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“Like a flower in late bloom”: Mona Kuhn on time, figure and presence

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The Brazilian-born artist’s latest monograph charts over 20 years or work redefining the canonical nude

“When I was asked to do a retrospective, I thought, I’m not dead yet, I’m not at the end,” laughs Mona Kuhn. It took some convincing to persuade the LA-based photographer to come around to her eighth book, Mona Kuhn: Works, a survey of her career to date. “When I was told the book would highlight the best moments and how I have evolved, that it was not final, I was reassured,” she explains.

Kuhn’s latest volume, published by Thames & Hudson, ties together a remarkable collection over its 239 pages, including previously unseen photographs. It includes invaluable insights into her creative process – the way in which she works with her subjects and settings to achieve the signature, visual language she is known for.

'Morgane, 2010', 2021 © Mona Kuhn.

“I started to feel something really resonated, and I wondered, how could something from the past connect so deeply with me? It felt like levitating.”

Centred on the nude, Kuhn’s curiosity to produce new ways of seeing has made her one of the leading figures in art photography today. “I feel very comfortable with nudes,” Kuhn says. “To me it feels like a second nature. I think it’s to do with my grandparents, on weekends growing up they would just get naked in the backyard.” 

From her upbringing in Sao Paulo to the friendships she has cultivated since, Kuhn has crafted an ulterior world through her lens, intuitive and unconscious to the social trappings associated with the naked, human form. “My introduction to the arts was very calm, very quiet,” she explains, describing trips as a teenager to museums and galleries, where she was left to explore while her mother attended social gatherings. “I had all the time in the world to wander around alone, to gaze at great works of art, and to learn from contemplating. I started to feel something really resonated, and I wondered, how could something from the past connect so deeply with me? It felt like levitating.”

'Succulents 6, 2018', 2021 © Mona Kuhn.

This sense of spiritual connection is the focus of Kuhn’s practice, teamed with a strong sense of collaboration: the photographer is renowned for developing close relationships with her subjects, resulting in images of intense intimacy.

“I like to say my best work starts when those I photograph forget they’re naked, the power of my work lies in their confidence,” Kuhn explains. “It’s more about the moment we spend together, and the photograph is a memento of that time. It’s the interaction and process that’s really important for me,” she adds. “The photography comes and goes; the friendship is forever.”

In Kuhn’s work, time is of the essence. Each body is imbued with an effortless timelessness, the question of how to pass a message across time a continuing concern. “I’ve always questioned what I can do in photography to bring in a more artistic vocabulary, I don’t feel my work is of this time, it’s not meant to be. I want to transcend the elements of time,” she explains. “I see the visual arts as a long discourse, and I just want to add one word that can be mine – how I’ve made a mark.” 

'Chanon, 2012', 2021 © Mona Kuhn.

Using techniques such as selective focus, abstraction and solarisation, Kuhn honours the human form on her own terms. “It was difficult when I decided to lean towards nudes, to think how to interpret it differently in a way I would feel comfortable,” she says. “I always want the eye to go to the composition, the balance and the scale, the frame, if the body is overly exposed it’s not the conversation I want to have,” she asserts.

The resulting body of work Kuhn continues to create shows the nude not as a one-dimensional physical manifestation, but proof of our being, our presence in time. “I relate nudity to freedom, the point is to abandon yourself into being yourself, to float for a moment, in the way I felt in the museums when I was younger,” she says. “This is what I want to capture. My photographs are like a flower in late bloom, opening slowly over time.”

monakuhn.com

Mona Kuhn: Works by Mona Kuhn published by Thames & Hudson (March, 2021)

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.

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