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Michael Kenna: I look for silence as an escape from the background noise of the world

an interview by Enrico Ratto – translation by Elisa Chisana Hoshi

Michael Kenna, is it true that when you were young you wanted to study to become a Catholic priest?

I did indeed attend a junior seminary school with the intention to become a Catholic priest! Perhaps it is best if I describe the journey in some detail. I was born and brought up in what might be described as a poor, working class family in Widnes, an industrial town near Liverpool in England. Childhood experiences obviously have a great influence on one’s life, and as a boy, even though I had five older siblings, I was quite solitary, content for the most part with making up my own adventures and acting them out in the local parks and streets. I liked to wander in train stations and factories, on rugby grounds and canal tow-paths, and in empty churches and grave yards, all locations that I would later find interesting to photograph.

Locations that later became objects of your photography.

Even though I did not use a camera at the time, I suspect this period was ultimately more influential on my vision than the time I later spent in art and photography schools. During these young years I had been an altar boy at my local Catholic church of St Bede’s and I really loved to be part of the great religious rituals of the church, assisting the priest at baptisms, funerals, weddings and the Latin mass. When I was almost eleven years old I went to a Catholic seminary boarding school at my own request, to study to become a priest. My experiences during the subsequent seven years I stayed, taught me important lessons about life. There were also many aspects of this religious upbringing that I believe strongly influenced my later photographic work, including discipline, silence, meditation and a sense that something can be unseen, yet still very present.

From a professional point of view, you left religion to embrace art.

The education was excellent, but the “career guidance” was not very strong. In my teen years I decided that I didn’t want to follow a religious life and had to decide what I did want to do. Fortunately, I seemed to be good at drawing and painting, so, following these interests, I went on to study at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire with an intention to have a career in the arts. This is where painting and photography appeared as specific options amongst many others. I felt that the chances of supporting myself as a painter in England were very low and I knew that I had to fend for myself, so I decided to specialize in photography at the London College of Printing.

Is this when you started to shoot landscapes?

Essentially, I was trained to be a commercial photographer. I learnt about photojournalism, fashion photography, sports photography, still-live photography, architectural photography, all sorts of photography with many different cameras. When I graduated, I was competent enough to be able to survive in a competitive commercial photography world. This is what I initially did.  Running parallel to this, I was also consistently photographing the landscape, which was my necessary means of self expression. I had no idea at the time that I could and would eventually make a living in this latter area.

For over thirty years you have shot many different places of earth and chased what we could define as slow photography. At what point do you realize that you have finally found the right spot to put the tripod of your Hasselblad?

When I photograph I look for some sort of resonance, connection, spark of recognition. Usually, I do not make any elaborate preparation before I go to a location. Essentially I walk, explore and photograph. I never know whether I will be in a place for minutes, hours or days. Approaching subject matter to photograph is for me a bit like meeting a person and beginning a conversation. How does one know ahead of time where that dialogue will lead, what the subject matter will be, how intimate it will become, how long the potential relationship will last? Feelings can be complicated, confused and mixed.

Are you still surprised by the way that reality reveals itself?

I try not to jump to immediate conclusions for there have been many occasions when interesting images have appeared from what I had considered uninteresting places. The reverse has been equally true and relevant. One needs to fully accept that surprises sometimes happen and control over outcome is not always necessary or even desirable. Of course, there are the exceptional moments when I feel a tingle of recognition and my hair seems to stand up. Exquisite moments when the equation of light, subject matter, point of view and technical excellence all combine to produce what I might think of at the time as a masterpiece. This is a rare occurrence in my experience, and the final image from such magical serendipity often falls short of my expectations. Hence, the mistrust I have in my own ability to predict exactly how something will come out. I prefer Garry Winogrand’s philosophy of photographing to see how something looks photographed!

What your pictures makes us feel, through their landscapes and black and white imagery, is the silence.

In my work I try to present an oasis of quiet calm and solitude that viewers of the final image can enter into. At the beginning of my photographic explorations I preferred to photograph in the early morning because there were fewer people around, and little or no “chatter” in the air. Morning light is often soft and diffused. It can reduce a cluttered background to graduated layers of two dimensional tone. I still prefer the dawn hours more than any other time of the day or night, but now I photograph at all hours, day and night. Our world is fast paced, colorful, full of distractions and all too often, extremely loud! I try to create order from chaos, and often seek silence as an escape from the world’s constant background noise.

