By Pygmalion Karatzas
Michael Kenna is widely considered to be one of the masters of contemporary fine art photography. Kenna was born in 1953 in Widnes, England. Despite aspiring to become a Catholic priest, Kenna’s passion for art led him to study at the Banbury School of Art and the London College of Printing. He went on to work as a commercial photographer for several years before moving to the US in the 1980’s. Here, he worked with renowned photographer Ruth Bernhard while pursuing his own photographic career. He has lived in the US ever since.
Kenna’s work has been shown in numerous galleries and museum exhibitions in Asia, Australia, Europe and USA, most notably the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Patrimoine Photographique in Paris. In 2000, the Ministry of Culture in France awarded Kenna with the Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. Other prestigious awards include the Imogen Cunningham Award (1981), Art in Public Buildings Award (1987), Institute for Aesthetic Development Award (1989), Golden Saffron Award (1996), Honorary Master of Arts Brooks Institute (2003).
Kenna has published 47 books that span three decades of photographic journeys from over 30 countries around the world. His has built up an impressive list of clients that include the Bank of America, British Rail, Moet and Chandon and many others.
He approaches landscape photography with a conscious focus on the relationship between places and the stories and traces people leave on them. His uncompromising vision is rooted in the craftmanship of printing, the alchemy of the darkroom, and the minimalist aesthetic. With his extensive revisits to locations and the dialogue between the camera and his vision, the photographic act becomes a holistic process of connecting with the world.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Mr. Kenna thank you for accepting the invitation to share and discuss some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us about your background and how you got involved with photography?
Michael Kenna: I am delighted to be interviewed by arcspace. I was born and brought up in what might be described as a poor, working class family in Widnes, an industrial town near Liverpool in England. Childhood experiences obviously have a great influence on one’s life and as a boy, even though I had five siblings, I was quite solitary, content for the most part with making up my own adventures and acting them out in the local parks and streets. I liked to wander around in train stations and factories, rugby grounds and canal towpaths, and empty churches and grave yards – all locations that I would later find interesting to photograph. Even though I did not use a camera at the time, I suspect this period was ultimately more influential on my vision than the time I later spent in art and photography schools.
During these young years I had been an altar boy at my local Catholic church of St Bede’s and I really loved to be part of the great rituals of the church, assisting the priest at baptisms, funerals, weddings and the Latin mass. When I was almost eleven years old I went to a Catholic seminary boarding school, to study to become a priest. I would stay there for seven years. It taught me many important things, and there were certain aspects of this religious upbringing that I believe also strongly influenced my later work: discipline, silence, meditation and a sense that something can be unseen, yet still present. In retrospect, the education was excellent, although the “career guidance” was not very strong.
Fortunately, I seemed to be good at drawing and painting, so, following these interests, I went on to study at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire. I then specialized in photography at the London College of Printing. I was trained as a commercial photographer. I learnt about photojournalism, fashion photography, sports photography, still-live photography, architectural photography, all sorts of photography with many different cameras and formats. When I graduated, I was supposed to be able to survive in the competitive commercial photography world. Running parallel to this, I was also photographing the landscape. This was very much my own passion and hobby – I had no idea that I could and would eventually make a living in this area.
After graduation, I worked commercially as a photography assistant and printer, and in a minor way as a photographer. I moved to the USA where I was extremely fortunate to find work as photographic printmaker for the well known photographer, Ruth Bernhard. Slowly, I began to have my own work represented by galleries. Over the years, prints began to sell, exhibitions were held, publications happened. It was a slow process but I gradually moved away from printing and commercial work, and established myself in the “art scene.” I am still photographing and enjoying every second. I consider myself extremely fortunate.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
MK: It is not easy for me to define exactly what I photograph because my subject matter changes depending on my mood, stage of life and what I find. Industry, trees, seafronts, and bridges all feature prominently. I look for what is interesting to me out there in the three dimensional world and then translate or interpret it so that it becomes visually pleasing in a two dimensional photographic print. I search for subject matter with visual patterns, interesting abstractions and graphic compositions. The essence of the image often involves the basic juxtaposition of our human made structures with the more fluid and organic elements of the landscape. I enjoy places that have mystery and atmosphere, perhaps a patina of age, a suggestion rather than a description, a question or two. I look for memories, traces, evidence of the human interaction with the landscape. Sometimes I photograph pure nature, sometimes urban structures.
