Photographer Mona Kuhn finds herself returning time and again to the desert. Its peculiar, altered reality, in which forms shimmer and are obliterated in glare and haze, and in which one proceeds, seemingly in vain, toward an ever-receding and indistinct horizon, have long fascinated Kuhn.

“There’s a certain magic to that climate,” Kuhn says. “I find myself drawn there more and more. It’s a fascinating ecosystem. For all the seeming emptiness, it’s actually teeming with life if you’re willing to sit still and really observe what’s happening just below the surface.”

Kuhn was born in Brazil to German parents, but for some years now she’s made her home in Los Angeles. Kuhn has been taking photos since early adolescence, when her parents gave her a Kodak camera. In the early Nineties, she moved to the United States to begin her studies, and quickly discovered the work of the seminal photographers of that era, including Nan Goldin, whom she cites as a major early influence, along with the underappreciated street photographer Leon Levinstein.

Like both Goldin and Levinstein, Kuhn’s primary focus is the body, and though her early work leans more towards traditional figuration, more recent series have seen her actively broaden her scope, turning her attention to landscape, abstraction, and the body’s relationship to architecture.

For a new monograph, Private, Kuhn’s fifth publication for Steidl, the photographer focused her gaze on the bleached tones and broad expanses of light that bathe the Mojave Desert, a few hours drive from her Los Angeles home. In a series of thoughtful and intimate compositions, Kuhn catalogs flora and fauna, most of it coarse-grained and engineered for survival. Landscapes are windswept and invite introspection. Hard light falls on no-nonsense structures that are built to last.

mona kuhn

Punctuated throughout these pages are female nudes, bathed in the same supple light and shadow, their faces mostly serene. As in previous series by Kuhn, the artist employs glass as a secondary lens and means of filtration and dissolution of identity, shooting her subjects from outside of structures, allowing their features to soften and meld with the reflections of the surrounding terrain.

The sequencing of the images in Private is expertly tuned to tease out the complex relationship between the vulnerability of the nude female form and the rugged natural context which Kuhn employs as a backdrop. Kuhn’s models are mostly supine, the softness of their luminous skin a foil and a complement to the jagged, indomitable geology of the landscape in which they find themselves. Against this backdrop, the self is by turns magnified and diminished into a dreamy, sensual phenomenology.

mona kuhn

“I was interested in exploring and maximizing those juxtapositions,” Kuhn says, noting that, for her, the body is a site of residence in itself, and the desert is a place full not only of danger and heat, but also magic and sensual pleasure.

Something in Kuhn’s images recalls the observations Jean Baudrillard recorded of driving across the Mojave, a transit he described as “a spectacular form of amnesia”:

“Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated,” he writes. “Admittedly, there is the primal shock of the deserts and the dazzle of California, but when this is gone, the secondary brilliance of the journey begins, that of the excessive, pitiless distance, the infinity of anonymous faces and distances, or of certain miraculous geological formations, which ultimately testify to no human will, while keeping intact an image of upheaval.”

Private is a lovely, dreamlike paean to the arid, depopulated expanses of the American West. Like all of Kuhn’s work, there is an intoxicating poetry to these images that tempts the viewer to revisit them time and again.

mona kuhn

Private is out now from Steidl. Kuhn’s “Acido Dorado: Illusions” will launch this Saturday at the Lapis Press, 8563 Higuera Street, Los Angeles.

Kevin Greenberg is the art editor of The Last Magazine. He is also a practicing architect and the principal of Space Exploration, an integrated architecture and interior design firm located in New York. In addition to his work for The Last Magazine, Kevin is an editor of PIN-UP, a semi-annual “magazine for architectural entertainment.”

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