Photography : Window & Mirror
Born in a small town in Lancashire, Michael Kenna has been living in the United States since the late 1970s. A tireless traveler, who stays away from all fashions and of aesthetic dogmatism, he has built, for more than fifty years, a body of work devoted to the representation of romantic and delicate landscapes devoid of any human presence. Man is only present in an allusive way, with some traces of step here and there.
His landscapes are spectral, and sometimes abstract, but always carry a story.
The photographer has always used Black & White to introduce a form of geometry in his images. Working with film, he makes all his own prints.
In love with France where he was recognized very early, he donated, by notarized agreement (signed November 10, 2022), his entire photographic work to the French State. It is now kept by the « Médiathèque du patrimoine et de la photographie » (MPP) at the Saint-Cyr fort in Montigny-le-Bretonneux (Yvelines).
Website : www.michaelkenna.com
Instagram : michaelkennaphoto
Your first photographic trigger ?
Michael Kenna: I remember, as a young boy in my home town of Widnes, kneeling for what seemed like hours on the hard pews of St Bede’s church, wishing that the long Latin service was already over. I would gaze over at the light, always there above the altar, symbolizing the unseen presence of the God I fervently believed in at the time. I would try to imagine what he/she looked like. I suspect that in these moments I was making my first photographs, albeit they were never recorded on film. Since then, I have always sought to photograph what I cannot see.
The man or woman of image who inspires you?
Michael Kenna: The man and photographer, Bill Brandt, and the woman, Mamta Mani Kenna, my wife.
The image you would have liked to make?
Michael Kenna: Courtyard of the Meiji shrine. 1951. Werner Bischof.
The one that moved you the most?
Michael Kenna: The Isle of Skye. 1947. Bill Brandt.
And the one that made you angry?
Michael Kenna: I don’t recall being angry at any photograph, but I have certainly experienced profound sadness and exasperation at the depths of human depravity, particularly in times of war. I think of the “The terror of war. 1972.” photographed by Nick Ut, the many photos from the liberation of WW2 Nazi concentration camps, and the more recent images of the Russian bombing of a children’s hospital in Ukraine.
A key image in your personal pantheon?
Michael Kenna: Trees, Richmond, Surrey, England. 1975
A photographic memory from your childhood?
Michael Kenna: Age 12, trying to photograph a flying gull on a moving boat in Llandudno, Wales. I remember deliberately rotating the plastic Diana camera 45 degrees in order to, as the photographer Gary Winogrand would later explain, see how something looked when it was photographed.
With no budget limit, what would be the work you would dream of acquiring?
Michael Kenna: Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling.
According to you, what is the necessary quality to be a good photographer?
Michael Kenna: Respect, reverence, awe, appreciation, kindness, gratitude, humility, and a relentless work ethic.
The secret of the perfect image, if it exists?
Michael Kenna: Acceptance that the journey to perfection will always be far more interesting than the destination.
The person you would like to photograph?
Michael Kenna: My mother, who died when I was a young teenager. I would like to see her again through “grown up” eyes.
An indispensable photo book?
Michael Kenna: Early family photo albums.
The camera of your childhood?
Michael Kenna: A 1960s plastic Diana.
The one you use today?
Michael Kenna: A 1980s Hasselblad.
Your favorite drug?
Michael Kenna: Love.
The best way to disconnect for you ?
Michael Kenna: Impossible to answer without knowing what I would be disconnecting from.
What is your relationship with the image ?
Michael Kenna: I am in agreement with John Szarkowski. A photograph is both a window and a mirror. We look through the window and see, connect and collaborate with the subject matter in front of us. We also use this same external reality as a mirror which reflects our individual proclivities, genetics, experiences, thoughts and desires.
Your greatest quality ?
Michael Kenna: No idea and not for me to say.
Your latest folly?
Michael Kenna: Attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to answer these questions.
An image to illustrate a new banknote?
Michael Kenna: I rather like the old, now defunct, Japanese bank notes which are illustrated with some of their natural treasures: Mt. Fuji, Red Crown Cranes, and Shinto Torii gates. I could imagine bank notes illustrating numerical equivalent elements to varying denominations such as: One mountain, Five flying birds, Ten posts in water, Twenty flowers, Fifty trees, One hundred stars, etc.
The job you would not have liked to do ?
Michael Kenna: In my earliest days of photography, when I was still experimenting with all sorts of photography: sports, fashion, editorial, still life, portraiture, etc., I had a very short stint of photographing groups of diners at large hotel dinner gatherings in upstate New York. All the pictures were made on color transparency film, which was processed overnight, cut into frames, inserted into plastic viewfinders with key rings attached, and hopefully sold as souvenirs to guests the following morning. I didn’t last very long as I was completely useless at the job!
Your greatest professional extravagance?
Michael Kenna: Donating my life archive to France, to which extravagance I am still happily smiling.
What do you think are the bridges between photography and design?
Michael Kenna: Graphics, lines, shapes, forms, tonalities, abstractions …
The city, the country or the culture you dream of discovering?
Michael Kenna: Nirvana.
The place you never get tired of ?
Michael Kenna: Hokkaido, Japan.
Your biggest regret ?
Michael Kenna: Only having one life. Although, I am completely open to being surprised with another…
In terms of social networks, are you more into Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok or Snapchat and why?
Michael Kenna: I have little interest in social media and do not have adequate personal experience to answer.
Color or B&W?
Michael Kenna: B&W.
Daylight or studio light?
Michael Kenna: Daylight.
Which city do you think is the most photogenic?
Michael Kenna: Paris.
If God existed would you ask him to pose for you, or would you opt for a selfie with him?
Michael Kenna: I’d like to be include in a group photo with his available angels. I can already imagine a title such as : Ninety Seven Angels plus Michael.
If I could organize your ideal dinner party, who would be at the table?
Michael Kenna: Maybe you could invite the same angels? Of course, it would be very nice to have my extended family and friends there. Then again, I am always more than happy to have a single seat at the bar.
The image that represents for you the current state of the world?
Michael Kenna: Probably an image from outer space showing how small earth is in the overall universe. I think we all spend far too much time examining our own navels and we need to occasionally zoom out to better appreciate the overall picture. A realization and/or reminder of how minuscule we are, can help us to put both our personal and global “issues” into perspective.
What is missing in today’s world?
Michael Kenna: Personally speaking, and currently enjoying my 69th year, I wouldn’t mind a few new body parts which are wearing out, to keep me going for the next 69 years. Unfortunately, I don’t see them readily available in the supermarket.
If you had to start all over again?
Michael Kenna: If I was able to start with the memories of a life well lived, repetition would not be so alluring. I suspect some other form of expression such as music, literature or painting would interest me more than photography. However, if there were no memories, I cannot imagine doing anything differently. I have had a great time with zero regrets.
A last word ?
Michael Kenna: Amen.