Interview with Michael Kenna

January 2003

The Photo Review
by Carole Glauber

Michael Kenna's quiet approach to the environment provides a glimpse into the provocative and subtle serenity of landscape photography. Michael creates dream-like scenes by combining innovative and traditional photographic techniques. The results are soft, stark, enigmatic views of gardens, industrial sites, land, and seascapes from around the world. Water may become a sea of mist or the geometry of human intervention contrasted with a wispy cloud-filled sky. His photographs suggest contemplation and a poetic vision.

Michael was born in 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, in the industrial northwest of England and studied at the Banbury School of Art and the London College of Printing, graduating with distinction in 1976. In London, Michael undertook advertising photography while pursuing his personal work - photographing the landscape. In 1977, he moved to San Francisco, where he met Ruth Bernhard and became her assistant and photographic printmaker for eight years. Michael is equally dedicated to the darkroom and makes his own prints ensuring a subdued, intimate atmosphere in every image.

Today, Michael is represented by at least 20 galleries in Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States with an average of 14 one-person shows each year. His work is in dozens of major permanent collections. Writers have described his photographs as romantic, surreal, haunting, and jewel-like. His work is also available to the public via 18 books containing an astonishing quantity of reproductions: 130 images in Twenty Year Retrospective (1994), 60 in Le Notre's Gardens, (1999), 80 in Night Work (2000), 110 in Impossible to Forget (2001), 95 in Japan (2003), and so on. In spite of his busy schedule, Michael generously agreed to this interview.

Carole Glauber: Does photographing at night change your way of thinking about what you are photographing?

Michael Kenna: There are many characteristics associated with night photography that make it fascinating. We are used to working with a single light source, the sun, so multiple lights that come from an assortment of directions can be quite surreal, and theatrical. Drama is usually increased with the resulting deep shadows from artificial lights. These shadows can invite us to imagine what is hidden. I particularly like what happens with long exposures, for example, moving clouds produce unique areas of interesting density in the sky, stars and planes produce white lines, rough water transforms into ice or mist, etc. Film can accumulate light and record events that our eyes are incapable of seeing. The aspect of unpredictability inherent with night exposures can also be a good antidote for previsualization. I find it helps with jet lag too! Indeed my first night photograph, made in 1977 of a set of swings in upstate New York, was a direct consequence of not being able to sleep. At the time I used the "empirical method" of exposure measurement, (i.e. trial and error), with much bracketing. The results were very interesting and since then I've worked on my technique a little.

CG: You once said "Much of my life seems to have followed a pattern of similar happenstance: Well, this happened, so it must be right. This is the way I'll go…." What does this mean?

MK: I cannot remember when I said that but the comment probably refers to my general view of life, which is to go with the flow. I believe it is most unwise to think that we have much control over events and people. Plans can be made, of course, but we should be flexible enough to respond to whatever is put in front of us. I think this is particularly relevant in the area of creativity. Ideas often come through the very process of working and we should be prepared to follow whatever clues arise. Plotting a path from a to b, and then strictly adhering to it, might eventually get us to the goal, but perhaps at the expense of far more interesting material on either side. It is not so difficult for me to look back and trace my track, but I choose not to predict where my future path will lead.

CG: Much of your work has historical precedence in early Pictorialism with its smokiness, mists, and softness that evoke an emotional response. Is this your intent?

MK: I often use Pictorialist devices in order to simplify a scene and engage the focus of a viewer. When I started out it was with the assumption that art was essentially the search for beauty, and my definition of beauty was strictly limited. I believed that beauty was in escapist fiction - the mists of Turner or the romanticism of Blake. I photographed the pastoral landscape of the Cotswalds in England, gondolas in Venice and exquisite gardens around Paris. Nothing wrong with that, but as time has progressed, my horizons have widened. Over the past 25 years I have also photographed industrial environments in North West England where I grew up, the Rouge steelworks in Detroit, coal and nuclear power stations, interiors of lace factories in France, a kindergarten classroom in San Francisco and Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe. I look for an emotional response in all of this work.

CG: In one of your books, you wrote, "I feel closer to the elements when I photograph at night, close to nature because I have to watch." What are you watching?

