Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna was born in Widnes, England, in 1953. He attended Upholland College, Lancashire, 1964-72; The Banbury School of Art, Oxfordshire, 1972-73; and The London College of Printing, 1973-75, and has since continued to work as a photographer and artist. He currently lives in San Francisco, California.

Mr Kenna has achieved international recognition for his photographs which have been shown in many exhibitions in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, and are in such permanent collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; The Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Monographs of Mr Kenna’s photographs and books photographically illustrated by him include The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1985), Michael Kenna 1976-1986 (1987), Night Walk (1988), Le Desert de Retz (1990), Michael Kenna (1990), The Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing (1991), Michael Kenna - Twenty Year Retrospective (1994), The Rouge (1995), The Silverado Squatters, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1996), Le Notre’s Gardens (1997); and Monique’s Kindergarten (1997).

This conversation was first seen in the November/December, 1998 issue of View Camera magazine. Find out more about View Camera magazine at www.viewcamera.com


John Paul Caponigro Monique’s Kindergarten is quite different work.

Michael Kenna It’s different but at the same time very much the same. It’s different because it’s 4 X 5, it’s indoors, and the subject matter is the "still life." Most of what I photograph, whether it’s industrial areas or formal gardens or landscapes or sea fronts, are areas that have been designed and altered in some way, shape, or form for our usage. I usually photograph them when there’s nobody about. There’s a kind of atmosphere, a presence or an absence, that I look for. It’s that atmosphere, that feeling, that I really like to photograph. It’s the same in the kindergarten. Most of the time there are above twenty five children playing in there. When the children have gone home they leave behind this amazing atmosphere and energy that you can really feel. You can feel it if you slow down enough. I usually go to the kindergarten on Sundays. It always takes me about an hour to adapt to the tranquillity and scale of the place. I walk in with my new/old Deardorff camera and big tripod. I’m 6’2" and all the chairs are about six inches high. I’m tripping over things and tripod legs are banging on tables. I feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop.

JPC And yet there don’t seem to be many bird’s eye views.

MK Oh, but there are! A lot of the time I have to take the 4 X 5 off the tripod. I have it resting on the ground because I need to be right down there, scrubbing around trying to photograph things, as I think the children would see them. Also, I feel that before I begin to photograph I have to go around and say hello to everybody, all the little presences, all the little toys, all the little puppets. Then slowly, very slowly, I begin to adapt to what is really such a very different pace than this outside "real world", so we call it. It’s quite wonderful. I need to be very quiet to be able to hear the sounds, to hear what the objects are saying. It’s like the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale which says that when the people go away, the toys come alive. As soon as I close the kindergarten door I can just imagine them going "ahhhhhh".

JPC What was it that drew you to do that work?

MK To begin with, just being there with my daughter, Olivia. When my daughter left the kindergarten, the teacher, Monique, who knew that I was a
photographer, asked me whether I’d photograph the kindergarten children for her. I said,"Well you know it’s not really my sort of thing, but I’d be happy to photograph the kindergarten for you." Monique’s from Europe and she wanted to send photographs back to her friends and associates there. So I went round with a 35mm camera and photographed everything in color for her. It was while I was in that process that I became interested in what was really there. Coincidentally a friend gave me a 4 X 5 camera a few months later. I was thinking, "What am I going to do with this? I’ve got to use it now that I have it. I can’t just put it in a closet somewhere. I really need to make the most of this gift." The idea of photographing in the kindergarten came to me and so the project was born.

JPC Tonight there is a pre-opening for the book and the show at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery?

MK Yes. All the royalties for the book go to the Waldorf school. It’s meant as a fund raiser. We are hoping to sell many books! This opening is just for the school, its alumni, and friends. Monique Grund, the kindergarten teacher, will be there and also John Bloom, the administrator and a photographic historian who wrote the text for the book. The opening for everybody else will be tomorrow night.

JPC Atget photographed Paris, his home, do you photograph San Francisco often?

MK Atget is one of the more powerful influences on my work. He photographed exclusively in his home city of Paris, just like Sudek did in Prague. Atget was amazingly prolific, he produced so much work, and some of it is brilliant. He also made many photographs in a more documentary style, to illustrate particular architecture or craftsmanship - those images are not of great interest to me. There’s no doubt he must have been devoted to Paris and the city certainly seems to have inspired him. I have to admit that I don’t really feel that way about San Francisco, even though it is a fine city, and my home right now. I suspect that when my daughter Olivia heads off to University, (another five years!), my wife Camille and I will rethink where our home should be. I feel that my creative "home" is somewhere in Europe, probably in France. I find it quite difficult to photograph in San Francisco. There’s always so much going on here that it’s difficult to just photograph for three or four hours and come back. So I generally don’t do that. I prefer instead to go off on trips to work. Perhaps if I lived somewhere else San Francisco would be much more alluring!

