David Lykes Keenan: Witnessing Life through Photography

David Lykes Keenan’s story is one of reinvention, dedication and finding a voice in photography. After a successful career as a computer engineer and software designer, David rediscovered his long lost interest in photography at the age of 52 and began posting a Picture a Week project to his website. Seven and half years and 390 photographs later, David is now focused full time on his photography, splitting his time between Austin, Texas and Brooklyn, New York. His work has gained the support of many noted photographers and he’s working toward the publication of his first monograph, FAIR WITNESS with a Kickstarter campagin.

Tom A. Smith, Photographer and Manager of the Leica Akademie in North America, recently sat down with David to find out more.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I describe myself as a classic street photographer. Classic in the sense that I use a Leica and I photograph almost exclusively in black-and-white. I am definitely the kind of photographer that takes pictures as opposed to one that makes pictures. My attempts at the latter to date have been pretty lame.

I like to think that my best pictures suggest little stories to the viewer. Almost all of my pictures have people in them. Static scenes — landscapes and still life, either urban or scenic — I usually find completely uninteresting.

Q: After 30 years as a software designer and business owner, how did you rediscover your love of photography?

A: I remember seeing an ad for the Leica Digilux 2 camera somewhere and it strongly reminded me of the M3 that my grandfather had and let me use when I was a teenager. I had only a casual curiosity in the camera, though. It wasn’t like I felt compelled to run out to the camera shop and buy one.

One weekend a friend was in town. He mentioned that he was in the market for a new camera and asked if I wanted to go to the camera shop to help him pick one out. We found him a Nikon DSLR — but I also asked to see the Digilux 2 while we were there. I left with one that I purchased on impulse.

From that day on, my interest in photography began to flood back. Immediately, I began to wander around Austin with my new Leica looking for photographs. At the time, I was totally ignorant of what it meant to be a street photographer. I was just doing what came naturally. I can still remember a few of the pictures I took back then. And, GASP, they were in color!

Q: You are a self-described loner, but with a camera in your hand you are able to connect with the world around you. Can you explain this more?

A: Being a loner for my entire life is something of an understatement. For personal reasons, for many decades it was difficult for me to get close to people, to let my guard down, and to experience intimacy. I’ve come a long way but still many vestiges of being a loner remains.

To say that I have been hiding behind a camera, to some extent, during much of my life is a statement of fact.

My camera was my date to my high school prom. Literally! I was there only because of my camera and an assignment to photograph the event for the yearbook. My camera got me into many sporting events. It gave me access to witness many things that I would have missed otherwise.

This is the reason that I find the statement “I am a fair witness … not a participant” from Robert Heinlein’s book “Stranger in a Strange Land” so profound, and why I named my first photography book “FAIR WITNESS.”

More recently, my camera and my desire to photograph have resulted in my traveling more than I have ever before. It freed me from the day-to-day grind of an office job. It is so much easier to talk to people now about being a photographer than it ever was when I was a software developer. Everyone can relate to a photograph; few can relate to an elegant C++ algorithm.

Having a camera over my shoulder or having it sitting on the table at a coffee shop, is literally an invitation for human interaction. I know that this is going to sound odd, but after three decades of my most intimate relationships being with machines, this has been a wonderful development.

Q: Since 2007 you have posted a Picture a Week (PAW) to your website as part of your on-going project. How has working on this project impacted your photography?

A: I think my PAW has been the single largest factor in my being interviewed for the Leica blog, for having my book “FAIR WITNESS,” for having the support and respect of some of the biggest names in photography today.

My early PAW pictures are nothing to write home about. The very first one was a muddy color picture of my sister taking a horseback riding lesson. That was in the first week of January 2007.

Since then, I have not missed a single week. As time went on, I issued myself a challenge that this week’s PAW had to be a better picture than the one before. Each week, I reviewed the pictures in my archive (not necessarily ones I had taken the previous week) with the intention of picking one to share with the world. These were self-imposed editing sessions with the specific goal of picking one good photograph.

I cannot understate the value of the feedback I received from the audience for my PAW which consisted mostly of friends on an email list and members of a few internet forums, and then increasingly an audience on Facebook. I learned from this feedback (or lack of it) which pictures resonated with people.

The progression of my work appearing in the PAW galleries is definitely what brought Eli Reed knocking on my virtual door and this led directly to FAIR WITNESS. In fact, most of the pictures in the book were a PAW.

I think that without a doubt my religious attention to those PAW galleries incrementally made me a better and better photographer. This exercise helped me learn one of the hardest things for just about any photographer — how to edit your work.

