By Claire Sykes
April 2003

It’s no surprise that as a child Michael Kenna wanted to someday be a priest. The most esteemed person in his Northwest England industrial hometown, the priest embodied power, and inhabited that unseen presence inherent in the environment of the church, with its ethereal silence embedded in prayer.

This all emanates in Kenna’s black-and-white images—of parks and power stations, bridges and Buddhist temples, Easter Island and Auschwitz. Though empty of people, his photos of intimate landscapes are filled with the evidence of humanity. Serene and mysterious, they pause at the interim of past and present, night and day, realism and abstraction, in scenes that invite reverie and reflection.

“His images hold a mirror to each viewer’s soul and conscience. They invite us all to participate in his experience, closing the circle between print, photographer and onlooker,” I read in Ruth Bernhard’s essay in Kenna’s A Twenty Year Retrospective (Treville, 1994 and Nazraeli Press, 2002).

The book is one of nearly 20 monographs of his work (many of them unfortunately out of print), joining exhibits and gallery representation in the U.S., Asia, Europe and Australia; and public collections in the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others.

You can’t help but get close to Kenna’s unusually small, mostly eight-inch-square, prints. “He has a clear sense about what he wants to put in them,” the 98-year-old Bernhard tells me by phone from her home in San Francisco. “He never includes any unnecessary ideas. As a result, there’s never any question about whose work it is. A great deal of Michael’s personality is always in his photographs.”

His personality has had 50 years to get there. Born (in 1953) and raised in the chemical manufacturing town of Widnes, Lancashire, Kenna grew up with five siblings in a poor, working-class, Irish-Catholic family. As a child, he spent hours alone with his imagination inventing games. In one, he’d write his name, the date and time, and some observation on pieces of paper, then hide them in the house or park across the street. “The whole object of the game was to see how long it took before I went back to find them,” he says. “It was all about time, change, memory and patience.”

The same goes for photographing, as if Kenna knew he was practicing then for the lifelong profession he had yet to realize. First, he’d serve as an altar boy and attend seminary school (for seven years, until age 17), with dreams of the priesthood. He abandoned those in his teen years and discovered his talent for art, unheard of in his family who would have considered his interest an improbable livelihood option.

After a year at the Banbury School of Art, Kenna applied to the London College of Printing in both the graphic design and commercial photography departments, figuring he’d go with the one that accepted him first (he graduated from the latter, in1976). While pursuing his hobby of landscape photography (pretty pastoral scenes to escape from his industrial roots), he took every chance to practice his craft, commercially. He photographed theater dress rehearsals, and for record companies and the press; assisted other photographers, and sold stock photos of such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, Marc Riboud and Jacques-Henri Lartigue for the John Hilleleson Agency on Fleet Street. “I was around all this amazing imagery, photographs by very famous people I hadn’t even heard of. Their work seeped into my blood.”

But not as much as the photos of Bill Brandt, the strongest influence on Kenna’s work. Of his collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1976 exhibit, The Land he says, “I saw an extremely powerful atmosphere, in his skies full of nostalgia and melancholy, his profound use of night photography with dark shadows and no details, and his sense of melodrama. I loved seeing that photography isn’t all about the exterior world. It’s about the relationship between the exterior and the interior, a potent concoction in a creative human being.” Brandt’s subject matter also resonated with Kenna who recognized in his photos the English gardens and countryside landscapes, and the northern towns in which he had supported his local rugby league team. He revisited these places after Brandt’s death in 1983, both as a homage to Brandt, and to photograph them himself.

In 1977, when Kenna moved to the States, to San Francisco (where he still lives), “I saw that galleries existed here and people actually showed and sold their work.” It wasn’t long before he was one of them. Within a year, and for the next eight, he was printing for Bernhard.

Says Kenna, “She took creative license with a negative more than anyone else I’d ever seen, cropping, elongating, retouching and playing with contrast. She opened my eyes to the possibilities of the printing process and I went back and printed earlier negatives of mine, now that I could interpret them in a way I’d never thought of before.” Bernhard also influenced Kenna “spiritually, with her attitude about the world and life in general, and her openness and connectedness, her ability to say yes to everything.”

The photos of Josef Sudek, Eugène Atget, Charles Sheeler and Harry Callahan also shaped Kenna’s work, which stands in contrast to that of Ansel Adams’. Kenna tried his hand at Yosemite and Yellowstone, but his photos of them “didn’t add anything. They were just reductive copies of the experience of being there,” he says. “In such a large landscape, it’s very difficult for me to feel the presence, the memory of humans, and the sense of impending action.” Raised in a small country with little wilderness, he prefers instead the re àlationship between humans and a more intimate landscape.

“Parks and formal gardens are the ideal places to explore that idea. They’ve been structured, contained and harmonized for our distraction,” says Kenna. Stone steps stretched at an angle climb up to a giant, shadowed vessel, and in the distance, a row of conical topiary trees jab into a hazy hillside, in “Covered Urn, Study I” (1987), taken in Versailles, France.

In the mid-1980s, Kenna began photographing French and English formal gardens such as this (and the Désert de Retz, an 18th-century landscape garden west of Paris with its medley of ruins), as an homage to Atget and his series of park images from the outskirts of Paris. “Parks and gardens are the quintessential intimate landscapes,” he continues. “People use them all the time, leaving their energy and memories behind. It’s what’s left behind that I like to photograph.”

Personal and cultural histories leave only their tracks in Kenna’s photographs. He sees in his work that unpopulated interval between acts of a play, when “there’s a tension in something about to happen and the mind lets loose in a stream of consciousness, wondering and questioning. Once there’s someone onstage, all your focus is on that person. Instead, I like giving room to imagine yourself onstage, with the landscape as the place where your own dramas can unfold.”

