Who is Kit Courter?
Not many people know, since Kit generally keeps a low profile. He doesn't much like the trappings that come with fame, and would rather just have fun with art on his own terms. Anything he has done here on this web site comes from that play. He would not be doing any of this if it were not fun. He has said more than once that he finds big artist egos to be a tremendous bore.
Kit is just over a half-century old, and is basically a Californian, though like many mid-century Californians he was actually born somewhere else and was imported to the state at a very young age. He has lived around Los Angles, San Francisco, and San Diego most of his life, with brief sojourns to places like Chico, Seattle, Denver, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. His father was an engineer, and his mother wanted to be one before pre-war sexism drove her into education instead. He has three much older sisters and one slightly older brother, is married and has two pre-teen children. He has a great day job as a Chief Engineer in the Thermal Engineering Department of the Boeing Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, California. He lives with his family just down the coast a bit in a mid-century tract home in the City of Torrance. It is a comfortable middle-class life with room for lots of adventure. He says the biggest reason that he arrived there is that one day in 1977 he took the advice offered to him by the head of the music department at California State University, Chico. On that day, he wanted to switch from engineering to music after failing a math class for the second time. The advice was to stick with engineering, and to do art at the amateur level to free the art from the burden of having to pay the bills. Thus the art becomes pure food for the soul. This is truly freedom, especially when backed up by a creative day job like aerospace engineering. That is the best advice he has ever had. He even stayed with it when two art professors at UC San Diego tried to convince him to switch to an Art major after seeing a kinetic sculpture Kit made for an art class the year before he graduated. Such suggestions come his way from time to time, but engineering continues to pay the bills. In Kit's life, art is purely food for the soul.
Kit got into photography by moonlight starting in 1976. It actually started a few years before that, but who's counting? While in high school, Kit's family lived on what was then the edge of the San Diego urban area. He and his brother got to borrow the family car for monthly trips to the Public Library in downtown San Diego. They preferred to do this at night during a full moon, when they would take a round-about route home down a long dirt road that wandered through the coastal plane, usually with the car lights turned off. Moonlight was a place where great things happened. Frequent camping trips were also planned for good moonlight. The beauty of moonlight captured his soul. So back to 1976: one moonlit evening on the way to a camping trip in the desert, Kit and his brother decided to try taking a moonlight photo of a big highway bridge in the Laguna Mountains using an old Kodak Senior 620 camera belonging to their father. They pulled the car over, set up the camera, and shot a whole role of Verichrome Pan using exposure times that were just random guesses. When the film came back from the processor, it was mostly just clear film base, but it was a start.
Over the years since then, Kit has played around with various cameras and films, keeping notes on what worked and what didn't. The first time he got the exposure correct was with a photo of his second-hand Volkswagen Squareback at a viewpoint in the Laguna Mountains taken in December 1978. After graduating from University of California, San Diego in 1981, he studied black and white darkroom techniques, and studied photojournalism at San Diego City College at night. He studied the work of Minor White, Edward Weston and his son Brett, and the technique of Ansel Adams. Besides working in his black-and-white home darkroom on a number of natural and devolutionist photography themes, he continued trying to figure out how to capture the feeling of ambient night. By 1986 he had developed a model of moonlight brightness that helped get consistently good results. That came in handy when he ended up spending months at a time working away from home on satellite tests at various government-run test facilities, and needed something to do after work. This led to quite a few pictures from the areas around the San Francisco Bay area, Denver, and Seattle. In the late 1980s a friend tried to interest him in flash painting using colored gels, a technique that is thought of in some circles as "night photography". But painting the night in theatrical lighting is not the same as depicting "the feeling of ambient night", which is what Kit tries to do. There are several schools of creative, expressive night photography, but of all the photographers that work in the night, few seem to share Kit's appreciation of pure moonlight. He appears somewhat unique in that way.
