Pro Cameraman interviews Michael Kenna

July 2012

Pro Cameraman

Profile:

Born 1953 in Lancashire, England. He studied photography at London College of Printing in London, England. Even though he started off his career as a commercial photographer, he followed his passion for his personal work and then moved to United States in the late seventies. He has had shows in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. He also has photographs included in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washinton, D.C., Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and many others. He has photographed for 40 years, and has had over fifty published books and monographs.

Q. In your works, you have photographed many countries such as England, Japan, France, and China. We don’t see you photographing in U.S. even though you reside in U.S. Is there any reason for that?

If you look at my work, there are number of projects from the USA. I photographed The Rouge steel plant in Michigan for a number of years. There is Monique’s Kindergarten, my daughter’s school in San Francisco, where I used to live. I also photographed the Golden Gate Bridge and the Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing areas. There is also an extended series on New York City, which you can view on my website under Image Archive, USA, New York. Generally though, I am European in nature. That is where I come from and where my roots are. So, at the beginning of my career I would continually return to Europe to photograph. I think I was able to see it with fresh eyes, because I wasn’t actually living there anymore. Sometimes I find it is difficult to photograph what’s surrounding me because of the logistics of daily life. There are so many things going on all the time, it is easy to be continuously distracted. For concentration and focus, you really need time and patience. In my home environment it is sometimes difficult just because of normal everyday activities: I need to print, pay the bills, answer the phone, make the bed….normal life. When I go away for periods of time, I can more easily focus on what I am doing. As the first part of my career, my energy was towards Europe. It seems that in the second half, my energy is towards Asia. I have photographed extensively in Japan, and now I am working in China, Korea, Vietnam, India, and other Asian countries.

Q. Do you take pictures of people?

No, I don’t very much. I choose to photograph the absence of people, the memory of their presence, the traces of what’s left behind. I often use the analogy of a theatre stage. I prefer to photograph the stage before the characters appear, and after they leave. At those times, there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation in the air. We can live in our imagination and our own stories on the empty stage, but as soon as the characters arrive, we begin to be caught up in their stories. It is a different experience. 

Q. You sometimes take 10 hours to shoot. Is that true?

Sometimes. It varies. It depends on what I am photographing. The camera is just a tool. Sometimes I want something that’s non-specific. For instance, instead of waves on the water, I might want a smooth misty surface, which a long exposure would give. Sometimes I want specific clouds formations so I will use short exposures and there will be no movement. If I want movement or star trails, I will extend the exposure. Some of the exposures, have gone up to ten or twelve hours.

Q. What do you do during the long exposures?

I sleep if it’s at night. I often put out cameras on tripods. Then, I go to bed or I read in the car or on the grass. It’s depends on what I am photographing. 

I like to track full moon rises and full moon sets…. I like to see where the stars are. It is a luxury to do nothing for a number of hours, to watch the stars and clouds move, to experience time passing. It is an experience most of us are no longer used to. We fill our days up with gadgets and technology. I’m happy to do nothing for a change.

Q. How do you determine the exposure?

Initial exposures were based on trial and error. Once you’ve done night photography for awhile though it becomes quite easy to work out the exposures. I use the same film and cameras over and over so there is some consistency. It is not so difficult. 

Q. What kind of film do you use?

I use B & W film. For the most part, I use Kodak Tri-X. 400asa film . One of the nice things about this film is that it hasn’t changed much since I first started 40 years ago. It’s like an old friend; It’s flexible and forgiving, and easy to work with. That’s why I still use it. I also use other films depending on which country I am in and where I can buy the films. Tri-X is my old stand by.

Q. When you go on a photo shoot, how many cameras do you take?

I have a backpack and that determines how many cameras I carry. I insist that I can carry what I use to photograph as I don’t usually have an assistant. The backpack can hold two 120 camera bodies, two film backs, and two viewfinders. One is metered through the lens and the other one is a waist level. I usually have five lenses with me ranging from 40mm to 250mm. All the equipment is Hasselblad. I also carry cable releases, a lightweight carbon fiber tripod, and sometimes a hand held light meter for the night. That’s about it. 

Q. You mainly shoot B&W. No color photographs?

I photograph with B&W for myself. Occasionally I use color for commercial work.

