“The best photographers, the best artists do it alone.” -Kali Archibald ”
Kali is the name that Joan Marie Archibald took for herself in 1962. It came after she had divorced her musician husband Bob Archibald and made a cross-country drive to Malibu, California in her Studebaker.
She was attractive and used it to become part of the Malibu party scene, paling around with Richard Chamberlin and becoming a well-known part of the beach parties there. At one point Frank Sinatra wanted to date her but she wanted “nothing to do with him,” according to her daughter Susan (Archibald) Oddo.
Her mother told her that Malibu was no place to raise two children and suggested Palm Springs. Joan Archibald to the advice and bought a house that had been owned by Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee. It was there that she remade herself from Joan into Kali and began her exploration of photography.
The bathtub and the pool
Kali bought the house so her children could visit her. Sometimes she had them with her for the summer. Otherwise, she explained, “An artist, needs to live alone to create.”
Her muse was her daughter, Susan who was dressed up as characters Kali invented (opening photo, top row, second image from left). Another girl who became the very well-known photographer, Cindy Sherman, was a model for Kali’s experimental photographs (opening photo, top row, first image).
Kali used her bathroom’s roman-sized bathtub to develop her photos. Once her prints were processed but still wet, she threw them into her swimming pool for the finishing touches. She added colors, buckets of dye and paints, then got into the pool herself to swirl the prints in the water along with leaves and bugs. When a print had become colorized to her satisfaction, she’d toss it onto the deck to dry in the desert sun. This part of her process was exhausting. Often she would collapse after the hours she spent in the pool finishing her photographs.
Susan’s job besides that of model was to gather the dried prints. No one ever saw the work until now (opening photo, top row, last image and bottom row, first three images).
“She’s a Californian Vivian Maier.”Matt Tyrnauer
Kali described her work as artography, a word she created and used “Artographer” as her title instead of photographer. She also worked with Polaroid cameras to make other one-of-a-kind artographs (opening photo, bottom row, last image).
Over the decades, Kali bunkered herself in her house. She added several security cameras that were connected to monitors that she watched like most people binge Netflix. She obsessed over the images she saw on the screens. She took notes of what she was watching — rain, moths, leaves swaying in the wind and became convinced that these nighttime events were actually UFOs. She photographed the mysterious encounters shown on her security cameras.
Kali stayed in her home for over three years fearing abduction or other harm from her nightly otherworldly visitors (opening photo, top row, third image from left). She was alienated from her family. No one knew what had happened to her.
While Kali became more and more isolated and reclusive, Susan moved away, married, then divorced photographer Len Prince. One day, Susan got a call from the hospital. She got back together with Kali who was by then suffering from dementia.
Susan cleaned out Kali’s home and during that process came upon lockers filled with the prints she had gathered from the pool deck so many years before. When opened them and saw the work she had touched from so long ago, she had a stroke.
Over the next two years, Len Prince, Susan’s ex-husband organized and archived the huge number of works created by the outrageously creative woman who called herself Kali. Writing in Museé Magazine, Prince says, “Kali was a prolific pioneer of this (more experimental) alternative photography and her vibrant images marry a bohemian sensuality indicative of the time period and her lifestyle with a more emotional spontaneity.”
The work is on exhibit through December 4, 2021, at the Staley Wise Gallery in New York City.
Kali Ltd. Ed.
Len Prince, Matt Tyrnaur and Brian Wallis have produced a four-volume set of hardcover books of Kali’s work. The titles of the edition are “Kali: An Introduction,” “Portraits and Landscapes,” “Polaroids” and “Outer Space.” The $175.00 set of books will be released on October 26, 2021, and are available on Amazon as a pre-order.
Find other inspirational photographers in On Photography.