Photographer on Wheels: Steve Kean

Steve Kean lives, works, and enjoys creative photography from his wheelchair. His subjects are diverse, as he is intensely interested in the world around him. As Steve says, “The camera is a tool that lets me show the world as I see it!”.

“My biggest problem, as you can see in my earlier work, lies in changing my perspective. My images were all made from the same angle. Now, I try to raise or lower the camera as much as I can. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work for me to figure out how I can do it. Not being able to look though the viewfinder always makes it a crapshoot.”

My friend, Steve Kean, and I spent an hour chatting about the technical aspects of photography–filters, the advantage of this film over that, and which exposure technique is most effective. In the end, we concluded that there are only a couple of differences between our techniques: I use only transparency films, and Steve does his photography from a wheelchair.

I first met Steve at Variety Village, an athletic center sponsored by The Variety Club in Toronto that caters to people with mental and/or physical disabilities. I’d been photographing a displayed dinghy that a totally disabled person was capable of sailing safely. Steve came over to chat. Steve suffers from a condition known as Spina bifida, a relatively common birth defect that affects the proper development of the spinal cord. Besides keeping many of its patients in a wheelchair, it can affect visual motor abilities–which include hand/eye coordination. As I came to know him better, I was amazed not so much by what Steve couldn’t do, but by how much he could do, and by how determined he was to lead a normal life as a photographer.

This image was made with lots of depth-of-field, to show much detail ahead of and behind the focal point of the image.

What started Steve in photography?

“My first memory of becoming keen about photography (Steve loves this play on words!) was when I was about ten years old, and a friend of the family came over with a Pentax 35 mm. camera. I looked at all the bells, whistles, gadgets, and things to play with, and thought, ‘That’s for me!’

“I remember, in high school, reading Petersen’s big book of photography over and over, trying to get straight why the maximum aperture had the smallest number. I learned photography in the ‘school of hard knocks,’ using a manual camera that had automatic nothing.”

If Steve found it easy to pick up the techno-freak techniques of photography, how did he manage the artistic aspects? My secret is that my wife is an artist. What was his?

If it wasn’t for man, and all of those nasty gases he puts into the air through stacks like this one, many of my sunset pictures would be really dull. This image, handheld and using natural light, shows man and nature together. The single stack seems insignificant against the large sky and the strong sun, but the power of that one stack to affect the natural world is staggering.

“Looking at other people’s work sure helps. I’ve always enjoyed art and been interested in it. Perhaps as a result of my disability, I’ve never had any talent for drawing or painting. A camera gave me a way to make pictures, to try to show the world what I feel.”

Steve uses a tripod for a lot of his photography (which I would have imagined would be very difficult for him), as we all do. So, what does he find is the most frustrating aspect of working on photography from a wheelchair?

“My biggest problem, and you can see it in my earlier work, lies in changing my perspective. My images are all made from the same angle. Now, I try to raise or lower the camera as much as I can. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work, to figure out how I can do it. Not being able to look though the viewfinder always makes it a crapshoot.”

What keeps bringing Steve back to photography?

“My first attraction was the technical intrigue. I was fascinated by the camera as a toy. Now, that attracts me less and less. I’m coming to think of my camera as a tool, to be able to interpret the world, and to show people the world as I see it. In the future, I hope to use the computer to improve on what I can now do in the camera alone.”

What kind of photography does he prefer?

“I enjoy working with people. Portraits require some investment in time to get to know the person you’re photographing, and to show in the photograph what I’ve learned about that person.

“Flower photography is something that I enjoy. They don’t run away from you. Lifestyle photography is challenging, as I find it hard to approach people I don’t know, and to try and obtain model releases if I want to use the print. I don’t like to focus on any one type of photography but try to be diverse, letting my lens captures as much of the world as I can.”

Natural light environmental portrait that shows a piece of Canada’s living history, recreated at Black Creek Pioneer Village near Toronto. 

(It’s interesting to note that Current, the magazine of the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Ontario, contains a number of “grip-and-grin” images, many credited to Steve.)

What kinds of interests take Steve away from photography?

“Friends, and my social life. I try not to let work get in the way. I’d like to make photography my full-time work, some day.”

Hindsight always being twenty-twenty, I asked Steve if he could implement his entry into photography over again, what would he do differently? Take a course, buy different equipment, develop a different attitude? He seemed pretty confident that he would make no changes.

“I don’t think I’d do a damn thing differently. I’ve done it right, for me. I really enjoyed the challenge of picking up the camera, picking up books, burning film, roll after roll. I learned it best that way.”.

Does Steve have any formal training in photography, or is his skill all self-taught?

“I’ve never sat in a classroom to learn photography. I’ve taught it, but I’ve never taken any classes or courses. I’ve gone to art galleries, absolutely, and looked at paintings, but most of the art I’ve studied has been photographic art. At least one exhibition motivated me to get out again, right away, and do some more shooting myself– in this case some black-and-white shots of various plants.”

Does Steve prefer shooting in black-and-white or color?

People have needed to be entertained or to entertain for as long as history has been recorded. This juggler made it his business to dazzle and entertain guests at Black Creek Pioneer Village, near Toronto. A fast shutter speed served to stop the action and show the concentration on his face.

“I don’t like chemical darkroom work and never had the patience for it. I’ll sometimes shoot in color negative film but process it as black-and-white. Perhaps with the coming of the digital darkroom, I’ll be able to do the kinds of black-and-white work that always interested me.”.

Steve runs his own photographic business, called Kean Eye Photography, as time allows. What kinds of commercial clients does he have?

“I do a lot of work for charities. My employer (Steve is the Adult Services Co-ordinator for the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Ontario) gives me time to do photography during the day, and in return I give them free photography. I’ve done some fashion work, on the production of a catalogue of clothing that people with disabilities can wear and look good.

“I’ve done some fine art work. I had an exhibition last year at the Now Lounge in Toronto. The curator there liked my stuff, and I had a show. The charity where I work used all my photography for the calendar they produced this year, and that was a lot of fun. I’ll be on the team that produces next year’s calendar as well, and although my work won’t be featured, I’ll be a part of it.

“I’ve sold some of my photographs as fine art prints, and it’s really cool to see your work on somebody’s wall! That really keeps me inspired.”.

I inquired as to any particular philosophy that guides his photography.

Nature is full of drama. Placement of the sun low and off-center accentuated the drama of the backlit clouds, and made the line of trees into a pleasing silhouette, thanks in part to the lack of exposure latitude of the slide film I used for the photo. Exposure was critical to the success of this image. In order to make sure the viewer saw the darkness of the clouds as I did, I underexposed by a full stop.

“I do photography because I enjoy it. First and foremost, it’s for me. When I’m feeling tense or stressed, I grab the camera, and go for a walk. I shoot for me, and that’s why I’ve been able to stick with it, care about it so much, and why I care about improving myself both as a photographer, and as a person.”

All artists have moments of non-inspiration. So, when Steve is down in the photographic dumps, what does he do to re-motivate himself?

“I use the camera, as a gadget, to refocus on photography. I pick it up, and just shoot. I once spent six months without shooting, so perhaps it’s my fault if Mr. Kodak’s stock went down. One day, I picked up the camera when the light was coming nicely through the blinds in my apartment and started shooting–just photos of the cat, sprawled out, and that got me started again.”

Does Steve have any words of inspiration, for upcoming photographers?

“Play. Burn lots of film, and have fun!”

By Michael Goldstein

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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