|On the Shoulders of Giants|
An interview with Michael Kenna
by Tim Baskerville
There is a story that Michael Kenna likes to tell (about how
he came to be represented by the prestigious Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco.
Kenna had decided to take some of his work to another downtown gallery. And
so, he went to the gallery, spoke to someone there, and left
his work for review while he looked over an exhibit by photographer
Harold Edgerton. When Kenna was done enjoying the show, the man
at the desk in the gallery agreed to take some of his photographs
on consignment. Kenna was elated. It took him three or four months
to actually get the photographs together and print them up. When
he took the prints back, he was surprised to find that there
were actually two galleries in the building (the gallery he had
originally intended to go to, and the Stephen Wirtz Gallery.
The Wirtz Gallery had just moved into the building, had not yet
installed their sign at the door, and this was the gallery he had inadvertently
walked into the first time to show his work! That was 1978 and, as he says: "I
have never looked back." This is one of the examples of what Michael Kenna likes
to call "fortuitous
happenstance" that have punctuated his life as a photographer. He has taken these
types of events to heart, incorporating this element of his life into the very
manner in which he photographs, always allowing for the accidental, the humanity
to show through.
Michael Kenna was born in 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, in the
industrial northwest of England. He studied at the Banbury School of Art
and later at the London College of Printing where he graduated with distinction
in 1976. Coming from a working class background, he saw photography not only
as a means of personal expression but also as a way to make a living, and
went to work in advertising photography in London. While working commercially,
he continued with his more personal work - photographing the landscape -almost
In 1977 he moved to San Francisco, where he lives today. A twenty
year retrospective of his work was published this past year by Treville.
On a recent foggy morning, I met with Michael Kenna in an artist's atelier
in San Francisco. He was willing to talk at length about his work, night
photography, computers and photography, and his position in the photographic
world. He was able also, to laugh about certain aspects of his life and
art. However, he was soft-spoken regarding individual images that he has
made, choosing to leave this, as he says: "for others to describe."
Your work, more than any photographer I can think of, seems to bridge the
gap between night photography and "daylight" (for want of a better term)
photography. You move freely between situations, time and light constraints,
yet you still seem to incorporate the nocturne and its sense of mystery
into much of your work. Because of this, you've not been pigeonholed
as a Night Photographer, your audience has grown and I believe you have
advanced night photography, it's aesthetic qualities and concerns by
a wide margin. Are you still a night photographer at heart?
[Laughs] Night and day are one and the same, they are parts of the whole.
I can happily photograph during the day or night or dawn or dusk. I like
to photograph at any time and there are qualities about every time of the
day and night which should be appreciated, so I try to move in and out
at will. There was a period when I was starting out, when I could have
been called a Dawn photographer. Then I became a Day photographer, next
I became a Night photographer, and now I suppose I am an Anytime, All
time, Every time photographer [laughs.] I found that working at night
I learned much that I could then bring into the day. Working again during
the day I discovered elements that I could then take back into the night.
Confining myself to one particular area or one particular time period
is, I think, self limiting. In general, I look for "timeless" imagery,
which could be taken at night, during the day, at dusk, or dawn.
Yet, your book Night Walk is devoted to night work, and this is
the work you are most noted for. Night photography is still a mysterious
area of study to many photographers. What suggestions would you make
to someone starting to photograph at night?
Just take one of Steve Harper's workshops! [laughs] Steve is a pioneer
in the instruction of night photography and I've often recommended
his classes. I have taught night photography classes and workshops myself,
but right now I am on sabbatical from all teaching - to get on with
other projects. It constantly amazes me how excited people get when they
first go out photographing at night. It's as if they don't believe it
is possible! Unfortunately, there is also a legitimate fear of the night,
particularly in urban areas. An individual interested in night work might
want to consider going out with a friend. I have students work in a "buddy" situation so that no one gets "lost". On the
first few night sessions students work with one manual camera, one lens set
at f5.6, a tripod, cable release, flash light, paper, pencil, and Tri-X film.
