The Open Pass: Cross-Country Collaboration

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For the final stop of our “Artist’s Journey” series with Subaru, we made our way to the studio of Los Angeles-based photographer Mikael Kennedy. Writer/musician Jeff Thrope joined to talk friendship, road tripping and the American landscape. Mikael and Jeff have been creative comrades for over a decade and their initial “meet up” for a beer in Brooklyn evolved into a collaborative relationship spanning multiple area codes and major personal milestones.

RANGE: Where are you from and where do you live now?

Jeff: I’m from New York, but I’ve been living in Los Angeles for just over three years.

Mikael: I am originally from Vermont, and now I live in Los Angeles with my wife and daughter.

RANGE: How did you guys end up in LA?

Mikael: About three years ago, my wife and I moved to Joshua Tree for a month while she recorded an album and I worked on several projects. The first day we were there, we just realized it was ridiculous that we had been living in New York for a decade and we spent most of our time trying to get out of it. The last day we were in California, we stopped by to visit Jeff and he drove us to the top of Angeles Crest Mountains and showed us what California had to offer in such close proximity to the city.

Jeff: I was out here for work and a friend mentioned that the little bungalow next to hers was for rent in Echo Park, so I impulsively signed the lease. I flew home to NY, packed my Subaru with everything I had owned in the last 10 years, and drove back across country in a little under three days.

RANGE: We love meeting fellow Subaru owners. When did you become part of the Subaru family?

Mikael: The first car I ever bought was a Subaru. It was a ’90 Subaru Legacy. After I bought it, I immediately spent three months living out of it while driving around the U.S. shooting for my first photo exhibit. I stapled a sheet to the ceiling, made a tent in the back, and I’d park it in between semis at truck stops.

Jeff: I first became a Subaru owner in 2007 so I could escape New York City whenever I wanted to. I mostly took my Subaru up to the Catskills to explore the Appalachian Trail section of New York and Vermont. None of my friends in NYC had access to a car, so my Subaru basically became this golden chariot that would take us away on the weekends.

RANGE: What are some rituals you have when driving?

Mikael: I religiously have a cup of coffee with me in the car and the windows are always down even if it’s winter. I also always have music on, but it really depends on where I am. I was just in Italy on tour with my wife and the music I listened to there was very different than the music I listen to here. I tend to listen to a lot of pop country when I drive around America, but that wouldn’t really make sense in Italy. The music has to fit the landscape, so I gear it towards that.

Jeff: I love to drive and usually when I’m in the car by myself, I’m screaming along to music. When I’m with other people, I’m also screaming along to music. Music is a very big part of my driving and creative process. I also get lost intentionally and unintentionally. Getting lost is the best way to find an unexpected adventure.

RANGE: What was one of the first road trips you guys took together?

Mikael: We were both living in NYC and I got an email from this guy [Jeff] one day who really liked a landscape project I was working on. He wanted to write about it and grab a beer. A few months later, I met him down in Texas to shoot a story and hike together. Since that first trip, I would say every three or four months we go out on an adventure.

Jeff: Mikael and I drove around Southwest Texas to write and shoot a story for a magazine and upon arriving back at my house, which was about three hours from the park, I realized I had forgotten my keys. The rest of that story gets very weird and also involves a child and mountain lion, so let’s skip it.

RANGE: How does driving influence your work?

Mikael: The road is in my blood. I’ve been doing this since I was 17-years-old. I’ve driven across the United States about 13 times, sometimes alone, sometimes with people. I always joke that the best seat in the house is basically the seat in my car. It’s my favorite place to be. Other than a camera, my car is the most important piece of equipment I use. Everything I’ve done as an artist has been based on the road and the experience of travel. My work has always been driven by a sense of wanderlust and a nomadic spirit.

My landscape work has oftentimes been described as unconventional. They’re not just solitary landscapes. I like to use the term “emotional landscapes.” All my work is based on human experience and the experience of being alive. I’m a drawn to the American landscape partially because it’s what I know best and over the years, it has become very apparent to me that I’m an American artist and the road is an icon of America. I grew up reading Kerouac and was very taken by both Robert Frank’s The Americans and William Eggleston’s work. Basically, all the artists I’ve looked up to lived their life on the road.

Jeff: I usually drive to places within a few hours of LA to backpack, like the high desert. When I’m backpacking, my brain shuts off and I can finally stop thinking. That’s my favorite part about being outside. In the city, you’re always working and your brain is constantly going, which is not a bad thing, but when I start to backpack or physically exert myself, my brain shuts off and I can get to a place of clarity, which is a really important part of my creative process.

I write pretty extensive journals when I am on the trail, but it’s mostly about the minutia of the things around me. I write about what I eat or a bad joke someone has told me, which I find to be the best parts of any story I’ve ever written.

RANGE: Have you always loved the outdoors?

Mikael: I grew up outdoors on an old farm in Vermont. I grew up backpacking and hiking and I’d stopped doing those things after I left home. I spent a lot of time outside shooting landscape photography, but I wasn’t going as deep as I used to. When Jeff reached out to me, he started taking me deeper into the woods. I hadn’t been backpacking in 10 years and in a sense, he kind of rekindled my love for the outdoors.

Jeff: Going to summer camp in Northern Minnesota was very much the defining moment for me in terms of falling in love with nature. My older brother had gone to a similar camp and decided it was in the Thrope family tradition to do so. The first year I went to camp, I didn’t know a single person and I was terrified. I hadn’t really had any outdoor experience prior to going up there. I went up for the first time when I was in fourth grade and then every summer for eight weeks until I was well into my teenage years. Then started going onto more advanced programs like NOLS.

RANGE: What was like it like working together on the The Open Pass group show?

Mikael: We’ve worked together for years, but never really done anything like this. We’re printing Jeff’s words over my photographs to try to create one visual piece. So when we’ve been going out on trips lately, Jeff takes notes and writes about the experience of being there and I photograph the experience so we can bring that together for the show.

I think California is the most incredible place I have ever lived, Los Angeles in particular. And part of it has to do with proximity to nature and the diversity of the landscape. In two hours, you can be at the beach, you can be in the mountains, you can be in desert, you can really experience all of the landscapes of America in this one little pocket. Jeff and I were trying to capture that sentiment to really show the breadth of California’s wilderness.

Jeff: The inspiration is ’60s pop art and I’ll be writing in more of a stream of consciousness style as opposed to the narratives I typically write for magazines. Mikael and I doing a combined visual piece seemed like a really exciting way for us to work together, but also a really natural progression of all the things we have done together in the past.

Photos by Kat Borchart, courtesy of Subaru of America, Inc.

This post is in partnership with Subaru of America, Inc.

XX Jeanine