I like what Garry Winogrand, a fascinating photographer, once wrote about “…photographing to see what something looks like photographed”. I don’t do any elaborate preparation before I go to a location. Essentially I walk, explore and photograph. I never know whether I will be there minutes, hours or days. I feel photographing is akin to meeting a person and beginning a conversation. How does one know ahead of time where that will lead, what the subject matter will be, how intimate it will become, how long the potential relationship will last? Certainly, a sense of curiosity and a willingness to have patience and allow a subject matter to reveal itself, are important elements in this process. There have been many occasions when interesting images have appeared from what I had considered uninteresting places. The reverse has been equally true and relevant. One needs to fully accept that surprises sometimes happen and control over the outcome is not always necessary or even desirable.
PK: What has influenced your photographic work and in what ways have they affected your approach?
MK: I come out of a European tradition and my photographic masters were Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt, Mario Giacomelli and Josef Sudek, amongst others. These photographic giants, along with the Americans: Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernhard, Alfred Steiglitz, have influenced me greatly. I suppose they are all romantics at heart, particularly the Europeans. They’re all concerned with photographing a feeling as much as documenting external reality.
Eugene Atget inspired me to photograph the Le Notre Gardens in and around Paris. His dedication to photographing Paris all his life taught me that nothing is ever the same and the same subject matter can be photographed in many different ways and in different conditions.
Bill Brandt took me back to the industrial towns in the North West of England. He showed me that beauty is very much in the mind of the beholder and I would go on to photograph power stations and factory interiors. His sense of drama, even melodrama, his use of atmosphere, his willingness to completely change reality into an abstract and graphic print, all helped my own vision. He also taught me the value of empty space in a print.
Mario Giacomelli’s sense of powerful two dimensional black and white abstraction and design also profoundly affected me. Here was somebody who would use a thick marking pen to fill in black lines on the photographic print. I loved his liberation from the traditional “fine art photographic print.”
Josef Sudek taught me that light can emanate from within the subject matter rather than only illuminate the exterior. His images reminded me of infra red studies. His commitment to photograph only Prague was also instructive. With all these photographers I actively searched out places where they had photographed, their camera angles and techniques.
PK: On the opposite end of this spectrum, I have read many contemporary photographers in the long exposure / fine art genre citing your work as one of their main inspirations. How do you feel about your influence on the genre and fellow photographers?
MK: I sincerely believe it is normal and healthy to study the work of other artists, and even imitate other’s efforts as a means to explore one’s personal vision. It has been like this throughout history in all mediums of creative expression. One advances by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The perspective becomes a lot clearer from such high ground. I have already mentioned that on my own journey, I have actively tried to see through the eyes of many well known photographers. I have gone to places where they have photographed and have consciously emulated their style and subject matter. Other artists, in many mediums, have also greatly helped my development as a photographer. As small tokens of appreciation, I have often credited those influences openly by including their names in the titles of work. I have done this out of basic courtesy and respect for I do not feel that I have ever stolen from these artists.
It seems to me, that in this recent era of digital photography, where accessible photographic technology has proliferated and all things are now seemingly possible, it has become easier and easier to duplicate what has gone before. It has become quite normal to “appropriate” another artist’s image. All too often, I see what I consider to be blatant copies, represented by “respectable” galleries. This is a little disheartening to me. I would prefer a higher standard of ethics and integrity. My work has been copied many times, and I try to keep in mind the often used phrase about imitation being the best form of flattery. I do believe that serious artists will work with passionate intensity to find their own voice as the search to discover ourselves, our own personal vision, is vitally satisfying and should be an integral part of any artistic path.
PK: When you moved to San Francisco you worked closely with photographer, Ruth Bernhard, for 8 years. Could you share some lessons you learnt from your collaboration with her? Could you also share some of your thoughts about the photographic print making process?
MK: My years with Ruth Bernhard were priceless. I cannot overestimate her influence on both my life and work. Ruth often said that her role as teacher was far more important than her role as photographer. As a young photographer trying to navigate the extremely puzzling world of art galleries, publishers and commercial agents, Ruth was a guiding light. “Today is the day” was her mantra and her determination to live in the present, to appreciate every moment, to always say yes to life, has left an indelible impression on me.
Before working with Ruth I thought that I was a good photographic printer. I had printed my own work and the work of a number of other photographers. However, Ruth gave me new insights into the process. She viewed the negative was the starting point. She would radically transform an initial straight print into a Ruth Bernhard print. This might involve tilting the easel to achieve a different perspective, softening the focus to create an evenness of tone, making masks to burn and dodge, using different chemicals to change the contrast or color of the image. Essentially, she believed anything was possible and all the rules could and should be broken. This made for many late nights in her darkroom.
PK: Throughout your career, your process has involved many site visits and revisits. Could you tell us why this is important in your process and how you feel it affects your photography?