I give basic starting points (i.e. an exposure in the city with direct street
lighting-5 second exposure, in the city with indirect street lighting-1 minute,
city open spaces with distant lighting-5 minutes, landscape outside the city-30
minutes, etc.), they will bracket one and two stops plus and minus, writing
every exposure down, noting as many details as possible about the lighting
conditions at the time. I suggest that they process their film 20% less than
their usual development time. I think the initial hurdle involved in photographing
at night is in getting comfortable with the equipment and the environment -
it really is quite different from photographing during the day.
and error a student picks up a working knowledge of different lighting
conditions and the exposures required in short time. In class, we go on to
discuss how to meter accurately at night, the theory and practice of reciprocity
failure factors, different compensating development processes, printing difficulties,
etc., and later, we would also explore additional lighting, use of
strobe, color, etc. It is important to understand that night photography
is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation
is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night
has an unpredictable character - our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film
can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us
to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there
are strong shadows;with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes
merges night into day - certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!
Personally, I also find myself closer to nature when I am doing night
photography. I consciously slow down and am more aware of what is going
on around me: where the clouds are, in what
direction they are moving, what is the position and phase of the moon, when
stars will leave "trails" on the film and how long they will be, how the wind
affects the landscape, where the tide is breaking, etc. With exposures that
can last up to eight hours, patience is important, too!
You mentioned Steve Harper - he once said his night photography underwent
a profound change when he moved from 35mm to medium format. Initially,
he found the new format a bit stifling, that it took some getting
used to, and he felt he had lost some freedom in the move. What happened
when you moved to medium format?
I used 35mm Nikkormats and Nikons for fifteen years before moving
over to the Hasselblad in 1986. It then took me about two years
before I started to feel comfortable with the bulkier equipment and the
new format. Photographing at night was something of a disaster
for a while - I couldn't see the image clearly to compose and more often
than not I would underestimate the depth of field required to have
objects in focus! The turning point came when I bought a pentaprism
viewfinder, so that the image was clearer and the right way round.
Since then I have used medium format in much the same way as I've
used 35mm. I think that 35mm is easier to use at night - it is
lighter, clearer, more flexible, has better depth of field, etc. - but
I was just ready for a different format and the square currently has
more appeal for me than the rectangle.
Tell me about photographing at night in the Catskills (in reference
to Swings, Catskill Mountains, New York, 1977.) Back in the Midwest
in the late Sixties, as a young man I used to go swinging on
the swing sets, late at night, by myself, with a friend, whatever.
That photograph reminds me of the period, with it's sense of
exploration, danger and beauty. Also, the feeling of exhilaration of
doing such an unconventional thing, and at night! It is sort of like
photographing at night. MK:
That was my first night photograph - 1977. I think it was about
2:00 A.M. when I started photographing. I completely guessed
the exposure. I bracketed from 1/250th of a second to a half
hour, and had no idea what was going to happen. It was the first
night after a transatlantic flight and I had jet lag - that's
probably why I was up at such an unearthly hour. It was also
a time when someone with a name like "Mad Max," a New York serial killer, was on the loose. I had
set up my tripod on the grounds of the Heiden Hotel in South Fallsburg, in
upstate New York, where I was staying. The exposures were getting longer. Suddenly
I heard these shouts from one of the nearby motel cottages: [loudly] WHAT ARE
YOU DOING OUT THERE? GET AWAY! GET OUTTA THERE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I'M GONNA
SHOOT YOU! [laughs] I guess they thought I was the mad maniacal killer on the
rampage. It was a somewhat traumatic photograph for me to take at the time.
Danger and beauty - that about sums it up. I processed the film in the bathroom
of the hotel. It took me many years to make a good print, because the contrast
was so great, with the street light coming from behind the swings. I am still
very fond of that image.
You were raised in the industrial north of England. What impact
do you think your early years there had on your photography?
I think a very strong impact; for example, it gave me a certain
empathy for industry and the working environment which is one
reason why I am constantly drawn to photograph industrial situations.