It was actually nice to have a project that I could do at home. I learned about large format cameras in photography school and when I did advertising photography. But I hadn’t done 4 x 5 in 20 years. It was a good way to get back into that format.

Monique gave me a key to the school so I could go over on Sundays and spend 4 or 5 hours at a time. She would often come in and make coffee and a croissant and leave me to it. I started to build up a small collection of studies of the kindergarten. After five years time I had many photographs and that’s when I got together with the publisher Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press. We put the book together and went to press. The first copies literally arrived here a week ago. Now the show is at Stephen Wirtz and from there it will travel through the US and into Japan, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium.

JPC What drew you to shed the Suerat-like grain of your earlier 35mm work for 2 1/4 and now 4x5? I have a hard time imagining it was a matter of "greater fidelity" as so much of your work depends on absence as much as it does presence. Heavy atmosphere aside, even in your recent 4x5 work you often chose to employ a very limited depth of field.

MK I used 35mm pretty exclusively for about fifteen years, up to 1987. I was quite happy with the small format negative and the resulting grain. I suppose that I just needed a change and perhaps a new technical/aesthetic challenge. Seeing the subject matter back to front and in a new square format did the trick! It took me quite a while to get used to it. The first prints I made were 16x20" - very graphic, hard, and untoned. Not like Kennas at all! After about eighteen months of working on those prints I decided that I really didn’t like them. I didn’t like printing them, handling them, shipping them, or viewing them. So I got back as many as I could and destroyed them. There were seven or eight images that I continued and printed out their editions. The rest I retired or printed much smaller. Since then I’ve pretty much used the 120 format like 35mm, hand held whenver possible. I like to use the camera as a "sketch book". I take many photographs when I am working - not just the one that I think will be the "best". I prefer not to previsualise too much. In fact I try to immediately forget what I have just photographed so that I can see it again with fresh eyes, perhaps from a different angle. Sounds daft I know, but it works for me. I find the larger 120 negative gives me more flexibility. I can print full frame squares , or I can crop, print vertically or horizontally, I can even make panoramas. I usually make those decisions much later, after I have made work prints to play with. As for the 4x5", I must say that I find it pretty unwieldy outdoors. For me, The advantages it has to offer in terms of, for example, axis tilts and larger negatives, are completely offset by it’s size and slowness of operation. All power to those who can use them outdoors. Inside the Kindergarten on the other hand, it was great because I had to slow down my pace anyway. The 4x5" helped me to do just that! It was wonderful to peer through the ground glass at close ups of the children’s toys. That close up, limited depth of field point of view, seemed to me to be how a child might view these objects. Total momentary concentration with complete disregard of whatever else was happening around them.

JPC What time of the day were you photographing in the kindergarten?

MK Usually morning, but not really early morning; you know, after dog walking time. Always when children were absent. It’s a very different atmosphere when it’s full of children. I would find it impossible to concentrate. The conversation would be between the object and the child rather than me. I don’t feel I would be able to do the job properly. I prefer to have the solitude and tranquillity of photographing on my own.

JPC Every artist has a certain timbre of light they’re attracted to. One wonders if what you’ve been attracted to is a product of the quiet hours in the day in less populated places.

MK I love to photograph early in the morning and at dawn. But I’m happy at dusk or in the middle of the night, I’m even happy during the day if there’s no people about. But it’s more difficult when there are people around. There’s a lot of noise. There’s a distraction of energy in the air. I find it more difficult to focus and concentrate on what I’m doing. So it’s easier for me in the morning. And as you say, by chance or otherwise, that is the time when the light is quite gorgeous. In the kindergarten it made little difference, because there were just a few windows and that was all the light I used. Whether it was raining, or whether there was sunshine outside, I still photographed. It would have been nice to come in with a smoke machine.

JPC I’ve been trying to resist that this whole time Michael. You didn’t take up smoking I hope? No dry ice?

MK That’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought about that. Perhaps I should go back. But, I’d get fried if I smoked in the kindergarten!

JPC Monique would not be happy.

MK Little ashes around the place, not a good idea! The place is always spotless!

