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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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Cat Ba Island Boats, Halong Bay, Vietnam (2008)
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Kenna references the church in the making of his work, as his images have a strong spiritual aspect. Perhaps it's simply the side effect of awe, but maybe there's more to it. The process itself is a spiritual one for the creator—who as a child wanted to become a Catholic priest.

"I had been an altar boy for many years," he says, "and greatly enjoyed the rituals of baptisms, masses, funerals. I loved spending time in churches. I went to a seminary boarding school and spent the next seven years there, studying to become a priest. However, once I became a teenager, I realized perhaps it wasn't what I wanted to do after all. I really didn't know what to do. The one thing I seemed to be quite good at was art."

Ultimately, a photograph, no matter how lovingly made, is an exercise in certain precise technical procedures. For his part, Kenna has mastered the techniques that fill his images with the calming, spiritual feel that his artistic vision dictates. To do this, he relies on the peculiarities of the photographic process.
It seems everything I experienced as a child would later become photographic subject matter, he says.

Night Light, Rio de Janiero, Brazil, (2009)
"A lot of my photographs are made with long time exposures," he says, "sometimes just seconds, often minutes and occasionally hours. Long exposures have a way of softening the image and making it otherworldly. Moving clouds and water can simplify backgrounds and reduce unwanted clutter and distraction. I often photograph at night or throughout the night. I love the fact that I never quite know what I'm getting. There's a great amount of unpredictability with night photography. As clouds, water and stars move, their accumulated changes are all recorded on film. The film is 'seeing' and recording something the human eye cannot—time passing. Light is often coming from multiple directions—artificial lights—unlike during the day when light essentially comes from the sun. Contrast is increased. The night palette is very different from the daytime. I think it was working at night that greatly influenced the way I now photograph during the day. Darkening the day palette can give an ambiguous and sometimes unsettling effect. Questions are raised that are usually more interesting than answers.

"I try to photograph what's both visible and also invisible but sensed," Kenna adds, "memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what's actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn't sad to me; it's a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It's a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging."

You can see more of Michael Kenna's photography by visiting his website at www.michaelkenna.net.


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