THE ARTS PAPER October 2008

Arts Council of Greater New Haven

Photographer Ken Hanson on top of the world

Hank Hoffman

Ken Hanson.


It was science that first drew Kenneth Hanson to photography. As an English teenager interested in chemistry, “messing around in the darkroom seemed an interesting thing to do.” Biochemistry became his career—he retired from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in 1991—but in the 1970’s, photography became a serious avocation.

This summer, Hanson published his first book of photographs, Himalayan Portfolios: Journeys of the Imagination. Containing more than 100 striking photographs, the book is the result of two decades of labor and a dozen mountaineering trips through storied regions of Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet. While the struggle for survival in a harsh environment—whether by local people or mountain climbers—is the subtext of every image in the book, that struggle is framed within vistas of incomparable beauty.

Organized into five regional portfolios, the photos depict the Kashmiri mountains, Tibetan monasteries and villages, expanses of glaciers and the majesty of Everest. An accompanying scholarly essay by Hanson discusses his photographic quest in terms of Tibetan Buddhism, science, politics, the culture of Himalayan mountaineering, and English poetic and artistic traditions (such as the “mountains sublime,” as envisioned by the writers William Wordsworth and Edmund Burke, and the artist J.M.W. Turner).

Landscape photography seeped into Hanson’s blood early. Living in the Lake District in the north of England, the Cumbrian Mountains offered their profile in the distance and the coast was nearby. He was inspired by photographic displays in local camera shops and was particularly struck by dramatic pictures of the Alps on view at the Abraham Brothers shop.

“I soon found out I was not taking pictures of this caliber,” Hanson tells me in an interview at his Orange home. He emigrated to the United States, married, and in 1960, moved to New Haven to take a position as a biochemist at the Experiment Station. (His wife Elizabeth is Professor Emeriti of Political Science at the University of Connecticut and head of the India Studies program.)

Hanson’s interest in photography was revitalized when his children were growing up. He shot snapshots with a 35 millimeter camera on a hiking trip to the Sierra Mountains. In the mid-1970s, he signed up for a weekly course at the Archetype gallery and darkroom facility in New Haven. Hanson jokes that what really prompted him to start taking pictures again was an ad from Gabriel’s Pizza, offering three pizzas for the price of two. “My wife would take the kids for pizza and I would go to the darkroom and everyone was happy,” Hanson says.

But soon after he started shooting, someone told him, ‘If you want to print that sort of picture, you should go to a larger format.’” So in 1975, he decided to purchase a Toyo 4x5 view camera. The larger format was well-suited to his choice of subjects.

The 4-inch by 5-inch negatives captured much more information than a 35 millimeter, offering increased clarity and detail in prints. The plane of focus could stretch from the immediate ground to distant mountains. But shooting was a very deliberate process, necessitating the use of a tripod. Hanson had to drape a dark cloth over himself while using a magnifying loupe to focus through the ground glass back.

“There’s just something about the ritual of setting up the camera and composing on the ground glass screen, this sort of feeling I have that when pictures are taken this way they come out differently,” Hanson explains. “Seeing the scene reversed and upside down [on the ground glass] gives you sort of a second look at the composition.”

Although he had limited time to devote to photography, Hanson began developing his chops on the view camera, shooting in the bogs and woodlands near his Orange home, and the Cape Cod dunes when on vacation. He also returned to the Sierras for a backpacking trip, taking the camera with him.

“It required a great deal of organization to get everything into the backpack. Carrying the tripod and everything required a serious commitment,” Hanson says.

Hanson first visited the Himalayas in 1986, traveling with his wife who had received a Fulbright grant to teach at an Indian university. He took his camera on a three week trek in the Annapurna district. Three years later he returned to the Outer Dolpo, a remote Nepalese region that had only recently opened to foreigners. He journeyed to Dhaulagiri in 1992. To prepare for this trip, Hanson had taken a mountaineering course in Washington State the previous year. “It gave me a certain amount of confidence about camping on snow and ice, that it was something I could do and expect to survive,” Hanson says dryly.

In fact, all of Hanson’s photographs were wrested through physical, as well as technical and aesthetic challenges. There was the danger of pulmonary edema at high elevations. There was the possibility of a catastrophic turn in the weather. On the first trip, they had to cross landslide areas where it would be “fairly easy to slip down.”

“I tried not to think about,” Hanson says. People would say, ‘It’s just as well to keep moving in this area,’” he says with a chuckle. Heart attacks were also not uncommon. “I’ve seen a number of bodies brought back covered up.”

By 2002, Hanson had made ten trips to the Himalayas. Photographer Charles Fields suggested he make a book. But how would the book be organized, and what additional material would he need? “I couldn’t do the book and leave out Everest.”

Once he had all the pictures, Hanson laid out the photographs to communicate different ideas from one to the next. “If there are dramatic peaks with K2 and clouds sweeping off them, you’re in the Turner/Burke category of danger and emotional challenge. With photographs of long glaciers, it’s emphasizing clearly the emotional duration of the journey,” says Hanson. “If you go to the Everest pictures, obviously the background story is of the people who climbed Everest the first time, showing how difficult it was for those early people to get to this area.”

All the images are in black and white (and are printed in high resolution duotone reproductions). Hanson believes a “sense of awe and overwhelming amazement at the landscape” is conveyed “more effectively with black and white photographs than color.” And, specifically in photographing the Himalayas, there is the problem of “the dominant blue sky that doesn’t match up with anything else.” With black and white, the sky is a rich gray. Hanson can compose his picture to “the precise line of the mountain.”

“When I took the picture of Snow Lake, I kept saying ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this,’” recalls Hanson. It happened repeatedly. “The sense of awe is very basic to the process. It’s something I want to share with other people.”