A circuitous path brought Ken Murphy to photography as a career, and though he’s got a photographer’s eye, he’s never looked back.
– by Maurice Singleton
Photographer Ken Murphy fills his coffee table books with “perfect” photographs. These photographs are attention-grabbing and thought-provoking, often telling layered stories about the subject, whether it’s a sunrise on the coast, a cowboy riding his horse in a parade, William Faulkner’s typewriter, or B.B. King stroking his guitar at a concert in Oxford.
His photography invites you to see life through the lens of his camera as you explore the photograph. “He captures the essence of this community, the Coast, and the entire state,” said retired bank officer Jeannie Deen, who says she has all his coffee table books.
Some of Murphy’s most prized photos are featured in Mississippi: Photographs by Ken Murphy, including a picture of the Washington Street pier in Bay St. Louis, with a beautiful rainbow arc in the background. Another is of B.B. King planting a kiss on the face of Bobby “Blue” Bland on the latter’s birthday.
“I think I’m the only person that has that picture,” said Murphy. “I love this picture. There may have been some phone camera shots from the audience, but I believe that I was the only professional there.
“It means that I froze a moment in history that nobody else did exactly like that,” Murphy explained. “B.B. and Bobby played together for maybe fifty years. To me, it was just two old friends having fun on the stage who were great musicians, whom I admire for their art. That’s the decisive moment that I talk about.”
The most interesting thing about Murphy’s career is the path he’s taken toward photography. While stationed in the U.S. Army in Germany in 1976, he lost his right index finger during the final day of a tank gun simulator exercise. After losing his trigger finger and being unable to serve in a combat division, he was reassigned to a hobby shop in Missouri. His first assignment was in a woodworking shop, which Murphy said was “where he was destined to lose more fingers.”
A photo lab position opened, and as the low man on the totem pole, Murphy was assigned to manage it. It was a position, he said, that no one else wanted. Murphy learned to enjoy working in the photo lab, and over three years, he taught himself how to take pictures and develop film.
In XXXX, Murphy took a landscape photo of a corn shed in the fog with the Missouri Mountains in the background and entered it in a photo contest. That photo would earn him third place Army-wide, and he was awarded a $75 savings bond. At that point, he had been bitten by the photography bug, and his career as a photographic artist took root.
After his career in the Army ended, he moved to Arizona, where he planned to study photojournalism at Arizona State University. The cost of out-of-state tuition was prohibitive, and the weather was more than he cared to deal with.
“It was so hot and miserable,” Murphy recalled. “As a guy from the south – the coast – put in a desert of concrete and cactus, I wanted out. I was literally running around my car when I was leaving to gas up. That’s how bad I wanted to get out of there.”
Murphy headed to Tacoma, Washington, where his brother, Timmy, was stationed. He worked at a camera store in Tacoma for almost a year before he packed up and returned to Bay St. Louis, where he would open Dan B’s Restaurant with his mother in 1983.
In 1986, he fully committed to pursuing his passion and headed to New York to study photography. After completing his degree, he returned to the area, working as a photographer’s assistant in New Orleans while picking up freelance jobs on the side.
In the early 1990s, Ken returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to work full-time as a photographer for Coast Magazine. When the magazine ceased its publishing enterprise, Murphy found himself searching for a way to continue to pursue his art, and the idea of producing a coffee table book emerged.
After much research, Ken developed his first coffee table book, and 5,000 copies were printed and sold out. Many of those books were lost when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, so 7,000 additional copies were printed.
Murphy said he is fortunate to focus his art on South Mississippi, a place he truly loves.
“This is more a labor of love; it’s not so much a way to get rich,” said Murphy. “If I wanted to get rich, I would have left South Mississippi and gone somewhere else. Richness is not always about money. I get to do what I love in a low-key environment where I’m not worried about danger. The water is beautiful; we’ve got fishing; we’ve got beautiful birds. I like the water and the beaches and all that.”
Murphy has produced four more coffee table books and is working on releasing two new books later this year. He says his work is more refined: “I’m a better photographer now than back then. I was okay back then, but I’m much better now. I refined my eye.”
It’s difficult to study the photographs in the first five books and imagine them “better.” However, it is intriguing to imagine what’s coming next from Murphy as we contemplate his “refined eye.” Additional details about Murphy’s new books will be added and shared when available.
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