Q. Why?

It is a personal decision. I find B & W to be more malleable and mysterious than color; it is more an interpretation of reality than a reflection of reality. I am not interested in describing and copying what I see. I am interested in a collaboration with the subject matter. Color for me is too specific. We see everything in color all the time. I look at color photographs and they don’t appeal to me. I also print the negatives myself in a traditional darkroom, so I can work with an image when it’s B & W. I have found the B&W medium to be an integral part of my creativity over the years.

Q. Now you use Hasselblad, but I’ve heard you used 8x10 in 70’s. 

When I went to photography school, I was taught to use 35mm, 120, 4x5 and 8x10, because each format was useful for different purposes. But I’ve don’t use 8x10 for myself. For the most part, I used 35mm up until the mid-80’s, and then I switched to 120 When I assisted in an advertising studio, I used both 4x5 and 8x10 for product photography, but for me it was just too cumbersome. It doesn’t have the amount of flexibility I need for my work. It is also difficult and heavy to carry a long way! I have pretty much exclusively used Hasselblad equipment since the mid-80’s.

Q. I am going to ask about you. You were born in 1953 in England?

Yes. Northwest England. I went to a local catholic school until I was 11 and continued on to Upholland College for 7 years, where I was training to be a catholic priest. However, after a few years at Upholland I realized priesthood wasn’t such a good idea for me. Instead, I went on to study art at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire. Afterwards, I went to the London College of Printing to study photography for 3 years. 

Q. When did you start taking photographs?

I began my first serious photography during the years at the Banbury School of Art. Earlier, when at Upholland studying to become a priest, there was no career guidance. I just happened to be good at painting and drawing. Creative areas were more interesting for me than the technical side of things, science and mathematics So I decided to go to a one year art school where I was exposed to many different media areas such as painting, sculpture, knitting, metal work, photography, graphics, etc. Photography seemed to be an ideal media where I could both follow my passion for the arts and at the same time I could pursue a commercial trade and survive financially. I come from a poor, working class family. There was no financial safety net. I needed a career. I needed some way to make my way through life. Photography seemed to be a good way to do it. So I decided to specialize and effectively went to commercial photography school. It was a number of years later that my work was accepted by galleries. To begin with, I was very much a commercial photographer and also an assistant. I worked in color and B&W labs printing for other photographers. I did whatever commercial jobs I could get. Just a matter of financial survival!

Q. Are there any creative expressions that influenced you in your childhood such as movies, music, etc…?

I didn’t grow up in a very cultural artistic background. My father was a builder. All my brothers left school early to become engineers and support the family. They are all very practical in the family, except me! I was the only one who had the opportunity to go for school education past age 15. My brothers and sister, as soon as they became 15, went out to work and make income for the family. As the youngest, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity of further education. Also, being in the seminary school, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of media. The outside world didn’t exist very much. I wasn’t aware of what was going in the news. Then, I went to Art school and my life changed. I was fascinated with painters like Turner, Picasso and Kandinsky. I didn’t notice serious landscape photographers until two or three years into photography school. Then, I was exposed to Bill Brandt, Ansel Adams, Josef Sudek, Alfred Steiglitz and others… Wow! Where had they come from!

Q. Do you have any favorite Japanese photographers? 

Yes. There are many. Daido Moriyama. He is probably my favorite in some ways. Because he is almost exactly opposite of what I do. I find that I am attracted to other viewpoints. Hiroshi Sugimoto is probably the closest Japanese photographer to my point of view, and I love his work. He has been a great influence I think. I also like Toshio Shibata and Naoya Hatakeyama. Eikoh Hosoe. There are so many. I don’t like to even mention any one because it sounds like I am picking favorites.I can’t. I don’t like doing that. Japanese photography has a very rich culture.

Q. Do you do any commercial work?

Most commercial work these days is in a digital format because people need instant results which they can flash around the world to the creative directors in other cities and countries. I don’t photograph digitally, yet. So I no longer have many commissions. However, next week I will be photographing for the Domaine Barons de Rothschild in Bordeaux, which I am greatly looking forward to. My website shows the clients I have had over the years. There have been many car companies. It’s always been interesting. 

