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Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory

When Michael Kenna was a boy growing up in the small industrial town of Widnes, England, he hid pieces of paper around his house, his neighborhood and the local park. He would write his name, the date and some observation to come back to. The idea was to see how long he could wait before going to retrieve the notes. "During the interval," recalls Kenna, "I would change a little and so would the world."

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.

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2006)

Despite the digital revolution in photography, the perfect medium for Kenna’s work is black-and-white film and silver-coated paper. It’s the very peculiarities and imperfections in this traditional approach that he works within to make calm images imbued with an almost tangible amount of solitude.

"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.

Koi Pond, Jiz&#333-ji Temple, Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, Japan (2003)

"I don’t think the old way is perfect," he continues. "Quite the opposite—it’s full of imperfections, which I think is far more interesting than anything that’s perfect. The whole photographic process has been made much easier, faster, cleaner and more accessible to more people by digital innovations. And that’s a very good thing. For most photography, a darkroom is really not necessary. But perhaps it’s somewhat akin to the digital music that people can make on their computers. Whether or not somebody can actually play a musical instrument is no longer critical. I wonder if there’s anything to be said for the long, hard journey of learning? I suspect the path of discovery is as important as the destination. I do enjoy the unpredictable, imperfect, slow process of analog photography.

"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.

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."

Taushubetsu Bridge, Mount Nukabira, Hokkaido, Japan (2008)

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.

"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 event

"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."

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."

Night Light, Rio de Janiero, Brazil, (2009)

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.

"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

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