Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists

Kevin Kelly

Bad Dreams

2003, Paperback, 107 pages
6 x 9 inches
Kevin Kelly, Pacifica Ltd.
Edition of 300
Out of print


I once took a class with the brilliant black and white photographer Minor White. He had us perform all kinds of wonderful exercises on our photographs. At the time of the workshop (in autumn of 1971), I was spending a great deal of my life trudging around upstate New York with a tripod and large format camera making slightly abstract black and white images. My favorite Minor White exercise was his request that we draw or sketch our own photographs. This non-intuitive idea tickled me, and I got out my pen and ink and eagerly started.

The first image I drew surprised me. What I seemed to see in my own close-up picture of the decaying paint on a rusty outdoor sign was a one-legged man in shorts chained to the night sky. I have absolutely no idea where that image came from.

I continued to sketch what I saw in other photographs I had recently done, and the resulting drawings continue to disturb me. The same guy in shorts kept showing up, entangled in all kinds of unresolved tensions. By the tenth one, I found that I could easily get into the state of mind, or rather state of no-mind, to start drawing. The emerging theme seemed to be “bad dreams.” I would probe myself for bad dreams, and record. By the eleventh image I found that I didn’t even need the photograph. I would just relax, try to “see” a bad dream, and then draw.

For several years afterward, long after I had stopped taking abstract black and white images, I would occasionally take out a sheet of typing paper, open my bottle of India ink and with a pen in hand slip into a “bad dream” trance to draw. It was like going to the movies because I felt I was watching someone else draw. Maybe this is what “channeling” feels like, I thought, because I don’t feel much responsibility for what comes out. I’m just passing them on as the delighted messenger.

I kept this pile of sketches in an envelope in a file cabinet and came across them while moving. I decided to reproduce the series here in this homemade book for several reasons. One, why not? The drawings were lonely and bored, and doing little good stuffed in darkness and kept from view. They are inconsequential doodles, but I’ve learned late in life that whatever marginal value they have can only be gathered by being shared. Two, the exercise of drawing photos is a good one to try and to disseminate. And Three, maybe others in the audience can tell me what these images mean. What don’t I see?

Four, and most importantly, I really enjoyed these and maybe others would enjoy seeing them too. I hope so.

Sample Pages