Q. Are you afraid that you might not be able to get films and chemicals in few years?

When that happens, I will deal with it. I consider my health to be far more important than the changing technology of photography. It’s just the way it is. And if I have to learn digital then surely I can and will.

Q. Do you start to feel that?

It is getting more difficult to find analog/silver materials. There are fewer choices in films and papers. Chemicals are disappearing fast. 

Q. Did you stock those supplies? 

I have many years supply of sepia toner… (laugh). But otherwise I don’t stockpile. When it happens, it happens. I don’t like to live life in fear. I have thousands of unprinted negatives so at a certain point I might need to be scanning them rather than printing in the darkroom. For the time being, I prefer processes that I know extremely well, am comfortable with, and I have lived with for years. I don’t need or want to change because everybody else does. That is not a good enough reason for me. 

Q. What objects and themes are you interested in right now?

My themes don’t change very much, the countries where I photograph do. I am interested in the relationship, juxtaposition, and interaction between the landscape and the structures that we, humans leave on the landscape. Stories, footprints, evidence, traces, atmosphere, and history… That’s what I always return to. Even if I am photographing in what could be considered wilderness, there is usually some kind of hint and touch that this landscape has been changed or altered by our intervention. In the other extreme, I could be photographing nuclear power stations in the middle of the night. There may not seem to be a great deal of nature there, but it is still the relationship somewhere between the two that draws me. The work of course changes according to the geography as well as the subject matter. The current exhibition at the BLD Gallery in Tokyo is titled “In France”. Some of the photographs were made last year; others were made 35 years ago. It is a cross section of work made in that one country.

Now I am working in Japan, China and Korea predominantly, the work has a different flavor, but it is not totally different in character. When photographers meets their subject matter a collaboration begins, a conversation. Inevitably you retain some of your own character and your own vision, but also inevitably you take on some of the character of what you are photographing. The photographs change somewhat but at the same time it is obvious that the same person is making the photographs. I don’t change every year and try different projects. I am a very patient photographer. I feel like I have been working on the same projects and themes now for all of my photographic career. I suppose it is my life’s work.

Q. This time you chose France. Is there any reason for it?

Well, different themes and places come up for different reasons. This one came up for a sad reason. My agent in France, Martine d’Arc, who represented me exclusively for over 20 years tragically died suddenly. This exhibition is based on the publication “In France” that is an homage to her spirit. It was just a matter of going back in time and choosing images from my archive, and new negatives to print. Of course, I am still photographing France and will continue to do so, but it is a different place for me now. I would say France and Hokkaido are the two places I could photograph for the rest of my life Historically, they are the places I keep returning to over and over. So, it wasn’t so difficult for me to put together an exhibition and publication on France. It was very satisfying

Q. For Hokkaido series, what was the first reason for you to visit there?

I started coming to Japan in the mid-80’s for exhibitions and I photographed Kyoto, Tokyo, and some other accessible cities. I always wanted to travel to the countryside and see how the rest of Japan lived. In 2000, the opportunity came up and I started traveling around Japan. I have visited and photographed in Japan every year since. Initially, I went all over Japan, to Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido. Even down to Okinawa. And then I visited Hokkaido during the winter of 2002. It was amazing. It was a whole other land. A wonderland. It was so abstract. I began to go back and kept returning. It became a passion, almost an addiction or love affair with the land. Once I started on that direction, I wanted to keep going. Now it’s like meeting a good friend. I want to keep going back, furthering the conversation and discussion. As time goes on, it gets less and less about photography, and more about renewing the acquaintance of trees, locations, and places I love to be in. The camera becomes almost irrelevant after a while. 

Q. Do you have any plans for exhibitions rest of the year?

I will be photographing up until August. I remarried last year, and my wife and her two small children will come and live with me in Seattle. So, I will be homebound for a while to make everybody comfortable, which means I will also be in the darkroom a lot! I have been travelling and photographing non-stop for the past few years so it’s time to start printing. I’m looking forward to seeing the results. Next month, I will photographing in France and Korea. Then my cameras will go into the closet for some time!