Q What drives you to make pictures?

A: I guess, I take pictures because I just have to. I keep up with the PAW now partially because it seems like I’ve always done it and I’m afraid what might happen if I didn’t. I mean, would I stop taking pictures? No, I like the motivation and structure that the PAW imposes.

But, as you might imagine, the self-imposed challenge to have this week’s PAW better than last week’s keeps raising the bar. That better picture is increasingly difficult to find.

Q: From 2008 to 2012 you were the founder and president of the Austin Center of Photography. During this time you had the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the icons of photography. Can you share a story or two from this experience and what affect it had on your photography?

A: The signature program at ACP was the Icons of Photography series. Four times a year, we would invite a well-known photographer to come to town and speak about their work and career. Our first Icon was Mary Ellen Mark. Others included Alec Soth, Bruce Davidson, Maggie Steber, Jerry Uelsmann, Maggie Taylor, Abelardo Morell, and many others. It was really cool to be able to meet so many wonderful photographers.

From the beginning, I hoped to attract my favorite photographer and photographic hero, Elliott Erwitt, to Austin. I took it upon myself to make it happen. The process began with a drive to Houston to attend Elliott’s gallery opening. I stood in the receiving line with a book for him to sign, and in my moment, I introduced myself and ACP and planted a seed. It would take several more months, a vote of confidence from Mary Ellen Mark, and a personal pitch made in his NYC studio before he agreed. Elliott would be ACP’s third Icon of Photography in the fall of 2009.

As was our practice, whoever was the Icon’s champion played the role of host and guide in Austin during their visit. So I had pretty much a four-day weekend with Elliott when he was in Austin. I found him to be charming and personally, so much like his best known and humorous photographs might suggest him to be. Elliott is not a man who takes himself too seriously.

Nothing revealed this more than a visit to the Austin Museum of Art one afternoon as we strolled down Congress Avenue with our Leica cameras.

At AMOA, after paying the entry fee, we were given stickers to place on our shirts to show that we were paid visitors of good standing. I dutifully applied mine to my chest but, as I watched, Elliott slapped his onto his forehead in what was a silly act of defiance or something on his part. I said, “Elliott, stop, hold still, I’ve got to get a picture of this!”

A print of that picture now hangs in my apartment, I’m looking at it now, and it became my first photograph in a museum collection as AMOA became aware of it and asked for print. This light-hearted moment was typical of how I experienced Elliott and absolutely solidified his standing as my hero. I’m happy to be able to say that Elliott and I remain friendly to this day.

Q: Tell us more about your book project, “FAIR WITNESS.”

A: Sure. It’s been the focus of my photographic life now for some three years. I just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication by the Italian publisher Damiani.

The idea for the book came to me at the insistence of another icon of photography, Eli Reed. Eli, who is member of Magnum Photos, happens to live in Austin and he had been following my PAW. We had become acquainted through ACP but I wasn’t aware that my photography was on his radar. Eli mentored me, assisted me in early edits, introduced me to the first publisher I spoke with, and has generally encouraged me.

Momentum has slowly been building and with a go-or-no-go deadline looming from Damiani in order to have the book ready in time for their Spring 2015 catalog, I launched the Kickstarter campaign just in the nick of time.

Now, I’m on pins and needles watching the progress of the campaign. I feel like I laid a strong foundation in building social media connections to promote the campaign, something that I worked on for almost a year. And I have support from many well-known people and organizations — but there are no guarantees.

Whatever happens, I’m very proud of “FAIR WITNESS” and it already has something of a life of its own. Of course, I’d love to see it on the Damiani website and know that someone in a bookstore in Rome, or wherever, might be able to pick it up one day.

Q: Would you care to leave any last words of wisdom for our readers?

A: I would like to thank all of the people who have encouraged and believed in my photography and to all the supporters of “FAIR WITNESS” so far.

I like to close interviews with the following semi-serious tidbits of wisdom…

  • Always carry a camera; your phone doesn’t count.
  • Consider investing in one camera, one lens for a year.
  • Find and slowly absorb books by photographers you admire.
  • Make sure that you’re not one of those bozos who walk around with the lens hood mounted backwards.
  • Avoid telephoto lenses.
  • Last but not least, when you use your digital camera, TURN OFF the chimping LCD screen and forget it is there. The delete button is not your friend. Review your pictures at the end of the day – not when you might miss the next picture.

Now, go forth and photograph, y’all.

Thank you for your time, David!

- Leica Internet Team

Discover more about David on his website. Learn more about his Kickstarter campaign here.