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Vanity Fair: Discovering Kali, Southern California’s Hidden Photographic Visionary

A few years back, two friends, the photographer Len Prince and the art director Sam Shahid, told me they had discovered a lost archive of photography. It was the work of Joan Archibald, who died in 2019, and had lived the life of a glamorous Malibu party girl in the ’60s and then of an affluent lawyer’s wife dividing her time between the Pacific Palisades and Palm Springs. Unlike most of the ladies of West Los Angeles, Archibald had an undercover artistic identity. Around 1964, she adopted the name Kali and, for the better part of 50 years, produced a huge body of photographic work under that name. Oddly, though she bothered to copyright the terms “Kali Kolor” and “Artography,” Kali only showed her work once, in the early 1970s, in a gallery in Monterey. (Ansel Adams was said to have popped in and admired the work). 

Kali’s painterly, hand-colored process from this early period—she dyed prints in her Palm Springs swimming pool and let sand and leaves stick to them, creating a psychedelic effect—embodies the hybrid concept of Artography. Later on, when Polaroid film became the rage, she added a new step to her process. She would copy the swimming-pool-processed prints in slide form, then project them with an enlarger and shoot them with a Polaroid camera. 

A few years before Archibald’s death, at 87, her daughter, Susan Archibald, made the big discovery: a series of white American Tourister suitcases crammed full of prints and negatives, almost all of them never seen before. Prince, who had been married to Susan Archibald, says he was “astonished, absolutely floored, by the power and coherence of [this] unseen body of work.” There is a powerful artistic eye, “a kind of point of view on the Southern California of the era that I’d never seen before,” he adds. He and Shahid began to collaborate on a book to introduce Kali’s lost work to the world. The result is a four-volume box set, Kali, out this month from PowerHouse books, for which I have written an introductory monograph. The epic collection is further divided into volumes of Portraits and Landscapes, Polaroids, and, finally, Outer Space. The later work of Kali focuses on UFO sightings, mostly in her backyard, photographed through a series of closed-circuit security camera monitors. In its way, Outer Space is the most powerful of these three volumes. The photos of the alien orbs (not dissimilar from the flying Tic Tacs the U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing over the open seas) are accompanied by Archibald’s hypergraphic illustrated journals, luxuriously printed on vellum, and overlaid on the photos. It’s like a hybrid of Joan Didion and Vivian Maier, with a nod to Leonardo Da Vinci. 

As I write in my introduction, “Since the discovery of the photographs of Vivian Maier, and the posthumous publication and celebration of her work, the thrilling prospect of finding other, unknown or forgotten masters of photography has more than ever been in the back of many an aesthete’s mind. The particular excitement derives from the utter improbability that there could be complete archives of unsung masters out there, either in attics or cupboards of hoarder houses, or, as was the case with Maier, in a neglected storage unit whose contents were put up for auction.” 

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