Photo play: The Work of James Henkel

Hailing from Florida, but a long time resident of Minnesota, James Henkel is an expert at play. He has traveled extensively with a camera at his side, but is always drawn back into his studio. With an imaginative spirit and a passion for problem solving, Henkel transforms every day objects, occurrences and scenes into quirky and eye-catching images.


Hailing from Florida, but a long time resident of Minnesota, James Henkel is an expert at play. He has traveled extensively with a camera at his side, but is always drawn back into his studio. With an imaginative spirit and a passion for problem solving, Henkel transforms every day objects, occurrences and scenes into quirky and eye-catching images.

Photographer James Henkel
Milk Spill

What first interested you in photography ?

I grew up in Miami and when I was 12 or 13 I was interested in painting. I would go to the library, find these photos and I would draw or copy them. Then one day, I realized that the photo itself was interesting. In high school I was slightly more interested in photography, but didn’t really begin photographing until college, when I took my first class and bought my first camera. Finally, I thought: this (photographic) world is possible.

Photographer James Henkel
Apple Circle

After teaching for so long, do you see reoccurring themes in your student’s work?

Yes and no.  There is a core of similarity of trying to find one’s voice in the world. There are themes of identity and “how am I relating to the world”, but students are informed by the changing times and so their work is also continually changing.  With that said, however, I’ve gotten to a point where I will not look at any more photos of the Washington Ave. Bridge which spans the Mississippi River and connects the two sides of our campus.
Teaching is a funny thing, in the sense that you learn because you are teaching. After 32 years, I feel much more comfortable in my teaching role. At first, I struggled with not knowing everything, but I’ve learned to not worry about what you don’t know. I tell students that we’re learning together- this unsettles some students while it reassures others.

Photographer James Henkel
Pearl Line

You’ve had a very impressive amount of exhibits around the world, including China, Russia Paris, and Fargo, North Dakota.  What have been some of the most memorable exhibits and why ?

This list might look impressive… but I didn’t even go to some of those exhibits. Many of these exhibits like in Russia and China happen because of university exchange programs.

Photographer James Henkel

In 1987 you did a residency in Paris, at the Cité International des Arts.  Can you tell us about being an American in Paris and what photographically inspired you the most about the city ?

I was in an extremely beautiful section of the city and I had a whole year to do whatever I wanted. I decided to be every kind of photographer that I wondered about. I was reinventing myself. It was like a Halloween party where you can dress up and be anyone you want. I was able to be Atget or Lee Friedlander or Man Ray.  I put no limits on myself.

Wheel Barrow

When I first arrived, it was “la mois de la photo”, in Paris. As I visited the various photographic exhibits, I got to know the city. I also bought a giant map of the city and put it up on my wall at home. Each day I chose a new park to visit. I had to figure out how to get there so it was a great way to learn the metro system. I hadn’t traveled much prior to this. I’m a creature of routine and while in Paris I visited le Jardin des Plantes almost everyday. It became my routine. ack then it was a bit rundown with a dark romantic quality about it.
As far as being an American in Paris, there were moments where I longed for American culture. I missed baseball.

Photographer James Henkel
Ferris Wheel Tuluries

When I returned back to the states, there was an overwhelming amount of material and I put it all away.  I chose, instead, to focus on still-life and my studio work. I only just seriously revisited my Paris street photographs five years ago.

Photographer James Henkel
Milk Glass

Your series like “Stacks,” “Spills” and “Light Work” appear to be shot in a studio space. Do you work alone or with the help of others ?

All alone. Very alone. It’s almost like improvisational theater. I find objects and just start to play. I ask myself : Why am I interested in this ? What are its qualities ? I see something, pick it up, take it to the studio… and keep it ; sometimes it sits in the studio for a couple years. It gets used or maybe it gets recycled.
The objects become metaphors and symbols.  I just continue to revisit things.  It is play with purpose. There is a problem-solving element that I really enjoy.  It’s like being a kid, I grew up an only child : the being alone part goes hand in hand with imagination.

Photographer James Henkel
Wine Drawing

A reoccurring theme seems to be ‘play’ and I get the impression you have a lot of fun assembling your shots. For the series “Stacks” did you play around with the book slices until you found an arrangement you liked, or did you have a vision in mind before photographing ?

It’s both. I’ll start by just playing and then once the project has matures, I’ll search for more specific things, like a certain number or color on the spine. It becomes more purposeful the more mature the work becomes.
I had trouble at first cutting up books. It made me nervous and gave me pause. But it was so compelling-it had to be.  I’ve been working with books since college. Every time I think I’m done, I discover I’m not.

Photographer James Henkel
Volume 1-7

My little joke I say in public is : “I can’t tell you that no books were harmed in the making of this project, but I can tell you that no good books were harmed”.
I would go to a Good Will store and buy books for 50 cents. I figured that either I bought them or they were going to become cardboard. Sometimes I rescue books that are actually interesting and keep them or give them to my friends as gifts.

Photographer James Henkel
English Poet

What kinds of themes are you currently working on ?

Right now I’m casting about. I go to the studio almost every day. I’m photographing balls in a way that are makes them look like planets.  But it is in the early play stages.  I often think the early efforts are brilliant, only to discover a few weeks later… that of course they aren’t.
I’ve also been working at Gettysburg the American Civil War Battlefield, photographing the monuments.  When I work in the landscape, it’s almost like it becomes the studio. I take a place and turn it into a studio.  I use the landscape as a place to return often so it becomes comfortable. Like on the beach in 1999-2000 I lived in Florida on the beach and went there every day to photograph what washed up during the night. I let the objects come to me.

Photographer James Henkel

Up until recently, I shot all film.  But, over the years, I’ve developed a sensitivity to darkrooms –too many years of bad ventilation.  So I was thrilled when digital came along.  The health reasons either eased or hastened my transition to digital.  Now my darkroom has become a storage space.

Photographer James Henkel
Pair of Shoes

Interview by LG

James Henkel’s photographer website