“Nothing is ever the same twice because everything is always gone forever, and yet each moment has infinite photographic possibilities.” -Michael Kenna
Michael Kenna says he could happily be a photographer with no film in his camera. His travels over the last 4 decades have found him in wild and industrial places in the world and fortunately for us, he not only has his cameras with him, they are loaded with film.
Michael Kenna is a traditionalist
Kenna uses traditional Hasselblad cameras that only shoot film. He is a non-digital photographer making beautiful compelling landscapes where ever he goes. His black and white photographs are considered minimalist. Some of them are extremely long exposures of over 10 hours.
I’m not Ansel Adams
In an interview with Graeme Green in Light and Land, Kenna talks about his process.
“I don’t like to approach a subject with a pre-conceived finished print in my head,” he says, “It’s the opposite of people like Ansel Adams. I never feel I’m the paparazzi making an exact copy of what’s out there. I always feel it’s a two-way street. You’re giving something to the landscape and it’s giving something to you.”
Darkroom over digital
Kenna continues, saying, “We have infinite options of how to photograph something. That extends into the darkroom afterwards. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t gone over to digital. I prefer the slowness, the unpredictability, the complications. You never know what you have. It’s like the excitement of opening up a Christmas package when you get your negatives back.”
Michael Kenna is drawn back to Japan time and again. He explains that his photography like haiku poetry uses very few words to “suggest an enormous world.” He considers his photographs as visual haiku tone poems.
He has photographed practically the whole country. He published his work in the book: Japan published in 2003. It was inspired by his first exhibition there in 1987. His many exhibitions have brought him back many times where he continues to photograph stunning landscapes.
He has published 20 plus books of his photography. His work has earned him recognition and awards notably, the esteemed Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letter from the French Ministry of Culture. His work is found in permanent collections for The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as the Victoria and Albert in London.
He has shown in exhibitions around the world.
Michael Kenna is drawn back to the same places over time often a period of years. His studies — 3 and 16 of the Kussharo Lake tree in Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan were made in 2005 and 2009 respectively (opening photo, top row, second image from left and the image below it.) The Ratcliff Power Station studies 1,2 and 7 were made in 1984, 1985 and 1986 (opening photo, bottom row, L-R respectively.)
His powerful photographs of the concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Italy are haunting and disturbingly beautiful. The entry building in Buchenwald, Germany is an example (opening photo, top row, far right image.)
The first image in the opening photo, top row is titled “Look Out, Chesil Beach, Dorset, England, 1990.
Michael Kenna was one of five siblings. He grew up in Widnes, England in a working-class family. He entered the seminary at age 10 with the plan of becoming a priest. He changed his direction at age 17 to study photography and painting. He attended The Banbury School of Art then moved on to. the London College of Printing and majored in commercial photography. He graduated in 1976. He moved to San Francisco for its active arts community in 1977 and has lived there ever since.
Read more short bios of inspirational photographers every Sunday morning in On Photography.