MK: When exposures last hours rather than fractions of a second, there is much time for watching. Sometimes it is a basic concern for security but at others it is a more meditational activity. I watch the sky and imagine what patterns the clouds and stars will make on my film. I watch the water, the leaves on the trees, passing cars, changing shadows, smoke from chimneys, whatever is around. Wind, rain, mist, etc., all have effects on the eventual image. We live pretty fast-paced lives so it is a luxury to be able to slow down and better appreciate some of the more subtle effects of nature that we can so easily miss or take for granted.

CG: Many years ago, we purchased Homage to Brassaï Surrey, England, 1983 in a Friends of Photography promotion. Tell me about this print and its title.

MK: One evening I was staying in a friend's house just outside of London - the very place that I had lived for three years when I was studying at the London College of Printing. As it was getting time to go to bed I noticed a rising mist from the River Thames, which was just visible from the window. I went out to photograph and did not return until after sunrise the following morning. It was an exquisitely cold, winter's night. I imagined that Brassaï might have done the same thing when he was photographing along the Seine in Paris. Much of the subject matter was similar: bridges, boats, embankments, and water. I have often emulated photographers that I particularly admire and I try to pay homage to them in titles for my own photographs.

CG: Describe your recent travels, what you photographed, and why.

MK: I have spent the past couple of years wandering around Japan photographing and a book containing 95 of these images has just been published by Nazraeli Press. I first photographed Japan in 1987 when I visited Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura and some other cities but my dream was always to explore the landscape. I finally got to do this in 2001 and have been back six times since then. I have traveled from the north of Hokkaido to the southern islands of Okinawa, and much in between. I feel drawn to the interaction between the water and earth in Japan. There is a deep sense of history and intimacy in its terrain. My home country of England has many similarities. Both countries are surrounded by water, both have been lived in for many centuries, and both have been extensively worked and explored. Remains of the past are everywhere. An aspect of my work relates to memory and time. I am interested in how we interact with our environment and what we leave behind on the planet. I like to photograph traces of our past activities and I try to reflect the atmospheres that remain. As in Japanese haiku poetry, I also try to emphasize suggestion rather than description. Japan has been a perfect place to explore these themes.

CG: Michael, You return from a trip with many rolls of film to process. You enter your darkroom. What next? What do you do to produce your final prints? Do you still do all your own processing and printing?

MK: For the most part I have been using medium format cameras since the mid-eighties. When photographing I probably average about 10-15 rolls of 120 film each day, which adds up after a few weeks. I have not processed my own film for many years and instead prefer to send them out to a reputable lab and keep my fingers crossed. I usually have two sets of contact prints made, one gets filed and the other I use to edit out images that look interesting. I cut out frames from the contact proofs and further edit before going into the darkroom to work on an enlarged print. I believe printmaking is a critical component of the photographic process and I will always try to do it myself. The negative is raw material, which a skilled and creative printmaker can mold in a thousand different ways. There are many technical and aesthetic decisions to be made along the way, the sum of which make a print unique and very personal.

CG: Lets talk about your book, Impossible to Forget: Nazi Camps Fifty Years After, with 110 photographs. You returned numerous times to Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Ravensbruck, Buchenwald and others. You wrote that you considered the camps "sites of contemplation." Did you have concerns about possibly objectifying the camps by making photographs of them into works of art and thereby altering the camps' terrifying reality?

MK: When I began to photograph the Nazi concentration camps in the mid-eighties it was with mixed emotions. I felt like an outsider; I was not Jewish, none of my family had been materially affected by what had taken place in these horrific places, and I really could not understand my motivations for wanting to do this work. Over the twelve years that I continued to photograph I have come to some conclusions but I still do not find them easy to articulate.

When I first learned, as a schoolboy in England, that eleven million people had been rounded up and subject to industrialized slaughter right in the middle of Europe, I found it impossible to comprehend. When I saw, a few years later, a fellow student's photograph of a mountain of shaving brushes from Auschwitz, I was completely overwhelmed by the knowledge that remains of this mass murder were still visible. I believe that part of my early motivation for photographing the camps was an attempt to process what I found unfathomable: the darkness and evil that seems to exist within human nature. I needed to see for myself.

