle’s bought his while on active duty in Korea, together with a 35 mm lens, that went with him everywhere. His lack of funds, and film roll, inculcated the Bressonian virtue of catching moments on the fly, sometimes on a first take, but while he shares the French master’s sense of ripeness — his eye for thismoment, plucked from a hundred others — there is to Van Sickle a provocative sense of mystery that tilts him towards more modern, cinematic sensibilities. In ‘Car Stop’ a woman photographed through the windscreen of a car, stands with her back to the camera, clutching a bunch of thistles. Did she stop to pick them? And what of those two motorbikes that appear to have caught her eye, speeding toward her? Threat licks at the edges of the idyll. In ‘White Poodle,’ a wary poodle peers from out the back door of a Volkswagon at the blurry street-scene going on in the foreground. Should he leave the car, or keep his nose out of trouble and move along?
Captivated by the movie industry as a boy, Van Sickle worked for 25 years as a director of photography on various documentaries, commercials and features, including Queen, a documentary about a transvestite beauty pageant held in New York in 1967, and Marjoe, a 1972 documentary about the boy-wonder faith-healer turned b-movie actor Gortner Marjoe, which won the Oscar for best documentary that year. Van Sickle’s eye for human oddity, and slightly smudged glamor, seen askance, lingers in his photographs of celebrities — Shelley Duvall examining her hair on the set of Bernice Bobs Her Hair; Allen Ginsberg reading Howl to a circle of cross-legged listeners in a Village nightclub; Andy Warhol sitting next to an art buyer on a sofa, the buyer smoking a cigarette with almost post-coital tristesse. Have they done the deed or is it yet to come? Not for nothing is one of Van Sickle’s photographs entitled “Subsequently”: his work is pregnant with a sense of urgency and sequence, his photographs not just a record of this moment, thinly sliced, but the ghost of the world that preceded it, and the shadow of the world yet to come.
- Tom Shone is a film critic for The Economist. His most recent book is Woody Allen: A Retrospective (Abrams, 2015)
To find out about Ken's second career, click here for his Tai Chi videos