From Michael Kenna's Nightwork
In Conversation with Photographer Tim Baskerville
Michael, it's good to see that you're still a somnaubulist!
You have remained dedicated to the nocturne throughout your
career, working away while others sleep. What has kept you
at it for so long? Do you find it difficult to maintain an
enthusiasm for working at night?
"Night of the Living Somnambulist" - it has a certain
ring to it! Actually, I'm still most enthusiastic about photographing
during the night, for many reasons. Today, we seem to work,
play and live in the fast lane, busying ourselves with a bewildering
assortment of activities, rushing around from place to place,
deadline to deadline. It is impossible to be a frenetic night
photographer! The very nature of the process forces one to
slow down. The exposures are long, so it is wise to make more
considered choices than the ones we might make during the
day. To make an hour exposure is to be given an opportunity
to get out of our quotidian frenzy. At night it is possible
to be quiet and to listen to our surroundings. We may even
become aware of the movement of the earth relative to the
stars. For some hours it is easy to let the cares of the day
slide away and sink into the night, with all its mysteries
We see and experience the world in the daytime far more than
at night, when for the most part we are asleep. As urban dwellers,
most of our waking night hours are spent in artificial light.
The sun-set may just mean a flick of the light switch. We
have shielded and protected ourselves from the night's possibilities
- its dangers, and also its benefits. The night is traditionally
a time of revitalization and regeneration. It is a cru-cially
important part of the day. I suppose what has "kept me at
it" is basically a continued curiosity of what things look
like when the sun goes down. The environment completely changes,
and there is a vast poten-tial for new creativity. I love
to wander and explore and I also like to photograph, so night
photography has become a natural extension to the rest of
You have stated that your work is "more about suggestion
than description." Could you explain how that applies specifi-cally
to your night work?
Using the analogy of literature, I like to think of my photographs
in terms of haiku poetry rather than literal narrative. In
a few words the haiku can suggest an infinity, with the helpful
reader filling in the details. In my work I try to supply
a setting, an atmosphere and a few prompts. My wish would
be to act as a catalyst for the viewer's own imagination to
"finish" the image in their minds. That would be true interactive
art. I rarely have people in my photographs - that space is
reserved for the viewer. I am more interested in the relationship
between land and humanity. I expect a viewer to be able to
enter an image and react with the environment. I try to create
"stage sets" for them to perform on. Working at night makes
this easier, be-cause with urban night lighting there is always
something of the theater atmosphere anyway. Strong black shadows,
back and side lighting, dramatic contrasts, and emptiness,
all heighten that feeling. Anticipation hangs in the air.
The orchestra is tuning up. Enter stage left, an unsuspecting
viewer about to relate his or her life story ...
In the past you've acknowledged Bill Brandt's influence
upon your work, mostly in terms of subject matter and location.
He photographed at night, as do yoga. I see his influence
also in the presentation of your work - the dark printing
of sonic of your images, the `grittiness, " of some of the
final prints, the ambiguous nature of what time of day the
photograph was created. Is this something you're very conscious
In terms of subject matter, composition, palette and atmosphere,
Bill Brandt is definitely the single strongest influence on
my work. I constantly look at his books and gain inspiration.
I own one of his prints, which I treasure. I like both his
day and night photographs. There is a saying, attributed to
Isaac Newton, which I like to repeat: "If I have achieved
anything, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." I
have consistently emulated those photographers that I admire.
The list is long and includes other past luminaries: Eugene
Atget, BrassaI, Charles Sheeler, Alfred Stieglitz and Josef
Sudek, as well as contemporaries such as Ruth Bernhard, Richard
Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto. I am proud to be influenced
by other photographers, and when-ever possible include their
names in my titles as a way of paying respect and homage.
My work would cer-tainly not be what it is without Bill Brandt's
Regarding your Power Station series: supposedly you're
neutral in your stance on this work, yet because you chose
the night as the vehicle, they are anything but. They come
across as foreboding monoliths conveying danger, and they
pose more questions about the actual objects and issues of
power, pollution and environment than provide answers. Do
you agree, and if so, how does this relate to the rest of
Most of my images can be open to interpretation. The underlying
subject matter is the relationship, con-frontation, and/or
juxtaposition, between the landscape, in its various manifestations
of earth, air, fire and water, and the human fingerprint,
the traces that we leave, the structures, buildings and stories.
Sometimes the emphasis in the image will be the landscape,
the human influence will be slight, but it is always there.
At other times, the urban scenery or industry will be more
dominant and the landscape will be barely visible, shown only
by a passing cloud, moving water, or a veil of mist. The human
species has clearly had a dev-astating effect on the earth.
Our influence has reached into every corner. If there is an
undercurrent of fore-boding in my photographs, regardless
of the subject matter, I think it is a reflection of our uncertain
fu-ture. In my photographs, I deliberately try to take a neutral
stance in order to allow the viewer to reach their own conclusions.