Although I was brought up in an urban environment, my first
photographs in the early seventies were of the landscape. In retrospect,
I suppose that I had automatically labeled the landscape as "beautiful" and industry as "ugly," and naively considered the former subject
matter more worthy of being photographed. A return to industry was inevitable
and I have since worked on a number of specifically industrial projects, for
example: The Ratcliffe Power Station, Avonmouth Docks, and The Rouge. Structures
have always played a big part in my work. I'm really not at home photographing
in the "wild" landscape, deserts or mountainous areas. I look at those places
with great awe, but I can't seem to photograph them. [laughs] I came from a
working class background, and I was brought up knowing that I had to survive
in the world - that helped me to became a photographer. In my early years I
was good in the arts, painting in particular, and that's what I wanted to do
at the time. However, after spending some time at The Banbury School of Art,
I realized that there wasn't a chance I would survive as a painter living in
England. I studied photography in part because I knew I could at least attempt
a living doing commercial and advertisingwork. The more personal work could
always be done as a hobby, as it was done for many years.
Your early work shows the influence of fellow countryman Bill
Brandt, and you've even paid homage to him [Bill Brandt's Snicket, Bill Brandt's Chimney]
as you retraced his steps, in a sense. In your later and most
recent work I don't see the influence as much. Are there other,
more "American" influences
My initial photographic education came somewhat in a vacuum.
I was trained as a commercial photographer and studied advertising,
photojournalism, fashion, reportage, etc. In the institution
I went to, the London College of Printing, there was little
emphasis on fine art photography. In 1976 I saw an exhibition
called The Land, organized
by Bill Brandt, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
I am ashamed to admit that at the time I had never even heard
of Bill Brandt! He was to become the strongest influence
on my work. I have also been influenced greatly by a whole
series of other photographers. Initially, most were European
- Emerson, Atget, Sudek . . . Later, powerful American photographers,
particularly Stieglitz, Sheeler, and Callahan. I think many
creative people are compilations of influences, wedded to
some aspect of their own uniqueness. Few work in a vacuum,
as Isaac Newton alluded: "If I have achieved anything,
it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" - or words
to that effect.
How did you come to work for the photographer Ruth Bernhard?
I became acquainted with Ruth through the Stephen White Gallery in Los Angeles.
They had signed a contract to represent her exclusively for two years.
Ruth had to supply them with a certain number of prints, and I helped her
with the printing. We worked together pretty intensely from the late 70's
through the mid 80's. I learned an immense amount from her. Ruth is a remarkable
and unique woman, a fine photographer, teacher and inspiration, and I'm
honored to say, friend. I did not mention her under influences, but she
has been a very powerful one. She wrote a very kind and flattering introduction
for my new book: Michael Kenna - A Twenty Year Retrospective.
Your most recent work is of "The Rouge" in Dearborn, Michigan. How did you
find that site to photograph? Is it at all operational, still?
Yes, Rouge Steel is a completely operational steel plant. I knew something
of the plant through the photographs Charles Sheeler made in the 1930s.
At that time the steel operation was just one part of the giant Ford River
Rouge complex. Tom Halsted, the owner of the Halsted Gallery in Birmingham,
Michigan introduced me to Lee Kollins of the Ford Motor Co. in 1992. Lee
took me around and I photographed while I was there. It was quite remarkable
to me how many images were interesting, and so I began a more serious study
and have been back many times. I will continue to photograph there this
year, and there will be a book published and an exhibition at the Detroit
Art Institute in December.
Do you like to work through things that way; to go back again and again photographing
the same places . . . .
Yes. The first time, I usually skim off the outer layer and end up with photographs
that are fairly obvious. The second time, I have to look a little deeper.
The images get more interesting. The third time it is even more challenging
and on each subsequent occasion, the images should get stronger, but it takes
more effort to get them.
Study 13 from the Rouge series is the most intriguing photograph
I've seen in a long time. The initial impact is a graphic one. It is also
clever, cinematic, and surreal; and a little different each time you view
it. A bit of a "photographer's photograph."
That image finally arrived after two hours of concentrated searching on and
around some old train wagons. The sun had already come up, but it was another
hour or so before breakfast. It was difficult for me to find much that was
visually satisfying. However, I continued and was rewarded. It is new, so
it's not easy for me to talk about. Give me a few years and I may have
detached myself enough to better analyze it.
