Huangshan Mountains, Study 56, Anhui, China 2017.
Some photographers circulate their work via magazines and newspapers (although more and more those entities exist solely online, as websites and social media channels). Others, who have chosen the world of commercial photography, distribute their images as ads, in marketing or branding campaigns, which range from traditional print to many diverse forms in digital platforms.
But for the master landscape photographer Michael Kenna, who was born in Lancashire, England, but now is based in Seattle where he produces ethereal photographs that often portray hints of humanity in timeless natural landscapes, the path is a bit different. Instead, Kenna shares his lyrical work through fine-art exhibitions and more than 20 books, including his latest, Beyond Architecture (Prestel Publishing), Oiseaux (Editions Xavier Baral) and Rafu (Nazraeli Press).
Digital Photo Pro: How did your passion for the art and craft of photography develop?
Michael Kenna: I don’t think there was ever a decisive moment when passion and enlightenment about photography suddenly enveloped me. Rather, many factors, experiences and decisions, great and small, brought me to the life path I have been on for the past 45 years.
I was born and brought up in what might be described as a poor, working-class family in Widnes, an industrial town near Liverpool. Childhood experiences obviously have a great influence on one’s life, and as a boy, even though I had five 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 to the local train station and collect tickets and train numbers and would spend a lot of time on my own in the nearby St. Bede’s Church, soaking in the atmosphere.
Of course, I went on walking and biking adventures with my siblings and friends, too, explorations of empty factories, graveyards, ponds, sports fields, bridges, all locations that I’d later find interesting to photograph. Even though I didn’t 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.
That time at St. Bede’s must have been influential since early on you considered becoming a priest.
During my younger years, I served as an altar boy at St. Bede’s. I really loved being part of the great rituals of religion, assisting the priest at baptisms, funerals, weddings and the Latin mass.
When I was almost 11 years old, I went to a Catholic seminary boarding school, St. Joseph’s College in Up Holland, to become a priest myself.
The seven years there taught me many important lessons, and there were certain aspects of this religious upbringing that strongly influenced my later photographic work, such as discipline, silence, meditation and a sense that something can be unseen yet still present.
In retrospect, the education was excellent, although the career guidance there wasn’t very strong once I decided that I no longer wanted to pursue the path toward priesthood.
When did photography enter the picture?
I always seemed to have an aptitude for drawing and painting, so I went on to study at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire, where I was exposed to photography as well as many other creative mediums.
From there, I specialized in photography for three years at the London College of Printing, where I was trained as a commercial photographer. I studied photojournalism, fashion photography, sports photography, still-life photography, architectural photography…all sorts of photography, with many different cameras and formats. Running parallel to this, I also photographed the landscape, which I suppose was my passion. At the time I had no idea that I could and would eventually make a living in this area.
What were your jobs before you were able to make a living as a fine-art photographer?
While I was a student, I worked every summer, Christmas and Easter holiday from the time I was of legal age, which I think was 15 in those days.
The jobs varied considerably. I was employed on building sites, on a sewage farm, as a groundsman’s assistant in a sport complex, in a car factory working nights on an assembly line, nights in a bakery. I delivered mail for the post office. And in a local pub, I worked behind the bar.
I needed money to survive. My final job during the summer right after graduation was at The Heiden Hotel in upstate New York making beds, cleaning the pool and cutting the grass.
It gave me my first taste for the U.S.
What was your first job in the world of photography?
After the summer in the U.S., I worked for The John Hillelson Agency on Fleet Street in London. They represented amazing photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Rene Burri and Robert Capa.
Every morning, photographs would come in from the Gamma, Magnum and Sygma photography agencies. My job was to take these around to all the London newspaper offices and try to sell them.
I was pretty pathetic at the job, but it was an amazing education for me. From there, I became the printer for Anthony Blake, a fine, all-around commercial photographer in Richmond, Surrey, where I was living.
That was enjoyable and extremely educational. I then became his assistant, and my first task of the day was to take his two black Labradors for a walk along the nearby River Thames.