At the end of the 70’s you moved from England to Ruth Bernhard’s studio in San Francisco to dedicate yourself to photographic printing.

I was very fortunate to meet Ruth Bernhard in 1978. She had just signed an exclusive contract with The Stephen White Gallery in Los Angeles, in which she agreed to make many prints over a period of two years. Unfortunately for her, she had recently suffered some carbon monoxide poisoning and did not feel able to make these prints. I had also just begun to be represented by the same gallery and Stephen kindly asked me if I would be interested to help Ruth. It was a wonderful opportunity it for me.

This is a background of knowledge that you carry with you every day.

My ten years of working with Ruth Bernhard were priceless. I cannot emphasize enough her influence on both my life and work. Before working with Ruth, I thought that I was a good photographic printer based on my previous experience. I had printed my own work and that of a number of other photographers, both in colour and black and white. However, Ruth gave me new insights into the process. Her basic starting point was that the negative was a starting point! She would radically transform an initial straight print into a Ruth Bernhard print. This might involve tilting the easel to achieve a different perspective, softening the focus to create an evenness of tone, making masks to burn and dodge, using different chemicals to change the contrast or color of the image, etc. She essentially refused to believe that the impossible wasn’t possible, and she taught me that there were no rules that couldn’t be broken. This made for many very late nights in her darkroom!

Once again, you point out the importance of having great teachers.

Ruth often said that she regarded her role of teacher to be far more important than her role of photographer. At the time, I was a young photographer trying to navigate in the extremely puzzling world of art galleries, publishers and commercial agents. Ruth was a guiding light for me. “Today is the day” was her mantra, and her determination to live in the present, to appreciate every moment, to always say yes to life, has left an indelible impression on me. I remain in debt to her kindness and wisdom.

Do you think that coming from an industrial zone in England had an influence on your way of looking at a landscape?

I feel that growing up in Widnes, an industrial town, has been highly influential in my work. I have photographed industry quite extensively throughout my career, including the cotton and wool mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire, power stations in the Midlands and Scotland, the Rouge Steel plant in Detroit, Michigan, USA, and lace factories in Calais, France. Industry is very much a part of our landscape and I have always felt drawn to photograph it.

Industry is the theme of your upcoming book that will be published next autumn.

Yes, perhaps this is a good time to announce that my next book to be published by Prestel this Autumn will be titled Rouge. It will be based on the the work that I did in the nineties at the Ford Motor Plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
The paintings and photographs of Charles Sheeler were the primary influences for this Rouge project. At the time, I was represented close to Detroit by the Halsted Gallery and they were able to introduce me to a retired Ford employee, Lee Kollins, who kindly gave me a tour of the Rouge facilities. I remember that I was at first less than impressed and did not feel that there was much potential for photographic imagery. However, as often happens, upon processing the film and seeing the results, I immediately realized how mistaken I had been. I returned to photograph the Rouge very soon thereafter and continued to photograph over the next three years, during the day and at night. These negatives are the basis for the upcoming book.

Have you always shot landscapes in black and white?

As a student, I experimented with colour. As a young photographer I worked as a colour printer. As a professional, I have photographed in colour for a number of commercial projects and a few personal. However, it is ultimately not my preferred palette. I feel that black and white photographs are generally quieter and more mysterious than those made in colour. For me, the subtlety of black and white inspires the imagination of the individual viewer to complete the picture in their mind’s eye. It doesn’t attempt to compete with the outside world. I believe it is calmer and more gentle than colour, and persists longer in our visual memory. After all, we see in colour all the time. Black and white is therefore immediately an interpretation of the world rather than a copy of what we see.

As a photographer, you only work in analog and print using your own dark room.