Your photographs depict "people-less" landscapes. They're haunting, emotional
and inspirational at the same time. With the exception of The Rower,
I can't think of any that include human beings. Yet, your images are strongly
evocative of the human presence. Do you find that you go to great lengths
to maintain that edge, or is it a more natural result of locale, photographic
method, weather, time, etc.? Do you foresee a time when you might move
to a more "social landscape?"
I don't see any immediate time of moving to a more social or "peopled" landscape,
but frankly I have never been able to accurately second-guess any future. I
do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human
presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence
of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation.
I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come
out. There is anticipation of events about to happen, or perhaps events have
already happened and we are reconstructing scenes in our imagination. There
is a surrealistic quality to function-less structures standing in space. The
actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens
in that interval of time that interests me. I try to leave space in my photographs
so that viewers can participate in the scene and even create their own story.
Photographs can be invitations for people to use their own imagination based
on their own experiences. We all see a photograph differently as we all see
the world differently. I prefer suggestion over specific description, haiku
over prose. When the actors finally appear on a stage the atmosphere changes,
we follow their story, their lead. Predictably we are attracted to the figure,
the human element. Perhaps we are programmed to do that as human beings.
In the preface to the catalog for your 1990 Gallery Min exhibit, Mayumi
Shinohara states: "The works of Michael Kenna suggest to those of us in the photography
world that many photographers around us are more interested in money spent
on materials and travel than in the mastery of basic photographic techniques.
In pursuing technological advances, photographers are losing sight of what
is most critical to making pictures, the love of photography itself." To which
I might add - the love of it's history, also. With her quote in mind, how do
you feel about the fact that more and more photographers are becoming involved
with computers, using them to retouch and manipulate their photos? Do you foresee
a time when this might affect your work or the manner in which you work?
I don't think that what other people are currently doing in computer
generated imagery and digitally reprocessed imagery and so forth particularly
influences my work, so far at least. There will always be technological
advances - every day there's something new. However, as the world around
me accelerates, my tendency is to slow down and look for "center." I do not see many good reasons
for jumping aboard this particular bandwagon. I find the simpler the technology
the more freedom I have to look within myself. Exquisite music still comes
from very old instruments, which is not to denigrate sophisticated electronic
sound. Old and new can live side by side in peaceful co-existence. One does
not replace the other, the repertoire just expands. I suggest though, that
if we strive for perfect, digitally processed images and prints, the further
away we might get from our own fallibility and accident prone humanity. My
life seems to have flowed and flowered on accidental fortune, so has my photography.
Many of my stronger photographs are the result of my option not to pre-visualize.
I believe that it's important to allow the possibility of accident and not
be too controlling.
There's a fine printmaker's quality that is evident in your work and
the way that you approach it (the editions, the series, themes that
are worked out, etc.) The grain and the graphic quality of some of
the early images resemble etchings or photogravure. Have you ever
done any traditional printmaking such as etching or monotype?
I have been fascinated with two dimensional surfaces, for as long
as I can remember. When I was a boy at school I was in charge of
the school printing press. I would spend hours contentedly setting
up type or printing. I loved the inks and typefaces and most aspects
of printing. When I went to art school my instinctive area of interest
was the printmaking room. I made lithographs, silk-screen prints,
woodblock prints, and such. I later applied to a photography school
and also to a graphic design school for more intensive study. I
wasn't sure which area, photography or graphics, I wanted to pursue. As
chance would have it, my photography interview was first. I was
accepted and I never went to the graphic design interview. Much of my life
seems to have followed a pattern of similar fortuitous happenstance: "Well, this happened so it must be right.
This is the way I'll go ..." If it had happened otherwise, I'm sure I'd have
been equally satisfied doing graphics. It's just that in life we don't have
enough hours to do all the things we'd like to do. But perhaps it is one of
life's great lessons to be content with what we are actually doing. That is
a lesson I am reminded of frequently.
This concludes the article published, with a different introduction
in Camera DarkroomMagazine, in July of 1995.