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A Photographer’s Take on Christmas Cards

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As we age, the holidays get more and more complicated. And when you work with artists, our collective traditions become even more complex, because it is literally an artist’s job to change the way we think and feel, especially subjects loaded with meaning.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, the Winter Solstice, none, or a combination of all, there is an undeniable energy around the holidays that motivates us to act in ways that deviate from our usual schedule. Whether it’s taking time off, listening to corny music, making an annual pilgrimage to a certain site, visiting with relatives, or decorating the exterior of your home with an array of blinking lights, the next week is a time to schedule and think a little differently. 

Saskia Kahn is a lens-based artist whose work has been instrumental and transformative at BmoreArt, especially in recognizing the significance of events and performances. There’s a sensitivity and clarity in each of her photos and, beyond her ability to capture a beautiful composition or a fleeting glimpse of light, this photographer conveys a palpable sense of respect for her subjects in every photo.

After we learned that Kahn has, for several years, been creating annual photographic holiday “postcard” images we were dying to see them! We were thrilled that she was willing to share them with us, and our readers, and we took a moment to talk her to find out more about the evolution of this self-styled holiday tradition.

 

This series of photos captures holiday images from different perspectives, from serious to funny to sentimental. I am curious about what your own holiday traditions are, now?

To be honest, making these cards is one of the only traditions I still have. I got the idea to start doing them about ten years ago from my uncle, who showed me the ropes as a professional photographer. I used to help him create his holiday mailer either by assisting with lights or modeling as Santa or both.

I loved the challenge of trying to make a seasonal photo before Christmas, keeping my eyes peeled for something on the street, and collaborating with family and friends to make it happen. Though I send the photo as an email, looking through my digital address book gives me a chance to reflect on the year and feel grateful for all the art directors, mentors, editors, and account managers who really make freelancing this wonderful part of my work as a photographer. 

The other holiday traditions you’d expect are kind-of in limbo right now. I’m at an age where the traditions created for me in childhood don’t exist much anymore for a few reasons. It’s partially the way the pandemic shifted things, but it’s also a natural part of life when the generations move into new roles as time goes on. New family configurations figuring out what to carry on and what to reinvent. 

 

What’s your favorite aspect of Christmas and this time of year?

I love how cozy things feel gathering inside with people, but I also enjoy going inward and being an observer during this time of year. The quiet becomes so quintessentially quiet, especially on the ocean near my childhood home.

I love seeing Coney Island in winter, even at night, the way the Wonder Wheel sits dark over the sea. Or passing rows of homes at night that are glowing orange through their windows, it feels peaceful. I don’t mind being in more of an observer role. For some people, that can be difficult this time of year, but I guess I’m lucky that I can enjoy observing for pretty long periods without getting FOMO.

 

Growing up, what did your family holidays look like? Do you have a specific memory you can share with us that made a big impression on you?

I was really lucky to celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas as a kid. I have a lot of great memories of Christmas. My mother’s side of my family, who is Quaker, did (and still do) such a great job conjuring up a magical and quaint version of Christmas, with singing, corn pudding, and stockings that were stuffed with chocolate and a clementine at the bottom. 

Christmas was held outside of the city, and a vivid memory is being in the backseat of the car at night, listening to the oldies station play all the Christmas songs as the roads got darker and darker the further we went out of the city. It was fun determining which song was my favorite, which I ultimately decided was “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. The nights, the sense of expectation, buying into the magic. The simplicity of feeling taken care of and safe in the still of night, I think left a big impression on me. Hmm, maybe that’s why almost all of these are night shots. 

 

As a native New Yorker, how do Baltimore’s holiday traditions compare to those in NYC?

Well, New York City is filled with tourists around the holidays. There are many iconic things to do and see in New York, but it’s really crowded to take part in them. I still have a lot to see and learn about the holidays in Baltimore, but what I have noticed is you’re bound to run into people you know rather than be in a sea of strangers.

I think the Mayor’s Christmas Parade is a great example of how much more fun it is to be a part of festivities in Baltimore than in NYC. The Macy’s Parade is something that I wouldn’t think to go to, but when I first happened upon the Christmas parade in Baltimore, I understood why parades are fun! I love the dance troupes, the marching bands, and the people who go and watch the parade! There’s a lot more warmth and friendliness going around. Also, I think it’s much easier in Baltimore to find and support small businesses and find great artisans for gift-giving. 

 

As a photographer, you gravitate towards images that are visually complex with a lot of texture and color, but also images that capture intimate moments of human vulnerability and humor… Can you talk about what interests you most about the medium of photography?

I think what interests me about photography is that you are interfacing with the world around you. You are actively observing, trying to capture something about that thing that initially excited you about the observation, and then in the selecting and editing process renegotiating with yourself the worth or value of that observation. There is a lot of decision-making, even before the taking of the picture, about whether something is worthy of being photographed. And, because I have a strong desire to make pictures, photography can sometimes act as a way to make the world around me more interesting, because I’m looking more carefully for where the potential lies for there to be a successful photograph. 

Beyond thinking that way, I feel much more connected to society by meeting and photographing strangers. I absolutely love looking at someone, and going “that’s a picture”–whether I make that picture or not, each time I feel like by just recognizing the person and that moment that I am more alive.

What challenges me are the limitations, of which there are many. How do you convey the past, tell a complete story without words, elevate and break conventions, and relay imagination? What’s great is that many photographers are asking these questions, and it’s a great community to be a part of; photographers who are thinking about life together and making beautiful pictures along the way.

 

Bio: Saskia Kahn is a photographer and teaching artist from the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA from Brooklyn College and her MFA from MICA’s program in Photography, Media, and Society. Deeply engaged with portraiture, Kahn’s work in this genre extends deep into community and relationships, giving agency and exposure to her subjects (more accurately described as her collaborators).

Kahn’s work has been featured in The New York Times, EW, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Huffington Post, among others and BmoreArt featured her work on the cover of Issue 13: Collect, as well as in a story about Housewerks Salvage. She has developed photo essays on the performing arts of Baltimore, including dance, skating, rock opera, and multidisciplinary performances and is a contributing photographer for BmoreArt magazine. Kahn’s photography installation I CAN SMELL THE WATER is on view in Manhattan Beach Park in Brooklyn until January 25, 2023. 

 

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