The autumn Kenneth Hanson was 9 his world split open like a crevasse.

The German Luftwaffe began its sustained attacks on British industrial cities, including Hanson’s native Birmingham. Nearly 3 million people, mostly children, were evacuated to the countryside. Hanson and his brother became part of what was then the most concentrated mass movement of people in British history. For the duration of the war, Hanson lived at his grandmother’s house in the largely untouched enclave of Morecambe Bay in the northwest of England.

There Hanson would learn his first and most trenchant scientific truth: Chaos can wrest great beauty out of the world

Orange photographer Hanson, 78, has just released Himalayan Portfolios— Journeys of the Imagination, a stunning collection of black-and-white photographs he took in the Himalayas. His photographs which have been on display at the University of Connecticut’s Benton Museum and Jorgensen Gallery, as well as at the Picture Framer art Gallery in Cheshire, capture one of the most gorgeous and terrifying landscapes on Earth. He only began photographing the Himalayas—and, amazingly, climbing through them—when he was 56.

Hanson’s photographs are an anthem to the 18th-century idea of the sublime—terror viewed from a position of safety. Many of them are selenium-toned gelatin silver prints of wondrous contrasts and texture; awesome valleys choked by necklaces of clouds, rocky precipices collapsing into the abyss, mounds of glacial detritus materializing out of valleys like dunes on a deserted beach.

Imagination plays a large part in the story of the Himalayas and in the story of Kenneth Hanson. Now retired after 31 years with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (he latterly held the post of Senior Biochemist), he began dreaming about the Himalayas during those days in his grandmother’s house by the Irish Sea.

“When the tide was out there was a great expanse of mud and sand that seemed to go on forever,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the shape of mountains and valleys, and visualizing the changing perspective as one ascends and descends, and the feel of scrambling up a steep gully folded into the rocks.” That idea—that the mountains were sculptural objects to be experienced step by step—late influenced the sculptural bent of his photography.

His fascination for the magical twists, cataclysms and erosions of the natural world led him to a career in science. He received his Ph. D. in organic chemistry from the University of Liverpool in 1953. A 1958 postdoctoral fellowship at New York University—and his own wedding engagement—brought him to the U.S.

Aside for a few family snapshots, Hanson showed little interest in photography until a trip to the Sierra Mountains in 1975 reignited his aesthetic and scientific sense of awe. “The impulse was to show the underlying order and symmetry of natural objects,” he says. The idea was to give art the beauty and order of science: “the Enlightenment dream as opposed to Miltonic chaos.”

But he felt his early photography lacked the sensuality he found in Edward Weston or the grandeur he found in Ansel Adams. So he worked on it. By 1982 he had won second place in a photography contest for an image he had taken of Outer Beach on Cape Cod. “That is a terrible thing to happen to anybody, because suddenly then they think they’re a genius,” Hanson observes wryly.

But in 1986, when his wife Elizabeth, now professor emerita of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, received a Fulbright grant to teach in India, he joined her for more than a month. This led to the first of 12 treks to the Himalayas—from Annapurna in Nepal to Ladakh in India, to the K2 area in the Karakoram and, inevitably, Everest.

Along the way he has climbed as high as 21,500 feet, but a summit is not an aesthetic peak any more than a valley is an artistic nadir. Hanson has coaxed beauty out of both, finding a sense of aridity and silvery vastness in his “View of Lo-Mustang and the Kali Gandaki Trade-Route to Tibet,” or an idea of the areas spiritual alloys in the haunting “Pungmo Village, Mani Stones on Mani Wall,” taken in Nepal. He captured the crenellated skein of splintery mountainsides as adeptly as he evokes the labor of a barley miller in “Miller at Phere, Ghunsa-Kambachan Valley.”

Hanson says the main quality he brings to the images is astonishment, but the works are rich with a sense of reverence—for the natural processes at work as much as for the human responses to such a setting.

“I frequently say to myself, ‘I can’t believe I am seeing this,’” Hanson says. “I suppose the whole thing is a metaphor for accepting intellectual and emotional challenges in the societies in which we live.”

Tracey O’Shaughnessy
Connecticut Magazine, December, 2008. p 43
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