JPC I’m trying to zero in on why people are attracted to empty places. It’s particularly curious when photographing man-made environments or environments that are so influenced by man. Curious to prefer looking at the residues of the activity rather than the activity itself. Certainly it lends a different perspective, a different kind of information.

MK If you’re looking at the residues you have a great amount of space left over for your own experiences, memories, and associations. The residues act as catalysts with those personal connections. But if you’re photographing a present engagement you don't really have that. You focus in on the person doing the action. Memory is sufficiently diffuse. It’s evocative. Every individual gets a different perception, because we all have different memory banks. And I don’t think it’s the same when you’re photographing contemporary action or modern street furniture.

JPC True. It becomes much more specific, about the individual and that particular moment.

MK Right. Right. In some ways the older it is, the more space you have. The longer interval of time means that more memories have been stored. Just like some of the toys in the kindergarten.

JPC You’re getting to something that’s been in the back of my mind when I think of your work. Evocative, I think you used that word. An emphasis on suggestion rather than description. The lower levels of light, the deep shadows, selective focus, sometimes pronounced grain, the mist, the smoke, all are at odds with a photography obsessed with details, the literal surface of things, with denotation rather than connotation.

MK The camera is just a tool. It can be used as a Xerox machine. You can get all the right zones and all the precise details and you can come back with, more or less, an exact reproduction of external reality, which is a prerogative of any individual; but the prerogative of any individual is also choice and you could choose to do something completely different.

If you’re writing you can write a hundred pages and describe an event or an action or a place in fine detail, with all its associate tastes, smells, touches, and sounds.

JPC Joyce.

MK Right. At the same time you can do Haiku poetry which can be equally potent with few words.

JPC Ancient pond/ Frog jumps in/ Splash.

MK Right again! It’s the choice of any individual. In my photography I consider myself much closer to Haiku than to Joyce! In other media too, I am attracted to seemingly "unfinished" works, that are not so full of information that there’s little or no room for the viewer, for audience participation. When I’m not invited to participate I begin to feel disconnected, no matter how awesome the artwork or the artist’s genius might be.

JPC I have to agree. I think photography has been obsessed about insisting that in order to be valid the artist has to have a very specific intention and indelibly impart it on the materials, because the machine is doing so much. In a sense this encourages one to overcompensate at times. I think one of the things that makes Shakespeare so great is the way he uses ambiguity, his work masterfully lends itself to dozens of equally valid interpretations and becomes a richer text through the process of continued interpretation, which can be read as participation, yet no one would say he didn’t have something specific to say or that he didn’t say it artfully.

MK Right. Work can be very boring when it’s dogmatic, when a certain set of rules are striven for, and perhaps reached, but with little or no personal interpretation. It’s the same with any structure or hierarchy. In photography, there are so many photographers running around trying to get the nth degree of fine grain and the nth amount of tonality. It’s an endeavor and it’s an individual choice as to whether it’s a worthy endeavor. Of course the industry is geared towards that because they want you to try the next film, to try the next chemical, to get the best camera and the more expensive lens. It’s the same with cars. You want a faster car with a better turning ratio and more acceleration. But it is not necessary to have all these things to drive down the road, to get from A to B. You can have a very enjoyable drive in your thirty-year-old ramshackle car, which usually has much more character and individuality anyhow. And you can produce excellent work with old camera equipment. People use pinholes of course.

JPC Or no camera at all. Man Ray, Adam Fuss.

MK Right. My work is certainly more about suggestion than description.

JPC So Michael, do you feel you’re a participant in these spaces or these events or just a visitor coming through?

MK I think one has to participate in life. There’s really no choice. You walk into a room and you change the whole energy and atmosphere of that room. There’s always a connection.

JPC We could look to physics. You can’t take a measurement with out altering the object or the environment you measure. The observer and the observed are inseparable.

MK Well that’s basically it, Heisenberg’s law of indeterminacy. That ‘s a fundamental basis of life. So you have to participate and contribute. You can’t be anonymous. And I found in photography if you make an active decision to contribute, if you don’t go to a place, sneak in and try to snap a photograph, or take a photograph, or steal a photograph, but if instead you go in with presence of mind saying, "Hello. I’m Michael Kenna. I’d like to make some photographs here with your permission," you’ll be much more productive. It’s when you go into that space and you say, "I’m here, let’s be friends. " I don’t want to get too touchy feely, but if you’re in a space, you do need to connect with that space, whether you’re in a formal garden, an industrial site, or a kindergarten. You need to have a positive rapport. It’s very, very important. It’s important not to feel like you’re intruding or stealing. Because whether it’s a tree or a steel works, energetically you set up bad vibrations if you’re stealing, if you’re always thinking "What can I gain from this?" As opposed to, "How can I add to this situation?" Here’s a beautiful tree. You know if this was a person you wouldn’t just snap it and run away. You’d say, "You look beautiful, may I make a portrait of you?" Whatever it is you are photographing, remember to say, "May I make a portrait of you? May I photograph you?" That’s how I try to approach it. I’m trying to make a contribution rather than take something away. And it works. Something opens and I don’t feel shut off from my subject matter.

