Prior to falling for photography, Jay Kazen (Adai Caddo) believed football was life.
Growing up in the tiny Texas town of Boerne, the sport was practically a
religion, but after a back injury sustained during his first year of college at West Point in 2008, Kazen’s entire trajectory changed. He’d grown up traveling to and dancing at powwows in Louisiana, and the anthropological and archaeological arts spoke to him as a means to connect with his Indigenous mother’s side of the family. After transferring to Texas State University to study these things, the art of photography came steamrolling into his life.
“For my first major project, I was camping for a month-and-a-half in West Texas,” Kazen recalls. “I’d go out hiking, I had the camera with me, and I just fell in love with the whole process—being able to walk through vast terrains of land; no internet, no phone, no radio, and at the end of the day, I’d bring [the photos] back, just to catalog things, and I became obsessed.”
He’d spend a year in law school and ultimately wrap his anthropology degree at University of Texas at San Antonio, and someplace in the shuffle, he found a cause and a life; as of this week, Kazen opens the Jay Kazen Gallery of Nature in Santa Fe.
Gallery director Andrea Vargas describes his work as “aggressive acts of love,” and his overall gestalt is that of stunningly beautiful nature, of sprawling landscapes and powerful animals. A three-year stint with livestock and
rodeo-based photography company Show Champions sent him across the globe some years ago, training other shooters, and while that wasn’t Kazen’s preferred milieu, he did catch the travel bug. As such, his shots represent much of the world.
“I’ve seen a volcano erupt in Hawaii,” he says, “I’ve hiked through Banff in
Canada, walked through Italy and Spain and I’ve seen the sun rise on the Golden Coast in Australia.”
All this from a diverted life plan. Plus, Kazen is completely self-taught, he says, a raw but compelling eye emerging over time from the starting point of academic anthropological cataloguing to emotionally resonant fine art. He is, in a word, a natural.
“I was always saying ‘Oh, it all looks so much better in person,’” Kazen says of the snapshots he’d bring home to show friends and family. “I was realizing I wasn’t doing it justice, and my early career was a lot of trial and error, just pointing a camera and pushing buttons, but as I became more skilled, I was able to put more into subjects, to allow people to feel the image.”
And it doesn’t stop at capturing pristine rolling fields or plains, a vivid sunrise or wild animals or sites from across the globe. Kazen considers himself an advocate and conservationist, and in addition to encapsulating the places he visits, the future for the animals in these places is always of concern.
“There’s this Steve Irwin quote about how people only care about things they fall in love with, and I think art has the ability to make people do that.”
“Seeing animals not being taken care of is disheartening,” he explains. “Animals will either tolerate you or they won’t, and I’ve had experiences where moose or grizzly bears will come up to me—sharing these moments with animals who don’t mind your presence is an incredible feeling. I want money to support the craft, of course, but I’m also doing it for a cause.”
This means much time in solitude, not counting the animals, but Kazen says that’s almost always preferable.
“I lived in Los Angeles for a year, and that’s as ‘city’ as it gets,” he explains, “but I think people can get lost in cities, too distracted; they can think the world starts and ends in the cities, but then they’re not seeing the big skies in Montana, or how huge Texas is, or how getting out into nature, in solitude, can expand your mind.”
As for whether or not he thinks his job will ever be done, if he’ll ever stop partnering with or donating to animal and nature causes, or if a time ever comes in the life of an artist when they can dust off their hands, set down their equipment and tell themselves they’ve done enough?
“I doubt it,” Kazen says, chuckling. “If you’re doing something that you love, you might as well love it with a fiery passion.”
Jay Kazen Gallery of Nature Grand Opening:
5-7 pm Friday August 23. Free.
Jay Kazen Gallery of Nature,
60 E. San Francisco St. Ste. 113,