Kenna was born in Widnes, Lancashire, England in 1953. His
secondary education was spent at Upholland College. He continued
his education at the Banbury School of Art, Oxfordshire, where
his subject of study was fine arts, with a special interest in
photography. In 1980, Michael moved to San Francisco where he
resides with his wife, Camille.
In 1973, Kenna decided to concentrate on a three year
photography curriculum at the London College of Printing where
he received distinctive honors. Kenna loved to walk and
photograph in his environment, particularly in the Richmond area
of London. For several years he concentrated on the industrial
north and west of England. Among many different projects was the
photographic studies of the Ratcliffe Power Station in
Nottinghamshire, England, The Rouge Steel Plant in Michigan, Le
Notre's Gardens in France and most recently a study of sixty
photographs entitled Monique's Kindergarten.
Since his first exhibitions in England in the early 1970's,
Kenna's work has now become a part of many important collections
in the United States and Europe. His photographs are in the
permanent collections of: the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art
Institute of Chicago, the Center for Creative Photography in
Tucson, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Denver Art Museum,
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Carnavalet Museum, Paris,
France, The Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock, Wiltshire, England,
Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, Czechoslovakia, Museum of
Modern Art, Strasbourg, France, Victoria and Albert Museum,
London, England, Preus Photography Museum, Horten, Norway.
Michael Kenna prints his own sepia toned, silver gelatin
photographs in editions of 45 with 4 artists proofs. All
editions are signed and numbered. More information about
Michael Kenna can be found at his site:
which is a stunning site on its own.
On the Shoulders of Giants:
Interview with Michael Kenna by Tim Baskerville
(Reprinted with the permission of Tim
Baskerville © 1995)
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.
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. Through trial 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.
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 at work?
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 Darkroom Magazine, in July of 1995. What follows is some additional text from the interview that did not appear in the
Tim Baskerville, BFA., received his degree in photography and liberal arts from the University of San Francisco. He has been photographing for more than 20 years, and has taught night photography at UC Berkeley Extension, the Cape Cod Photographic Workshops, and the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. He has written articles about night photography for Camera and Darkroom, the Friends of Photography with Nazraeli Press, and Photo Metro magazine. Baskerville founded The Nocturnes as an exhibiting group of artists in 1991, and the critically acclaimed Web site of the same name in 1996. To learn more about him and view examples of his work, visit