MK: I like to use the analogy of meeting a person and having a conversation. This is how I feel about photography – the more meetings, the deeper the conversation. Friendships that go on for years often reach levels of intimacy that are not possible with one-off encounters. Over time, we change and the subject matter changes. I am interested in what happens in those intervals of time. Subtle differences, evidence of time passing, memories, traces, footsteps – these all fascinate me. I often say that I try to photograph the moment before an event or the moment after. What happens in-between is left to the imagination.
PK: You have said that “beautiful photographs of ordinary subject matter and ordinary photographs of beautiful subject matter”. Hokkaido, Japan seems to be a place that combines both and has become a special place in your work. Could you tell us how this relationship started and how it has evolved?
MK: My first trip to Japan was in 1987, when I photographed the shrine and temple areas of Kyoto and Nara. Over the next couple of years, I visited Tokyo and other metropolitan cities for exhibitions, book signings and lectures. However, my dream was to explore the landscape throughout Japan in Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, Okinawa and Shikoku. I started to do this in 2000.
There is something mysterious and wonderfully alluring in the Japanese land. It is visually manifested in the omnipresent interactions between water and earth, and in the constantly changing seasons and skies. It can be felt in the engaging intimacy of scale in its terrain, and in the deep sense of history contained in its earth. There is reverence and honor towards the land, symbolized by the ubiquitous torii gates. The shrine is often an integrated part of the landscape, a place to rest and meditate. Physically, Japan has similarities to my home country of England – relatively small, reserved, inhabited for centuries, surrounded by water, Japan is also a volatile place, sometimes unpredictable and potentially dangerous, with typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis possible, as we have recently witnessed. It is a country where the land is alive and powerful, where the elements are strong. I believe that living in Japan accentuates an awareness of the fragility and beauty of our transient world.
I have found Hokkaido to be a particularly intriguing place – gently seductive, dangerously wild and hopelessly romantic. Visually, it has been a paradise on earth for me, a veritable winter wonderland. Surrounded by water and home to exquisite lakes, graceful mountains and countless majestic trees, photographic subject matter continues to be ubiquitous. I feel the starkness of Hokkaido’s winters accentuates an awareness of one’s immediate environment. The reduction of sensory distractions, leafless trees, absence of color, eerie silences, demands a more concentrated and pure focus on the land. These conditions have been of the utmost importance in my ongoing creative process.
Working and traveling around this island during the past fifteen years has been an astonishing experience, particularly during the winter months when the landscape becomes transformed by layers of snow and ice into a graphic sumi-e painting, a visual haiku. The simple outlines of a fence as it threads it’s way up a hillside, the musical characteristics of snow barriers arranged like an empty musical score awaiting our notes, the melancholic nature of sunflowers surrealistically posing in the snow, the lace-like tracery of freezing ice encasing a lighthouse on the Sea of Okhotsk – the list could go on of the exquisite phenomena awaiting our eyes on this abstract winter canvas. I have felt a powerful emotional response to Hokkaido and have derived enormous creative inspiration in the light and atmosphere of this special place. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have spent a part of my life in Hokkaido and I look forward to many more visits in the future.
PK: Minimalism and the Zen aesthetic have had a wide influence in various contemporary art forms. Sometimes it has been criticized as a superficial interpretation of this tradition. What are your thoughts about this approach to art in general and in your own work in particular?
MK: Each artist must choose their own way to express themselves. Each expression will have followers and detractors. Long ago, I made the decision to follow my own way regardless of praise or criticism. I often choose locations where I can be quiet, calm and solitary as it is my preferred way to work. I look for an atmosphere that resonates with my own senses. At the beginning of my photographic explorations I preferred to photograph in the early morning because I was attracted to the calm and peacefulness, the lack of people and absence of “chatter” in the air. Morning light is often soft and diffused. It can reduce a cluttered background to graduated layers of two dimensional tone. I chose subject matter in a similar way. Minimalism continues to be one of my esthetic goals, regardless of whatever trend might be in fashion. It is a personal way, for better or worse.
PK: You move between night and day photography with some exposure times taking up to 10 hours. Moreover the atmosphere of your imagery and your processing suspends time both literally and figuratively. What does that timelesness means to you and for your work?
MK: I began to work at night in the mid seventies. Some of it was jet-lag inspired but increasingly I was finding that working only at dawn and dusk was restrictive in terms of time and opportunities.
Photographing at night was exciting because it was unpredictable. I didn’t immediately have control over exposures and it was a surprise to see the results every time I processed film. I think night photography is particularly fascinating because of our loss of control over what happens in front of the camera.