At this point, I am still 100% analog. I use film cameras and insist on making all prints myself in my own traditional wet darkroom. Having said that, I believe that every photographer, every artist, should choose materials and equipment based on their own personal vision. I don’t believe that analog is better than digital, or the reverse for that matter. They are just different, and it is my personal preference and choice to remain with the traditional silver process. I don’t need or desire instant gratification in photography and it is the long, slow journey to the final print that captivates me. I still prefer the limitations, imperfections and unpredictability of the silver based analog world. Having worked with silver materials and film cameras for over forty years, both commercially and in my own fine art work, I now find it a little out of character to fully embrace the digital medium even though I have experimented a little with it. It is true that the whole photographic process has been made much easier, faster, cleaner and more accessible to people by digital innovations, and that’s a very good thing. It doesn’t mean that all photographers need to follow this tidal wave. I think that while analog materials and chemicals are still being manufactured, I will probably stay away from digital. But, who knows what the future might bring.

Why do you choose to print your wide landscapes in such an intimate, small format?

I’ve experimented with bigger prints a number of times on various projects, but, for most of my work I prefer the more intimate, smaller, precious print. Our eyes see about 35 degrees in focus so we naturally approach artwork from a certain distance. I prefer viewers to be about ten inches from my prints, which becomes a very intimate one-on-on viewing engagement. I choose my print size accordingly. Also, I have printed this way since the seventies  Older prints get along fine being exhibited next to recent prints and my work has become one large, quite happy family.

Let’s talk about solitude, another key element of your photography. A great Italian author once said that solitude is important because it allows someone to get in touch with their surroundings, which are not only made up of human beings.

I agree with the musician and prefer to be able to listen to my surroundings when working seriously. I think the act of photographing is quite similar to that of having a conversation. If I photograph a tree, for example, I consciously ask permission from the tree to make a portrait, then we have a conversation. It is a shared experience and the resulting image is a collaboration. Quite simply, I find it easier to concentrate when there are no other people around to distract me.

Is that why you like solitude?

On a more philosophical level, we arrive in this world alone and we leave it alone. I believe it is incredibly important to be comfortable with our own solitude. Much of my work is about the presence of absence. I rarely have people in my photographs as I want the viewer to imagine being there alone in these empty spaces. Often, I use the analogy of the performing arts, theatre for example. I prefer to photograph the stage before the actors appear or after they have left, when there is a strong atmosphere of anticipation. In these moments we have to use our individual imagination to create a personal story. When the actors appear on stage we tend to listen to and follow their story. I like to think of my images as invitations to enter into quiet, empty spaces and experience solitude. In our everyday crowded, chaotic world sometimes this is not so easy to do. It can also be quite uncomfortable. However, I believe it is incredibly important to allow our minds the time and space to freely roam and explore.

I read that you like running; and that just as long runs allow you to work on the body, long photography exposures allow you to work on the mind.

I do like to run and have just completed my 55th 26.2 mile marathon. For me, it is a form of meditation and keeps me in decent physical condition, which is very important for a landscape photographer who often has to walk a long way with a heavy backpack and tripod! Another beneficial side effect of long distance running is the opportunity to freely use our imagination. During a long run, I have often unconsciously thought of creative solutions to miscellaneous problems. On a more logistical level, I have discovered many good locations while running which I have returned to photograph later.

There is an American association called The Long Now Foundation, which invites us to focus on a life horizon of more than ten thousand years, instead of the usual seventy or eighty years of our lives. This would allow us to get a different perspective on what we actually think and produce. If you close your eyes and think of your daily life, what time horizon do you see?

I once had a dream that I was a giant chestnut tree. It seemed that as I grew, centuries came and went. I looked down from where I stood and observed generations of people, individuals and families, going about their lives. Our ongoing human stories – often viewed through the subjective prisms of drama, comedy or tragedy – seemed to take on a whole different light when viewed from this new perspective. I think that when I woke up, I was a changed person. My attitude towards time was profoundly affected and my respect for these beautiful trees, these sentinels of experience, was dramatically increased.

But Ruth Bernhard taught you to live in the present, living our life, not that of the chestnut tree.

Yes, I feel that it is ultimately most important to think about the present. I am constantly aware that time is passing, even accelerating. I want to make the most of whatever time I have in this life.
I really don’t want to waste a second. It is beyond my comprehension that I will be 63 years old in November! Where did all those years go to? Life is precious and fleeting. I will certainly look ahead to the future, even though it may never arrive, and I will occasionally glance back at the past, even though there is nothing about it that I can change, but the present is what concerns me the most.