Author Interview: Don Krohn

Intern Frederick asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

On Cape Cod celebrates the Cape in summertime, showing that place which has captivated photographers, painters, and poets. Its photographs loosely chronicle a summer’s day and look at each of the Cape’s fifteen towns, delicately illuminating the lush country through a variety of photographic techniques. From the introduction by Geraldine Brooks to Don Krohn’s afterward, this book betrays its intimacy with the Cape, giving a nuanced sense of delight to the reader. 

Don Krohn has made his home in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Originally from New York City, he is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Harvard Law School. His photographic work has taken him across the United States and to several other continents: In the South of France, his previous work, was highly acclaimed and quite lovely. 

Having lived on the Outer Banks in my childhood, I was drawn to Krohn’s personal perspective of the Cape. His photos explore its beauty in a way that can only be gained through long association and familiarity with a place. Engaged by this, I decided to ask him a few questions about the creation of On Cape Cod.

You’re a self-taught photographer. In On Cape Cod, you talk about what first drew you to photography as a child: could you say a little bit about that and what motivated you to continue over time? What were some milestones along the way?

I began taking photographs at a very early age, and loved going to school with a camera. I began with various Kodak Brownie cameras, then before long started using 35mm cameras, with adjustable focus lenses, and adjustable shutter speeds and apertures. There was something about capturing the world around me and bottling it into a little bit of film that seemed irresistible. Over time, it was really just a progression of new approaches and deepening involvement in the medium that carried me along. By college I was using 4 x 5 inch sheet film in view cameras — the entire set-up that looks like something from the 19th century, working under a black focussing cloth with a heavy camera on a substantial tripod. The optics of working on a view camera are very different from other iterations of the medium, not the least of which is the fact that the image visible to the photographer on the ground glass is upside-down. That forces a close analysis of the image in a unique way, emphasizing abstract elements. A view camera also provides unusual corrective possibilities for focus and perspective. Many of these corrections are now easily done in post-production computer processing with Photoshop or Lightroom programs.

You’re originally from New York City: what appealed to you about Cape Cod?

I have been coming here since I was a child, and moved here shortly after college to live full-time. It was the era, for some of us, of living simply, closer to the Earth. The Cape seemed very inviting, not quite as remote as Maine or some other areas I considered. And I loved being near the ocean.

Was there a specific moment when it came to feel like home?

It was more of a process, and since I was already familiar with the place, it happened quickly. For extra money, I drove a school bus part time for the first few years here, so I got to know many local families quite quickly. Soon I became involved in town government in Orleans, and later was a founder of a charter school (one of the first in Massachusetts).

How, for you as an artist, was the creation of On Cape Cod different from your previous work, In the South of France? Is it a development?

The book about France comprises images from a much larger region, and the photographs were taken over a period of almost a decade. The photographs for On Cape Cod were taken during a two-year period, and the region is very small in comparison.

How do you feel that your perspective of the Cape differs from that of other writers and photographers? How did this influence your work?

Joel Meyerowitz brought Cape photo books into the modern era with his innovative and now-classic work Cape Light. Since then, many of the books of photographs of the Cape have reverted to the more customary landscapes and beach scenes. I feel that I have picked up where Joel left off, by looking beyond the obvious, seeking images that reveal more about the Cape than just the expected vistas.

Why did you choose to focus on the Cape in the summertime?

I photograph here year-round, but for my first Cape book I wanted to concentrate the experience seasonally, and it is of course summertime and its blandishments are the hallmark of the place. And for many, it is the only Cape landscape they ever have seen or will see. So I wanted to speak directly to that summer experience. I took some liberties, though, by including a cranberry harvester image from late September, because it is so quintessentially Cape Cod.

Are there photographs in the book that you particularly enjoyed taking? If so, why?

It’s hard to answer that. Some images that were very demanding technically, such as some to the landscapes and seascapes in which I used progressive focus and digital stitching to create perfect focus at all distances, were a bit trying to produce. The technique creates an interesting illusion of hyper vision. You can see that in the “Receding Sand Pattern” photo, and also in the “Provincetown Causeway” image, for example. So in terms of enjoyment, the more spontaneous images of people and animals were probably more fun and had an unpredictable element that I enjoy.

You talk in your Photographer’s Note about “looking for spiritual traces in the world of appearances”: with which photo, place, or incident in the book did you come closest to “the spiritual?”

If I have to choose one, I’ll say the lightning strike image off Yarmouth Port. I wandered over to that beach just by chance on a friend’s suggestion earlier that morning, and this monster storm of hail and thunder and lightning came on almost the instant I arrived. To capture that bolt of lightning connecting sky and sea (and to live to tell about it!) embodied that kind of spiritual experience perfectly.

What projects are you working on now?

I am working considering doing a book of “Off-Season” photos of the Cape, and am also returning to France later this summer, where I plan to do a follow-up series of images related to those from In the South of France. I also have an expanding series of black and white photos from many visits to Paris, which could be an interesting book project.

From May to September, images from On Cape Cod are being featured in The Boston Globe.