The dogs’ names were Hassel and Blad!
We traveled a lot, particularly in France, and I learned a great deal about how to be a professional photographer. It was a great time in my life, but eventually, I made the big decision to move to the U.S.
Whether in the U.S. or any other part of the globe, do you go out to shoot with preconceived ideas and then try to find subject matter to match them? Or are you exploring with an “empty cup,” so to speak?
I don’t have a standard or even consistent way of working. Of course, the longer you do something, the more likely you are to know a bit about what you’re doing.
Fortune favors the prepared mind and all that. I might take minutes in a location or [I might take] days. It depends on what I find and connect with. In my humble opinion, there’s no one right way to photograph anything.
My cup is both empty and full at the same time. I don’t know how I will photograph something, yet I have a wealth of experience, which inevitably informs the way that I work. I rarely make any elaborate preparations before I go to a location.
I walk, explore, attempt to discover and photograph. I search around for some sort of resonance or spark of recognition. I think that 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, how long the potential relationship will last?
I try not to make conscious decisions about what I’m looking for.
Certainly, a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be patient to allow the subject matter to reveal itself are important elements in the process. There have been many occasions when interesting images have appeared from what I had considered uninteresting places.
The reverse has been equally true. One needs to fully accept that surprises sometimes happen, and they’re not always good surprises.
I personally don’t believe that complete control over outcome is necessary or even desirable. The unpredictable is sometimes more interesting and lasting. Often, I return to the same places over and over, searching, repeating, knowing that there’s more potential than I first realized. As the great photographer Eugéne Atget taught us, nothing is ever the same. Options are endless. Of course, there may be an obvious perspective, but it’s important never to be satisfied with that.
It’s one of the advantages of working with the silver process: I never know when a good photograph has been made. I, therefore, use doubt as a way to wander off into alternative compositions by selective focus, different speeds of exposure and unusual perspectives.
I like to think of photography as a slowly developing journey with infinite possibilities. I look for what’s interesting to me out there in the three-dimensional world and translate or interpret that scene, so 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. I look for memories, traces, evidence of the human interaction with the landscape. Sometimes I photograph pure nature, sometimes urban structures.
But at the end of the day, I much prefer a full cup of tea to an empty one.
And perhaps that tea at the end of the day is sencha (Japanese green tea) since you seem to have a particular attraction to Japan?
My first visit to Japan was in 1987, and I was hooked immediately.
There are many characteristics of the Japanese landscape that resemble and remind me of my homeland of England. Japan is a country of islands, surrounded by water. It’s a place that has been lived and worked in and on for centuries. It’s geographically small, and spaces are quite intimate in scale. I feel there’s a powerful sense of atmosphere that resides in the Japanese soil, and, as I like to photograph memories and stories, I feel strangely at home wandering around this country.
There’s also a wonderful reverence for the land, sometimes symbolized by the ubiquitous torii gates, which mark the entrances to Shinto shrines. The shrine is often the landscape itself, an island, rock or group of trees.
If one spends time in Japan, I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by the Japanese aesthetic, the kanji characters, the simplicity of artwork, the reverence of a Buddhist temple. For a number of years, I’ve been working predominantly in Hokkaido, particularly during the winter months, when the landscape [is visually] transformed by layers of snow and ice into a graphic sumi-e painting.
In those paintings, it’s where the artist uses a minimal amount of black ink to convey the subject matter…
I generally prefer suggestion over description, black and white over color and winter over summer. For me, Hokkaido is a paradise on earth, a constantly transforming visual haiku. The starkness of Hokkaido’s winters accentuates an awareness of the elements and one’s immediate environment. The reduction of sensory distractions—leafless trees, absence of color and eerie silences—all encourage a more concentrated and pure focus on the landscape.
In addition to the Japanese aesthetic, what and who are some of your other influences? You mentioned Atget a moment ago.
I’m a product of a European tradition, and I adored the early masters, and still do, including Eugéne Atget, Bill Brandt, Mario Giacomelli and Josef Sudek. These photography giants, along with the Americans, including Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernhard, Harry Callahan and Alfred Stieglitz, have greatly influenced the way that I see and photograph.
