Focus on Photographers - Michael Kenna

Photographer Michael Kenna

Critics and viewers and writers have all described Michael Kenna's ( work in similar terms:  "serene" "mysterious" "intimate" "humane" and "powerful."  Michael Kenna's black and white medium format work has changed little in terms of format through his career, but his subject matter has moved, as he has said, from the obviously "beautiful" things such as Venetian gondolas and Parisian parks to different "landscape" matter such as that of Japan, industrial parks, and even Nazi concentration camps. "My photos are more like haiku than prose," said Kenna in a 2003 interview with Photographer's Forum, and he has often mentioned his desire to suggest with his photography, rather than describe.

Torii, Study 2, Takaishima, Biwa Lake, Honshu, Japan, 2007 by Michael Kenna

Born in 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, in northwest England, Michael finished his studies in 1976, moving to San Francisco in 1977 and eventually becoming the printmaker for Ruth Bernhard for many years.  One reason Michael has stated that he came to America was that there were no galleries exhibiting photography at the time, a sentiment shared by many other British photographers.  Though still young, he quickly became part of those who exhibited in the best galleries.  Michael continues the tradition of printmaking, personally printing his own signature 8 x 8" black and white prints, which hang not only in scores of galleries in Europe, the United States, Australia, and Asia, but also in notable museums:  the National Gallery in Washington, DC; the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Michael's work is strongly shaped by night photography, beginning with a first stab at the genre in 1977 in the Catskill Mountains.  By being jet-lagged, he was awake enough to take a 2 a.m. photograph of a swing set, bracketing the image from 1/30th of a second to one hour.  Since then, he has honed his night photography, finding that the night shadows leave more to interpretation, a philosophy somewhat in contrast with today's popularity of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.  Although he gives license to anyone who wishes to create through digital technology, Kenna still does not embrace the digital cameras from many manufacturers' lineups, preferring the medium format of the Hasselblad to produce the often very long exposures of his scenes (sometimes up to ten hours).

Audi Ad by Michael Kenna


Even for the renowned artist in Kenna, he does not seem to shy away from commercial work, having photographed for most major brands of vehicles such Rolls Royce, Landrover, Maserati, Mercedes, Range Rover, Saab, Volvo, Audi, BMW, Infinity, Isuzu, and Jeep Chrysler, noting the pay is excellent and helps fund many other personal artistic endeavors.  Other clients have included those who wish to incorporate his refined black and white style into a very specific message, for clients such as British Railways, DHL, and HSBC, Bank of America, and even Adidas.  The format (size, mainly) of the images may differ slightly, but even his commercial work does not seem to meander too far from his persistent style of offering the viewer a luxurious and often mysterious view into a scene, whether it be a landscape or a sporting event.


Michael Kenna has been influenced by many other photographers, even from his early years of working in selling the stock photography of some great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson in London, England.  He has also cited other well known photographers as inspiration and even visited some of the locations they photographed in to see how they proceeded, only to find a jumping off point for his own work.  Such photographers have included Eugene Atget, Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, Josef Sudek, and Bill Brandt (who had photographed many of the factories and mills near Kenna's hometown in England).

Skyline, Shanghai, Study 5, China 2011 by Michael Kenna


Michael has stated before that he tries not to think of the future, and quotes the John Lennon line "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."  His view that there is plenty of photographic material for him for a very long time reiterates his thirst to find new meaning in the scenes that currently exist in the world.  He seems to be ever the optimist, looking toward the future as an interesting mystery, "seeing what is around the next corner." His philosophy of always being ready as a photographer and always being out there, has rewarded him with more than a few spectacular images.  "Life is about turning up," he says.  "Sometimes the most interesting visual phenomena occur when you least expect it."

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ArticleBlack-and-whiteFine artFocus on photographersHasselbladJuly 2012Long exposuresMichael kennaPhotographyPicturelineSquare format