This past October I participated in the portfolio review at the PDN PhotoPlus Expo in New York. Over the course of two days, I met individually with 17 photographers and saw a range of work covering adventure and travel, fine art, documentary photography, and more, all in less than 48 hours.
Kevin Kunstadt’s work stood out to me in particular. He showed pictures from a personal project on the Iowa Thunderstorm—a small fireworks convention in Mason City, Iowa. I was drawn to the cinematic quality of his images and how he captured both the eye-grabbing pyrotechnic spectacles and the more subtle moments illustrating the curious characters of the convention-goers themselves.
I asked Kevin a few questions about his project for Proof. Our conversation is below. —Ben Fitch, associate photo editor, National Geographic Traveler
BEN FITCH: What first interested you about this story?
KEVIN KUNSTADT: I came across a listing for “Pyrotechnics Guild International, Annual Convention, Mason City, Iowa,” in a magazine. I hadn’t heard of it, but was intrigued. I found a few images of prior conventions, and I was pretty much hooked. It just looked insane!
At the time, I had been working on a project photographing airplanes at night. So from a purely technical standpoint, it was a natural progression to go from shooting airplanes at night to [shooting] fireworks at night.
BEN: Tell me a bit about Thunderstorm itself. What makes it interesting to you?
KEVIN: I think it is a combination of a few different things. There’s the aspect of the spectacle—obviously that’s what many people enjoy about fireworks, and I wouldn’t exclude myself from that group. The Iowa Thunderstorm is spectacle at a very high level and you can’t help but enjoy it.
Beyond that, there are a lot of parallels between photography and pyrotechnics, and it seems natural to me to use one to document the other.
The explosive chemical reaction (pyro) is an audio/visual manifestation of a moment of transformation—of chemical elements turning into light and sound and smoke and heat. It’s beautifully cyclical that this moment of transformation is also the moment that I am triggering the camera shutter and initiating another chemical transformation—that of light onto the film emulsion.
BEN: Was it hard to gain access to any of the events?
KEVIN: In order to gain access to the convention I had to become a member of the Pyrotechnics Guild (and pay the dues). And I signed a safety waiver. After that it was up to me in terms of how close I could get. There were also a few areas cordoned off that I could not bring an electronic flash into, due to the risks of igniting highly flammable materials.
BEN: Why did you choose to photograph this project in film rather than digitally?
KEVIN: I use film for a lot of my personal projects because it forces me to work in a more limited and focused way. For this project I wanted the ability to shoot long exposures in low light, and to shoot multiple exposures on the same plate. In my experience, film is still preferable in these kinds of situations, as many CCD/CMOS sensors can heat up over the course of a long exposure and introduce noise.
BEN: You’ve often made the fireworks a background element to a quieter scene, such as the backyard of a home or a cornfield. Did you scout these locations in advance, or were you moving throughout the night making images as you saw them?
KEVIN: It was a mix of both. It was predominantly cornfields in every direction outside of the convention grounds, so I was really excited to find these moments where there was something like the “perfect” suburban housing development with a glowing American flag in the window that I could use as a foreground element to frame fireworks rockets behind it. Most of the larger displays were scheduled, so I could search for angles and compositions that I could use later on. I used a lot of my time during the day to do this before it got dark.
BEN: How do the sporadic lighting conditions involved with photographing fireworks impact your process?
KEVIN: They were really challenging! It was not just the lighting, but sporadic shock waves from some of the larger shells would actually shake my whole camera. The first time that that happened I was terrified. I developed a few techniques that worked pretty well, often involving exposing the foreground and the background of a picture separately to compensate for the drastically different intensities of light.
That said, there was definitely an element of chance involved, and I enjoyed that. Since I was photographing on film I had no idea what many of the negatives had recorded until I developed them. You could say the moment of development was just as exciting as the moment of capture, in that both were surprising.
BEN: The juxtaposition between this rural Iowa town and the over-the-top elaborate fireworks display is especially interesting. Is this project for you more about the fireworks themselves, or the people and town that host the event? Or are they equally balanced?
KEVIN: Yes, absolutely! I love these juxtapositions and I was definitely searching them out. The location in the pictures are often distinctly American, or at least have a certain air of Americana about them: pickup trucks, the fairground, cornfields, tract housing, etc. You might say the fireworks are a device that allow me to look at these other more mundane (and often photographically cliché) landscapes in a literally new light.