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The ghosts among us

Mikael Kennedy, a 25-year-old Roxbury resident, once couch-hopped around the country while taking pictures of street kids for his Hampshire College final project, called "Kids’ Lives Suck." A few years later, when the Vermont native relocated to Seattle with a core of artist friends, he worked the graveyard shift developing pictures of kids sitting on Santa laps. After Christmas was over and he couldn’t find another job (even 7-Eleven told Kennedy he was "overqualified"), he sold blood.

But those aren’t the tales told in Kennedy’s just-released book of black-and-white photographs, Still, Not Dead — they’re just the subtext of the self-published volume. In the late ’90s, Kennedy secured a summer job at Star Island, one of the nine Isles of Shoals lodged off the New Hampshire coast primarily used as a Unitarian Universalist retreat center. Although Yankee magazine once labeled the island’s seasonal positions as some of the "best summer jobs in New England," there isn’t much to occupy the restive staff — not even television. "The place breeds insanity," says Kennedy. So a loose-knit collective of artists formed, looking for creative ways to amuse themselves. They learned how to box. They made their own wine. They built tattoo guns out of old Walkmans. And then, sadly, some of them weren’t asked to come back.

That’s more or less the starting point of Kennedy’s nonlinear portraits of the Star Island artists’ collective. He shot all the photos on a Lomographic Holga, a cheap, plastic, medium-format camera that comes with electrical tape to seal light out of its cracks. Its primitive nature suited the project. "I tried to go for an old, antique-y feel," Kennedy explains recently at the Trident Café. "Which is why they’re all grainy black-and-whites and the prints aren’t perfect."

Among the resulting images are rocky New England coastlines, sun-baked men with bushy beards, and even a pensive picture of Kennedy’s college roommate, Brad Wallace from Transistor Transistor. There’s the Boston graffiti writer "Smeller" eyeing freight-train canvases in the Allston yard, and a dim photo of a gas-masked Darkclouds, the street artist known for painting brain-shaped vapors on street signs all over town. There’s even a photo of a Sufi monk trying to transfer his soul into Kennedy’s camera — an experiment to see if someone really can steal a person’s soul with a roll of film.

By the looks of all the unsmiling, young faces — expressions that seem weary with existential uncertainty — Still, Not Dead is a story about restlessness. "A lot of these photos look rather bleak," admits Kennedy. "There’s almost a beat-down sense to some of them, but I still think they’re unbelievably beautiful. Which I guess ties into the [book’s] title: the idea of just going through all the things people go through in their lives — rough situations, selling blood in Seattle, being in a city that doesn’t excite you — and being able to create beautiful things out of it. That’s the point of it all, I guess."

Mikael Kennedy’s Still, Not Dead is available at Trident Booksellers & Café, 338 Newbury Street, Boston, (617) 267-8688, or at Re:generation Records, 155 Harvard Avenue, (617) 782-1313. Still, Not Dead images will also be hanging in Bukowski’s Tavern,1281 Cambridge Street, Inman Square, Cambridge, through April 29. Visit www.interruptart.com.

Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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