During a time-exposure the world changes – rivers flow, planes fly by, clouds pass and the earth’s position relative to the stars is different. This accumulation of light, time and movement, impossible for the human eye to take in, can be recorded on film. Real becomes surreal.
During the day, when most photographs are made, we normally view scenes from the vantage point of a fixed single light source, the sun. At night the light can come from unusual and multiple sources. There can be deep shadows which act as catalysts for our imagination. There is often a sense of drama, a story about to be told, secrets revealed, actors about to enter onto the stage. I believe the night gave me added potential for creativity. I began to print night photographs as though they were made during the day, and day photographs as though made at night. I enjoyed the enigmatic nature of the images and the questions they raised. I am not so interested in the visually specific, I prefer the vague and veiled, what is unseen but suggested. The night gave me a whole new canvas and palette to explore these themes with.
PK: You work in analogue and still use a darkroom. Is there a reason for this?
MK: To be honest, I have yet to meet a digital print that I could fall in love with. This, of course, is based purely on my own personal and subjective taste. Having worked with silver materials and film cameras for forty years, both commercially and in my own fine art work, I now find it a little out of character to fully embrace the digital medium. It is true that the whole photographic process has been made much easier, faster, cleaner and more accessible to people by digital innovations, and that’s a good thing. However, I think photographers and artists should have the option to use whatever equipment and materials they consider most appropriate for their own vision. I don’t need or desire instant gratification in photography and it is the long, slow journey to the final print that captivates me. I still prefer the limitations, imperfections and unpredictability of the silver based “analogue” world, and I love spending hours in the darkroom exploring the potential of a negative. Digital and computer technologies haven’t yet changed the way that I do things.
PK: When we look at your images, we have the feeling of being in front of very quiet spaces, silent corners of the planet. Are all those places silent? Or is our mind keeping quiet before the beauty?
MK: I try to present an oasis of calm and solitude that I, and viewers of the final print, can enter into. Chaos can, and often is, going on around me when I photograph. However, I have never felt the need to document what is in front of me. My photographs are interpretations. They are products of the conversations I have with my subject matter. Viewers are invited to enter into the frame to complete the triangle. I often feel that my images are not complete until somebody brings in their own experience and imagination into the equation. Then, they become unique to that person. Each viewer is able to have their own personal experience.
PK: Although fine art and commercial photography are usually quite separate, in your commercial work we see a fusion between them. How do you see the intersection between the two?
MK: I have always embraced commercial work for the opportunities given to me: creatively, financially and logistically. Of course, for somebody who cherishes solitude and calm, it can be a challenge to work to a deadline, a specific brief and often with a large group of people watching and waiting. However, physical and technical challenges often lead to creative break throughs.
Commercial work gives me access to places I wouldn’t normally go and I relish these opportunities. For example, I photographed for HSBC bank and traveled to 18 countries. The Spanish Tourist Board enabled me to explore and photograph the windmills of La Mancha. British Rail took me up and down the British isles looking for suitable locations. Who can boast that they have been tied onto the bonnet of a Rolls Royce and driven around the Isle of Sky in Scotland? Or strapped onto the side of a helicopter photographing over the Alps for Adidas? I have had many wonderful and exciting experiences engaged in commercial work.
PK: Which of your photographic series has had the most impact on you and why?
MK: There seems to be an infinite amount of photographic possibilities in this world of ours. Decisions and choices have to be made as to what is meaningful and personally significant. I find that my interest in memories, time and change often dictate what attracts me to photograph. I sometimes think we choose some projects and others choose us.
Probably the most memorable photographs I have made would be on the World War Two Nazi Concentration Camps in Europe. When I made these photographs I felt that I was in the right place at the right time with the appropriate training and vision. I didn’t feel that I had much of a choice. During the late eighties when I began to photograph this subject matter, the division between East and West was crumbling. I had access to Concentration Camps in Poland, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, etc., which previously were very difficult to reach. These camps were potent with atmosphere and remnants of the past. I felt that I had to take advantage of the situation and photograph all that I could find before these places changed. As a Catholic, I had no immediate connection to the camps, so perhaps I could see them differently.
I tried to photograph these locations with humbleness, respect and sadness for what had happened. I photographed in the same style that I photograph other subject matter. I felt that I should work to the best of my ability and do what I could to help keep the memory alive. For over ten years I explored all the camps I could. I then donated all the material, including the copyright to the negatives, to the French Ministry of Culture so that they could publish and exhibit the images. This project was my personal contribution to the Holocaust memory.
Michael Kenna’s website:
Video ‘Michael Kenna, a letter from Shinan’:
Fifty Two Birds, Zurich Switzerland 2008 © Michael Kenna