I approached the camps with reverence, respect and much trepidation. As a photographer I felt a sense of duty. I felt that in my own small way I could contribute to keeping the memory of these places alive - the desire expressed by so many victims and survivors. Nothing is ever the same twice and every moment in time is unique. I witnessed many changes in the camps over the twelve years that I photographed; rusty barbed wire was replaced, buildings reconstructed, barriers were erected to protect fragile sites, etc. Some of the camps in the former East Bloc, such as Birkenau and Lublin-Majdanek had undergone little renovation when I first visited and their atmospheres seemed all the more powerful. These places are potent with tragic memory and loss, and I tried to record and interpret all that I saw and felt.

CG: These photographs were exhibited in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. What has been the response in these countries?

In Europe these photographs were included as part of a much larger traveling exhibition titled "Memoire des Camps," organized by the Patrimoine photographique in Paris. There were three sections to this exhibition: 1) photographs made during the time of the camps by the S.S., victims, bystanders, doctors, etc., 2) photographs made at the liberation of the camps, and 3) photographs made since then. There was a lot of controversy over this exhibition, particularly directed at the third section. For example, in an article in Le Monde, Claude Lanzmann criticized the fact that there was no distinction made between Concentration Camps and Death Camps. Some critics said that it was wholly inappropriate for aesthetic interpretations to be made from such horrific subject matter. Others were concerned that my work made the camps "beautiful." My response was that I see the world in a certain way and that it would be hypocritical, if not impossible, for me to adopt a different way of working for this subject matter. I was not comfortable with the criticisms but at the same time I was greatly encouraged that the exhibitions were extremely well attended and people were emotionally engaged.

Recently, my photographs of the camps were exhibited at the Houston Holocaust Museum. I attended the opening and had the good fortune to meet and talk with a number of survivors. I was extremely heartened by their warm and appreciative reception. I came away with the feeling that an acknowledgment of these atrocities somehow helps validate the pain and suffering of the victims. I sometimes think that it is necessary to explore an area of interest in order to find out why it is interesting. I have been able to come up with some reasons why I think I did the work on the holocaust, but after hearing the comments expressed by these survivors, those reasons now seem fairly insignificant. Although it was by far the hardest subject I have photographed, I believe at this point it is the work I am most proud of.

CG: You donated 300 original prints and their black and white negatives. Who received this donation and why?

MK: I donated the concentration camp work, all 6,000 negatives with their copyright and reproduction rights, to what I considered to be a relevant and appropriate institution, the Patrimoine photographique in Paris. Their mission as part of the French ministry of culture is to promulgate the photographic estates of various (usually French) photographers whose work is relevant to the French state. I made two sets of 300 original prints, which I also donated. I did this because I believe it was the right thing to do.

CG: How do you see yourself in the digital age?

MK: Digital and computer technology really hasn't changed the way that I do things. I am quite content to continue with the equipment I am used to. I happen to love the process of photography and am always thrilled to be out in the landscape or wherever it is I happen to be working. To experience natural phenomena and to be able to record unrepeatable moments in time is a great part of the attraction I feel to photography. I believe that artists should use whatever tools are appropriate for their vision so I am delighted that some photographers have embraced new technology and are using it for their creative endeavors. Having said that, I must admit that I am personally not a great fan of digital manipulation because I think it breaks down the essential link between photography and reality. I believe that the historical strength of photography has been its very tie to reality - it is one of the main characteristics that differentiates it from painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.

CG: What are your plans for the future?

MK: I try not to think too much about the future. I like John Lennon's line "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." Embracing life right now, along with all its convolutions and complications, is incredibly exciting. The glass can always be perceived as half empty or half full and I try as much as possible to choose the latter. Photographically there is enough subject matter to keep me going for at least a few more life times so I hope to be able to continue doing what I am doing for as long as possible. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have had. Based on my past itinerary, I suspect the road ahead will be full of interesting twists, turns and diversions. I am greatly looking forward to seeing what is around the next corner.