However, photography is a highly subjective medium in which
the thoughts, feel-ings and inner concerns of the photographer
can always be detected by an observant viewer. Ultimately,
I believe that most people see what they want to see, or what
they are conditioned to see. I am content to have others interpret
my photographs in their own personal ways. I will not necessarily
agree with their interpretations but I'm not going to tell
people what they should think - that's boring and ultimately
counter-productive. I feel that to pose questions is fundamentally
more puzzling and challenging than to give an-swers.
The human presence on earth presents us with complex questions.
Nobody has all the answers, but a concerned photographer can
guide us to some of the relevant questions. I would feel too
hypocritical say-ing my Power Station series was a political
statement regarding power, pollution and/or the environment,
even though if others want to see the images that way, they
would have my blessing. I come from a back-ground where the
chemical industry employed most of the town. Photography is
now my chosen profes-sion - hardly an environmentally friendly
activity. I drive a car which uses fossil fuel and I use electricity
which comes from power stations. The fact is, we are all consumers
and guardians of the earth's resources and need to be personally
conscious of the damage we inflict. We should act responsibly
and limit our ex-cesses. However, we are beings of our time
and are not likely to revert to cave dwelling. I do not lecture
others on their behavior, but if I plant a few seeds from
time to time, well, that's a start.
You have said that you first photographed the landscape
as a reaction or alternative to the environment you lived
in, the industrial cities of Northern England. To some extent
your move to the U.S. provided for a continued alternative
vi-sion, acrd night plrotograplry is yet another alternative
vision. Does any of this tic hi with the fact that you now
travel a great deal to photograph? What if you lived in Europe
again; would we see more of you here in California, behind
the camera, roaming through the night?
I love to travel and photograph, and even when I'm not photographing
I still love to travel. The question is, would I still photograph
if I didn't travel? Not necessarily. The combination is quite
critical. If I was to stay in one place I might paint and
draw instead. Now that I live in California, I like to photograph
else-where, preferably in Europe. There are logistical reasons.
I am at my most productive when I can really concentrate on
something. At home there are always a thousand and one distractions
- some of them quite alluring! When I travel to a place, I
know that I am going to be there for a certain number of days
which ensures that I work hard - day and night. I can think,
breathe, eat and sleep photography. It is an efficient way
for me to work.
Perhaps if I lived in Europe I would photograph in the U.S.
more, although I'm not so sure I would photograph in California
a great deal. Realistically I find that I have more empathy
with the intimate, lived-in landscapes of Europe and the East
Coast than I do with the wild and grand landscapes of the
Western United States. I do not make good Ansel Adams type
pictures. He sees God in the landscape, I look for the human
imprint. We're talking completely different scales here!
In your Rouge book you have two sequential plates, Studies
9_3 and 94. They seem to be from the same point of view. You
have said that you are "an anytime, all time, every time photographer"
one who moves freely between situations, time, and light constraints
- as opposed to a strictly night photographer. But don't you
think there's a danger there? It is like you've dc-br-urked
the notion of the "Decisive Moment" - or rather expanded it
to include many decisive moments. You could compile an encyclopedia
(perhaps a life's work) - thousands of prints of one image
or scene, one frame or tiny bits of subject matter in perpetua,
all different, all unique!
The two photographs of the Rouge power plant you refer to
are made from exactly the same position, one at dusk, the
other about an hour later. The camera was positioned on a
tripod and I made a succession of images as the light changed.
I placed two of these studies in the Rouge book at the point
where the images transition from day into night.
Everybody knows Monet's famous studies of Rouen Cathedral
where he painted the front facade over and over in different
lighting situations - fascinating work. I often like to photograph
the same subject many times to see how it changes. There is
a simple but profound truth "nothing is ever the same twice."
This applies as much to life as it does to painting and photography.
I use these words almost as a mantra, to keep me present and
in the moment, both in life and in photography. The term "Decisive
Moment" is a completely artificial construct, for every moment
is decisive. It is up to the subjective decision making and
tech-nical prowess of the photographer to decide which one,
or ones, he/she wants to show to the world. Pho-tography is
very much about editing. I try to create work that is somehow
"timeless," i.e., the images could be created during the day
or at night, today or a year ago. I enjoy the enigma. I prefer
not to concentrate on the "specifics" of time and place. I
find myself more interested in the time before and after the
so called "Decisive Moment." Besides, at night we can stretch
a "moment" into ten minutes or ten hours. My night photographs
are edited capsules of passing time.
It is true that I could have made a Rouge book with fifty
studies of the power plant. Although that might be personally
satisfying, I am not so sure how popular it would be. As a
photographer I try to takethe viewers of my work into account
as well as myself. It is not reasonable to show all that we
photograph. The fifty plates in the Rouge book were selected
from over four thousand negatives. Sometimes I show two or
three studies of the same subject, when there are sufficient
differences to make them interesting. As part of my ongoing
work I visit places over and over, for they are never the
same. It is like a friendship. It is good to continually renew
the relationship, for then it deepens and grows, and subtle
changes are revealed. I don't like the "been there, done that"
attitude to life.