This simple appreciation for the smallest details offers a splendid filter through which to view his work. He photographs landscapes, but isn't a landscape photographer. He travels constantly, but isn't a travel photographer. He works in black-and-white, but he isn't a black-and-white photographer. He's an artist who records what he sees and, somehow, what he senses and feels as well.
"I'm fully conscious that a lot of what I do in the landscape and darkroom can now be more easily and quickly done on a monitor," Kenna says. "I see 'perfect' computer images, obviously enhanced and retouched, more and more frequently. But for the most part, they're so obviously unreal or surreal, they're not so interesting. All too often there's something intrinsically unauthentic and unbelievable in their distance from reality. I still prefer the limitations and imperfections of the non-digital world, but it's a very personal thing. Perhaps the underlying truth is that I'm just an old dog who stubbornly refuses to learn new tricks. Someday, perhaps, I'll be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.
"I have to say that I have yet to see a digital print that I love," Kenna continues. "I can often appreciate the images and the technical expertise, but in my humble opinion, at least in black-and-white, the print quality always leaves something to be desired. Yes, they can be big and dramatic, perfectly printed, completely retouched and flawless, and once they're framed and on the wall perhaps there's no discernible difference at all, but in my mind at least, there really is something different about them that I have not yet been able to fully accept."
Kenna appreciates his tried-and-true materials, but knows they may not be around forever. Still, he's not overly concerned.
"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."
I still prefer the limitations and imperfections of the non-digital world, but it's a very personal thing."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.
"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."
"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."
It seems everything I experienced as a child would later become photographic subject matter, he says."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.