I suppose they are all romantics at heart, particularly the Europeans, all concerned with photographing a feeling as much as documenting external reality.
With all these photographers, I actively searched out places they photographed, their camera angles and techniques. I’m a great believer in the saying attributed to Isaac Newton: “If I have achieved anything, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
There are a few master photographers you’ve actually had the opportunity to work with, in particular with Ruth Bernhard.
Perhaps she was the strongest influence.
I worked as her printer and assistant for almost a decade in the ’70s and ’80s. At that time, I thought that I knew a lot about printing, as I had printed my own work and that of other photographers. However, Ruth gave me new insights into her own singular style, where the negative “was” the starting point.
She would radically transform an initial straight print into a Ruth Bernhard print. This might involve tilting the easel to achieve a different perspective, softening the focus to create an evenness of tone, making masks to burn and dodge, using different chemicals to change the contrast or color of the image.
She essentially refused to believe that the impossible wasn’t possible, and there were no rules that couldn’t be broken.
I cannot overestimate her influence on both my life and work. Ruth often said that she regarded her role of teacher to be far more important than her role of photographer. As a young photographer trying to navigate in the extremely puzzling world of art galleries, publishers and commercial agents, Ruth was a guiding light.
“Today is the day” was her mantra, and her determination to live in the present, to appreciate every moment, to always say yes to life, has left an indelible impression on me.
How did you develop the idea of recording landscapes with extremely long exposures?
I’ve always believed that what we see is a tiny fraction of what’s there.
I think it comes from that early religious upbringing I mentioned. The light on the altar represented a presence that was invisible but which I believed in.
I find that I’m still interested in the suggestion of what could be, rather than what’s actually visible to our eyes. I began to work at night in the mid-’70s, and I suppose this was the start of my fascination with long exposures. Photographing at night was exciting because it was unpredictable. I didn’t immediately have control over exposures, and it was a surprise to see the results every time I processed the film.
During time-exposures, the world changes—stars trace through the sky as our planet moves, planes, boats, cars leave behind their own white lines on the negative, clouds will slowly add density to specific areas of the frame. This accumulation of light, time and movement—impossible for the human eye to take in—can be recorded on film.
Real becomes surreal, which is endlessly fascinating to me.
What equipment are you working with?
My usual analog setup is pretty basic: Two Hasselblad 500C/M camera bodies, a metered pentaprism and a waist-level viewfinder, two film backs (for 100 ISO and 400 ISO film), five lenses ranging from a 40mm to a 250mm, a Gossen Luna-Pro meter, which I use chiefly for night exposures, a lightweight graphite tripod with a ball socket head, some red and neutral-gray density filters, and many cable releases, as I tend to lose them in the dark.
These cameras have become old friends, familiar and easy to be with.
Essentially, I measure the ambient light, use an appropriate neutral-density filter to make the exposure longer when desired, calibrate the Reciprocity Failure factor of the particular film I’m using, and Bob’s your uncle [there you have it], as they say in the U.K.
What’s it about the analog approach that keeps you loading film into your camera rather than digital cards?
I believe that every photographer, every artist, should choose materials and equipment based on their own vision. I don’t believe that non-digital is better than digital, or the reverse, for that matter. I admire many photographers, regardless of the process they use.
Having said that, I cannot say that I’ve ever fallen in love with a digital print. A silver print, on the other hand, is very hard for me to resist.
Are you making your own prints?
I continue to make all my own prints on Ilford Multigrade papers in my traditional wet darkroom from my original negatives. I believe this to be an important and enjoyable part of the creative process.
One of the many things I love about it is that each print ends up being unique. I find it’s impossible to make two prints exactly alike, due to burning, dodging, chemical variations, toning and so on. Perhaps the process will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs, but while it’s still available, I’ll continue to enjoy every second of this magical, alchemical process.
For more on Michael Kenna’s work, go to michaelkenna.com.