JPC That’s a balanced and very sensitive way of approaching it. It’s the other side of imposition where you go to photograph "a" tree, which suddenly becomes "your" tree. I don’t think Cezanne said, "You. Be my tree now." There remains, in his work, a tangible sense of Cezanne trying to illuminate his painterly dialogue to a point where he could commune with the tree and subsequently communicate more of the tree. The veil of separation between subject and viewer parts.

And yet somehow I think in that process of reaching out we are also learning to contact levels of ourselves that we’re not ordinarily in touch with. If we simply give the world and ourselves the rote responses we are used to we also rob ourselves of a fuller experience of the world and ourselves, one won’t encounter unless we reach out. It’s a curious mutualism.

MK Yes. Let’s use the analogy of a relationship. If you’re meeting a tree for the first time, as with a person, you don’t take that tree, or person, for granted. The more respect, reverence, and honor you give to what ever is in front of you, the better you will also be received. The clearer the dialogue you have, the clearer the relationship you’ll have. Later on when you have a negative, you may have very warm memories of that particular encounter. And when that negative transposes into a print and the print sits on a wall, you don’t feel like you’ve stolen something.

JPC I think there’s something extraordinary about how that quality, and we’re talking about a quality not necessarily a quantity, could possibly be transmitted by the material and continue to be contained in the material for quite a long time, sometimes long after both viewer and viewed have passed.

MK But it does. There’s no doubt there’s, energetically, something in there. You can feel the difference.

JPC What else is on your mind at this time?

MK Perhaps future projects. After Monique’s Kindergarten I’ve finished my third project in three years. All of these projects have taken me 7 or 8 years. So there was The Rouge, Le Notre’s Gardens and Monique’s Kindergarten. Actually, all these projects continue even after books have been published. I’m still photographing at the Rouge and in the formal gardens. Hopefully I will get to visit the kindergarten again soon.

JPC I feel it’s important to follow a train of thought through, to give it enough depth and development to generate a critical mass or a momentum before moving on, otherwise the work might forever linger at the threshold of accomplishment. I wonder if you feel that these projects bring a specific focus to the process of working?

MK They do. I like to work in specific areas and on specific projects. However, I find that I work on four or five of these projects at one time. Now that Monique’s Kindergarten is complete, the next project is looming. It is something I’ve been working on for over ten years – the Nazi concentration camps in Europe. That will be my focus over the next two years. I have to get this work completed. There will be a book and the prints will be shown in the year 2000. All the work on this subject matter is being donated to the state of France – the Mission du Patrimoine Photographique, in Paris. They will organize the show and tour it, and produce the book. The prints from this project will not be in shown in galleries and will not be for sale. It’s very sensitive material and I don’t feel that I should profit by it. But I do feel that if people want to see it, they should be able to.

JPC It is important to bring a sense of conscientiousness to ones work, even if one has to make sacrifices to do so.

MK It is critically important that everybody lives as conscientious a life as possible. Furthermore, the higher you rise in whatever circle you are in, the more responsibility you have. I’ve been most fortunate and have lived a very, very gifted career in photography. It doesn’t seem like yesterday that I was wandering around the streets with my portfolio trying to get a gallery to exhibit the work. Since then it’s really been great. So I feel very lucky. Photography has given me so much. This is one way, and there are many other ways, to give back. If you have a gift and if you can give back the gift, that’s the best thing you can do. Gifts always carry responsibilities!

JPC There is a growing sense of conscientiousness, that it’s an important aspect of creative work. Conscientiousness fosters a sense of becoming a whole human being and the more whole you become, the more whole your work can become. Perhaps it will then touch better parts of the viewers that later see the work. Ripples in a pond.

MK Absolutely. Absolutely. It all makes a difference.

JPC We certainly hope so.

MK It does. I have no doubt.

I think it’s a good way to voyage through this world, being a photographer.