DPP Home Profiles Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory

Michael Kenna’s subdued black-and-white imagery offers respite from the world, for photographer and viewer alike

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Brick Works and Carrier, Neuengamme, Hamburg, Germany, (2000)
"It wouldn't be the end of my creative path if all the silver materials I currently work with disappeared from the market overnight," he says. "I'm sure that I could and would adapt. Over the years, various films, papers and chemicals I've used have, unfortunately, gone out of production. I particularly miss the slow fine-grained films that no longer exist. But it's not the end of the world, and if I had to go digital, I'm sure I would. I just choose not to right now because I don't have to or want to.

"It's difficult to project 10 years out," Kenna adds, "but I would do what I had to do to continue on my creative journey. Perhaps the optimum situation would be to photograph with film, scan the negatives, interpret and retouch the image on the computer, have a new negative made, and then print in the darkroom on silver-based papers. This is, of course, nothing new, and is a technique commonly used today—hence, all these large, 'perfect' silver print images we see in galleries."

Kenna's preferred subjects also originated in his childhood. He was a wanderer, exploring local parks, ponds, railway stations, bridges, factories—all subjects that retain importance in his work today.
I still prefer the limitations and imperfections of the non-digital world, but it's a very personal thing.

Taushubetsu Bridge, Mount Nukabira, Hokkaido, Japan (2008)
"It seems everything I experienced as a child would later become photographic subject matter," he says. "Experiences inevitably lead to other areas of interest. Later, as I photographed landscapes, I became interested in the human-made structures that were in the land—fences, playgrounds, docking poles—all the stuff that has been left behind. In retrospect, I can see that it became a sort of theme to photograph the empty spaces in the landscape. My consistent interest lies in the relationship, the juxtaposition, even the confrontation between the landscape and everything that we place in it—memories, traces, footprints, the latent atmosphere of a place is my subject matter. Empty sports stadiums, old mills, abandoned structures and seafront buildings that have been built for our activities—when they're not being actively used, they can be strangely surreal, and I became fascinated by that. I don't photograph people, but I do photograph their absence. I try to invite viewers into the frame and they become the people—to imagine, experience, sit awhile, meditate, be calm and quiet for some moments, before returning to their busy activities.

Moai, Study 16, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island (2000)
"Our world is fast paced, noisy, colorful, full of distractions," Kenna continues. "I do try to provide something of an oasis, a place of rest, perhaps to meditate for awhile—calm, solitude, a moment to breathe. I often have pathways, plank walks, bridges—invitations for a viewer to wander a little. Usually, there's no obvious destination. It's up to the individual to find their own way, to use their own imagination, to create their own stories, dramas, tragedies, comedies, etc. I often use a theater analogy. Before actors appear on the stage, or before a concert begins, there's a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I enjoy that, and it's fertile for our own creativity. Once the characters appear or the music starts, we're led into somebody else's story. After the performances, memory lingers and again our minds can be very active. My imagery is about the mood and atmosphere before, after and between events.

"It's also about sheer beauty," he adds. "When I see a beautiful tree, I want to make a photograph, a portrait. When I stumble on something that emotionally touches me, has a resonance, whether I know why or not, I want to make a photograph. Life is a miracle, this world is a miracle, and often I feel completely dazzled by what I see. I love the idea that everything is alive and connected. I often feel that when I photograph something, I'm essentially making a self-portrait in a roundabout way. There are obvious connections and a sort of resonance that guides you to a subject matter. In Catholic churches, there's a light on the altar, which symbolizes a spiritual presence of God. There's nothing to be seen, but people of faith believe. I honestly don't know what I believe in, but I look for a presence within all my subject matter. I try to respect, reverence and honor what I'm photographing. I try to photograph the way I would want to be photographed myself."


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