For this new episode of our series of interviews with contemporary masters of photography, I’m really happy to present some very personal and informative points of view from Michael Kenna. I believe Michael Kenna needs no introduction, so will jump straight into the interview, which was done during traveling at a very busy period in Mr Kenna’s schedule and for which I am most grateful. All photographs are clickable and lead to the corresponding gallery on http://www.michaelkenna.net
[Michael Kenna] 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 six 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 in train stations and factories, on rugby grounds and canal towpaths, and in 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 and loved to be part of the great rituals of the church, assisting the priest at baptism, 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 strongly influenced my work: discipline, silence, meditation and a sense that something can be unseen, yet still present. In retrospect, the education was excellent, but the “career guidance” was not very strong. Fortunately, I seemed to be good at drawing and painting, so, following my own interests, I went on to study at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire. This is really where I discovered photography. I then went on to specialize in photography at the London College of Printing. I was essentially trained as a commercial photographer. I learnt about photojournalism, fashion photography, sports photography, still-life photography, architectural photography, all sorts of photography with many different cameras. 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 an 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.
[Pascal] You have photographed many locations and countries. How do you balance a sense of local identity and a very personal style?
[Michael] I believe that a photograph is the result of a collaboration between an individual photographer and some specific subject matter. I like to think of it as a conversation. One responds to different people in different ways. So, too with subject matter. Realistically, I have sometimes lined up to photograph with hundreds of other photographers at such well known sights as, for example, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Giza Pyramids in Cairo, the Empire State Building in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I don’t have a copyright on these well known places, but I feel there is always the potential to produce something personal and original, no matter how many times these places have already been photographed.
My preference is to be alone with my subject matter. I feel the conversation then becomes more intimate and engaging. So I usually prefer to be out very early in the morning when most people are asleep. Perhaps I might photograph throughout the night making long exposures, sometimes up to ten hours for one photograph.
It’s hard for me to define exactly what I photograph and why. My subject matter changes depending on my mood, stage of life and what I find. I look for what is interesting to me, out there in the three dimensional world. I translate and interpret 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. Sometimes I photograph pure nature, sometimes urban structures. In any case, I’m not convinced that trying to define and articulate an ongoing creative process is particularly productive. I feel that all people, and therefore all photographers are unique. We should all have own vision, our own personal conversation with whatever we are photographing.
[Pascal] What draws you to these various places? Why do you create a picture of a specific place?
[Michael] I love what I do. I have a passion for it and am absolutely amazed that I have been able to be on this fabulous journey for so long. I am immensely appreciative that I have collectors and supporters who buy my work and commission projects. I try to contribute something in return. I have had the privilege and opportunities to visit places many people don’t have access to. I am sometimes in these locations at very odd times and have witnessed incredible sights. I want to share these special experiences, and photography provides me with the perfect vehicle to do this.
Our world these days is fast paced, noisey, colourful, full of distractions. I try to provide something of an oasis, a calm place of rest. Solitude is a very important aspect of my work. I often photograph pathways, plank walks, bridges, empty spaces – these are invitations for a viewer to enter into the frame and wander by themselves. Usually, there is no obvious destination. It is up to the individual to find their own way, to use their own imagination, to create their own stories, dramas, tragedies, comedies, etc. At this point in my life I feel a great responsibility to continue photographing for as long as I am able.
[Pascal] Why black and white?
[Michael] I’ve photographed in color many times. However, I find black and white photographs to be more expressive, malleable and mysterious. Perhaps it is because we experience everyday life in colour. Therefore, a rendering in black and white is immediately more special and recognizable as a subjective interpretation, rather than a photocopy of what has been seen. Colour tends to be specific and descriptive, and I prefer suggestion over description. For me, the subtlety of black and white inspires the imagination of the individual viewer to complete the picture in their mind’s eye. It doesn’t attempt to compete with the outside world. I believe it is calmer and more gentler than colour, and persists longer in our visual memory. Also, I still print all my work, in a traditional darkroom. I feel it is a critical part of the creative process.
[Pascal] When you recognize a scene you want to immortalise, do you have the final image in mind straight away, or is there room for trial in the darkroom?
[Michael] I try not to previsualize as I believe it restricts creativity. This is a very personal point of view. Other photographers work in completely different ways. When I go into the darkroom with a negative it becomes a new chapter on the creative story and I give myself every opportunity to interpret the chosen negative in a spontaneous way. Each negative is unique and has so many possibilitites. I explore what I consider to be the best personal expression of the negative’s potential. Sometimes I discover hidden gems in old negatives which I didn’t or just couldnt see at the time I originally made them. The final decisions about the print are made in the darkroom, not when I am photographing.
[Pascal] What is the reason for using only film ?
[Michael] 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 am delighted that some photographers have embraced new technology and are using it for their creative endeavors. I have experimented a little myself but find that 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 “analog” world, and I love spending hours in the darkroom exploring the potential of a negative. Digital and computer technology haven’t yet changed the way that I do things.
[Pascal] I was surprised to see that many of your prints are small and intimate, in an art scene that has evolved towards wall sized prints. Why?
[Michael] I don’t think I have ever consciously followed trends and fashions in any scene. I just mentioned that I still make my own prints. I believe the darkroom aspect of photography it is an integral part of the creative process, for me at least. I prefer the intimacy of smaller prints. I like that a viewer has to go close up to a print to really see it. A viewer engages a small print one-on-one, whereas one has to stand back to appreciate a large print. I have made a smiliar size print for many years and I like that a print I make today can be exhibited next to a print I made in the late seventies or early eighties. At this point in my career, my work is one happy family!
[Pascal] Many of your exhibitions and photographs suggest a meditative state of mind. Without getting into technicality, some of your pictures seem to require very long exposures to smooth out surfaces while others freeze a scenery. What guides you in that choice?
[Michael] Chaos can be going on around me when I photograph, but I try to present an oasis of calm and solitude that viewers of the final print can enter into. At the beginning of my photographic explorations I preferred to photograph in the early morning. I liked the calm and peacefulness, and the fact that there were fewer people around, that there wasn’t a constant “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 still like the dawn hours more than any other time of the day or night, even though I now photograph at all hours.
When photographing, I look for some sort of resonance, connection, spark of recognition. I try not to make conscious decisions about what I am looking for. 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. Approaching subject matter to photograph is like 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? Certainly, a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be patient to allow the 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 is equally as true and relevant. One needs to fully accept that surprises sometimes happen.
I often make very long exposures so that clouds and water become like mist, specific figures diappear, stars leave trails in the sky. Photographing at night can be particularly fascinating because we lose some of our control of what happens in front of the camera. Over time the world changes; rivers flow, planes fly by, and the earth’s position relative to the stars constantly changes. This accumulation of light, time and movement, impossible for the human eye to take in, can be recorded on film. Real transforms into 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. The night is an integral part of the day with vast potential for creativity.
Decision making is an integral part of being a photographer. Decisions can be about camera angles, choice of subject matter, exposure duration, framing, etc. These decisions are too numerous to list and they range from the initial choice of camera to whether I move a half inch to the right or left when making the photograph. All decisions are based on and guided by my personal experience of being a photographer and my technical and esthetic preference in photography.