Q. Why did you choose to live in U.S.?

My home country of England is a lovely place but in the seventies and eighties I could not survive being an artist there. Perhaps, I could have been a commercial photographer there. But there were no substantive photography galleries. When I first went to the states, I realized some photographers actually survive by selling prints, which wasn’t an option in England. So once I was over there I found some work, began to be represented by galleries, and then I got married! So I stayed. The roots became stronger and deeper over the years. It’s a big thing to up root everything and move back to Europe and I never quite did that. I just continued on in the States and now my business is so heavy with almost 40 years of accumulated prints, negatives, books, etc., that I doubt I will ever move ? unless I have a very large bonfire first. I lived many years in San Francisco and then moved up to Oregon. Finally in 2007 I came to Seattle which I like very much. 

Q. Why did you choose the west coast?

I was in New York to begin with, which is an amazing place. I ended up on the west coast because of friends. They led to contacts and connections, and connections became employment, and employment along with family… Well, it was easier to stay in one place than to move somewhere else. The West Coast is a great place to be, and I often joke that as long as there is an international airport close by, I’m very content. 

Q. Can you give us messages to Japanese young photographers? 

If you are in the arts or in any professional work life, you need determination, discipline, patience and perseverance. You also need a huge amount of good luck. I think it is good to be humble. One should appreciate every opportunity and go with the flow whenever possible. Just believe in yourself. Believe that you are unique, because EVERYBODY is unique. You have to find your own uniqueness, your own self. I think we fall down a little when we imitate others. Whatever happens, you have to continue to believe in yourself, your own inner voice and vision. No matter what everybody else is doing, somehow you need to connect into your own creativity. Follow that creativity. See where it leads you. Have faith that there is a destination for you, you do not need to envy or try to live any other person’s life. Your life is precious. Don’t underestimate your destiny.

Q. Recently, the industry of commercial photography is changing very quickly. Do you find that the fine art photography is changing as well?

I suppose fine art photography is a bit like the fashion industry. From what I understand, which is little, the current style involves huge, digital files, absolutely perfect with billions pixels per image. Photography has morphed into a different creature while I have been looking the other way. One of the greatest strengths of photography is that there is/was a tie to reality. I suppose that no longer exists. We can’t really believe anything in a print anymore. And, this is not sour grapes, I’m not complaining, just commenting. It’s the way creativity moves and changes, erratically, unpredictably, and it’s exciting. But I am not really on that path. As a young photographer, perhaps, I had more of a sense of what was going on, but not anymore. Actually, I think there is a great danger of being so conscious of what’s going on that you follow the current and forget yourself. Ultimately, it’s good to be conscious of what others are doing, but also it’s good to have the strength to go your own way if you so choose. 

Q. You mentioned that you are heading to Korea. Is it a new project?

I’ve been photographing in South Korea since 2005. so I would certainly consider it an ongoing project There are specific places in Korea that I am attracted to and one is called Shinan, which is an archipelago in the southwest. I am exploring the islands and the fishing industry. Seaweed and Salt are big industries there. As the tides go up and down, the structures that are left behind are absolutely fascinating. I have also been exploring in a similar way that I explored Japan with repeated visits over the years, accumulating images of the landscape, industry, temples, coastlines and occasional wintry conditions, etc.

Q. Do you think you are going to discover new spot to shoot?

I never know what is around the corner, which makes life very very interesting. I don’t have burning ambition to go any particular place, but I’m sure if the opportunity happens, I will always take it. 

Q. When you are in darkroom, what’s size do you usually print?

All my prints are sepia toned silver gelatin, made by me in a traditional darkroom from negatives (i.e. non digital), in limited editions of 45 and 4 artist proofs. My print size is always about 7 3/4 inches square, and prints are dry-mounted and matted on 16 x 20 inch vertical white museum board (4 ply backing, 2 ply matt). There is no variation in this presentation. I have been doing this for a long time. I’ve experimented with smaller prints and bigger prints, but I’ve decided this is the size that I prefer, the optimum size for me. My images are quite intimate. They are not there to impress or awe people. They don’t describe details. There are there for intimate engagement. I want my viewers to be very close to the print. 

Q. If you have an exhibition at a large space, do you still print your picture in that size? 

Yes. 

Q. Even if galleries ask you to print bigger, you wouldn’t.

No. I will make the prints exactly the same. 

Thank you very much!