By the year 2002, Kit has worked out a much more detailed physical model of how moonlight brightness varies over time and location. This model exists on a laptop computer as a Visual Basic module behind a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The math behind it is described in a paper that has been published with limited distribution, and is also available on his website. He isn't much interested in making the computer model more widely available since that seems too much like work. Remember he is doing all this for fun since he already has a high stress day job.
Kit likes to work in 4x5 using his Zone VI Studios field camera, but admits that the ease of digital photography is too much like a bad habit. The advent of digital photography has made night photography much easier. He has used 35mm films in the past such as Fuji 400D, Fuji Provia 100 and 400, Neopan, Kodak Tri-X and 160T tungsten film. He developed a method to test films for reciprocity failure after finding most manufactures didn't bother to test beyond a few seconds of exposure. He has published both the method of testing and the results on his web site.
Kit started LunarLight Photography and developed the web site to share the results of his efforts with people of similar mind. Occasionally someone contacts him with a request to buy an image or use it in a book or a magazine. He usually honors such requests, so his work has been published here and there. He has been ripped off a couple of times, his work turning up in various places without permission. But since it is just for fun, he doesn't worry much about it.
Photography is not the only art Kit works in. He has played guitar since 1974, and prefers to finger pick in folk, jazz and classical styles. He loves Flamenco and Irish ballads as well. He can often be found hanging out on his front porch on a sunny evening after work practicing jazz progressions or some composition of his own. He has written poetry since junior high school, and has three books of poems to show for the effort, one of which was self-published. He has considered publishing that book more broadly, but once again that just seemed like too much trouble. Kit also reads a lot of poetry, is a big fan of Robert Pinsky, and counts William Carlos Williams, Karl Shapiro, Edwin Muir and Marianne Moore among his favorite poets. He keeps trying to read W.S. Merwin but finds him baffling, often switching to W.H. Auden for a breath of fresh air. There was a time when he read a lot of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, and for a few years there he was more-or-less immersed in Jack Kerouac. One thing these last three guys did for Kit was to give him a serious appreciation for Zen philosophy. They pretty much ruined his mother's efforts to turn him into a good Lutheran. Kit also reads a lot of philosophy, and really gets into Joseph Campbell. He has read The Bible several times, The Koran once, and The Book of Mormon twice, and is fascinated by the origins of religions. He tends to read Tolkien's trilogy at least once a year, and thinks Beowulf a real treat. He also reads a lot of engineering history, and thinks forensic engineers like Henry Petroski have the best job in the world. If it isn't obvious, Kit loves to think, and has found that applying your mind only makes you smarter and more mentally nimble. He is also a big believer in exercising the whole mind, since the best engineering is in fact an intuitive art.
Kit, like many other guys, is fascinated by big machines. Trains are especially interesting. Kit has done a number of photo studies on railroad themes, and is a regular attendee of the annual Winterail Railroad Photography Exhibition held in Stockton, California, as well as other railroad photography shows. He has built two digital multi-media productions, one featuring his railroad night photography for the Winterail show in 2006, the other for the GorgeRail show in 2007. Two additional multimedia projects are in work for future shows. He prefers to write and perform the music for these shows himself, which makes them very unusual for such forums.
Kit figures he has about another 25 years of productive play ahead of him. If none of this stuff outlives him, that is just fine. After all, it is all just for fun. It is interesting how much that attitude galls some people. But he responds: so what if our works don't outlive us. Some day the earth will be burnt to a crisp as the sun's atmosphere expands into Red Giant phase, and mankind will perish. What of the works of man then? Why trouble yourself with such unnecessary things as egotistical wish to live beyond an appointed span of years? It is so much nicer to just have fun while you can and sow good will among those around you. You really can't take it with you once oblivion takes you away. Becoming at peace with this notion is not easy, but the rewards are indeed great. It helps you have more fun with your art, for instance.
You can contact Kit by email here. He often corresponds with other photographers, and loves a good philosophical debate. Don't try to convert him to your religion, though, since he is quite happy with his own.
- Written for Kit by Y.K., August 2007 -
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This page last updated: August 14, 2007