With clarity and simplicity, Kenna’s images suggest rather than describe, offering up just a few elements of the landscape, leaving it to the viewer to complete the picture. “In this way, my photos are more like haiku than prose.”

“Pier Remains” (1990), in Bognor Regis, Sussex, England, is a perfect example. Burnished water mirroring a sky mottled in shadow pulls itself toward pilings gathered there like a flock of geese. The photo’s crepuscular temperament lends a temporal quality that is at once eternal and evanescent, as if it emergING from a dream. Many of Kenna’s images fictionalize time even further with his camera’s elongated exposures, elaborating on the elasticity of the light that dwells at dusk and dawn.

“Then, there’s a certain tension in the light; it changes by the minute,” he tells me. “I like dim, vague, soft light. I also like night light that creates shadows which contain secrets, details break down to become forms and layers of tonality. Photographing at night has given me a whole new palate to work with.”

Kenna is well known for his night photography. He took his first stab at it in 1977,
jet- lagged at two a.m. at a hotel in the Catskills Mountains. Aiming his camera at a swing set, he bracketed from 1/30 of a second to one hour. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. It was pure trial and error.” The result is “Swings” (1977), its skeletal form haunted by the glow of a street light.

In “Cloud Shadows, Study 2” (1998), taken in Mont St. Michel, Normandy, France, two silhouetted steeples of this medieval Benedictine abbey lunge into a gossamer luminosity that veils the structure’s uppermost phantom-like spires. With access granted to only a few, Kenna scaled to the very top for “Clin d’Oeil a Brassai” (1998), named after a Brassai photograph of Notre Dame. Here, light originating at the mount’s base braids itself up through fractured isosceles shapes fanned out in shades of gray.

Says Stephen Wirtz, of San Francisco’s Stephen Wirtz Gallery, who has represented Kenna since 1978, “Even though they’re landscapes, there’s a figure-ground in Michael’s work that is more sculptural than painterly.”

Kenna’s night photography also has informed the way he works in the darkroom. Following Bernhard’s lead, he burns and dodges, emphasizes stormy cloud and shrouds of light (sometimes turning day into night, and vice versa), and crops out the superfluous. He prefers to work in black-and-white, viewing it as “more mysterious than color. It’s a reflection or interpretation of reality, since most of us see in color all the time.”

Night’s strong shadows, and light that comes from all directions inspire Kenna, who enjoys the unpredictability of shooting in the dark. He says, “You can’t always see what’s otherwise noticeable during the day,” like the automatic sprinkler system that surprised his camera once. “With long exposures (up to TEN hours), you can photograph what the human eye is incapable of seeing,” like the star trails in “Cloud Shadows, Study 3” (1998), another Mont St. Michel scene. While his camera is busy working, Kenna often sacks out in his car or on a park bench, a risky move when it means being jolted out of sleep by the roar of a train, its headlight ruining a perfectly good picture.

Kenna’s shorter, daytime exposures soften the fluidity of water, a common element in his work, especially when juxtaposed with the rigid structures of humanity. “I like the confrontation between the two,” he tells me. “We’ve created these stories for ourselves, and all the while water keeps lapping, in a Zen, organic way. I’ve always been intrigued with water—oceans, strong waves, mist, fog, rain. It’s always moving, transforming and uncontrollable.”

Nature’s fluent shapes converge with the geometrics of peoples lives in Kenna’s photos of pathways and piers. Where they end up no one knows, as in “Tow Path” (1984), in Blackburn, Lancashire. Following the patchwork-concrete bank of an inky industrial canal, a broken-stone walkway hobbles along with the help of a white wooden handrail guiding it past the opaque angularity of buildings and off the photograph’s edge. Even more unsettling in its hint at the unknown is “Plank Walk” (1992), in Morecambe, Lancashire, where a teasing perspective shoots the parallel edges of the horizontal boards to just short of a single point in this image of a pier that tricks us into believing it’s floating high above the water.

For Kenna, these images allude to the “solitary aspect of the journey through life,” he says. “We may feel connected, but we come here alone and leave alone, with no idea of what will happen next. We all know we’re going to die, but we don’t know how or when or what happens afterwards. There are many question marks, and I like photographing them.” It gives room for his imagination, and ours, to try to answer.

A flock of crows hovers like a cloud above a gauzy expanse of sheep spread along a Wolverton, Buckinghamshire horizon in Kenna’s “Fifty Five Birds” (1991). When I look at this photograph, or any of his, really, I see what he means when he says, “Nothing is ever the same twice because everything is always gone forever, and yet each moment has infinite photographic possibilities.”

It helps to be ready for them. “Life is about turning up. The more you get yourself out there, whether you wake up at 5:00 a.m. to pouring rain or not, the more you’re likely to experience the wonderful happenings that are going on all around you,” he says. “Sometimes the most interesting visual phenomena occur when you least expect it. Other times, you think you’re getting something amazing and the photographs turn out to be boring and predictable. So I think that’s why, a long time ago, I consciously tried to let go of artist’s angst, and instead just hope for the best and enjoy it. I love the journey as much as the destination. If I wasn’t a photographer, I’d still be a traveler.”

He’s always off for somewhere else. Says Wirtz, “You can feel the impending presence and absence in his work, due to his coming and going.”

An international marathon runner (and, from what I hear, a mean karaoke singer with a knack for Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones), Kenna literally has raced to some of the places he photographs. Other locales have come with his commercial clients, such as Volvo and Rolls Royce, The Spanish Tourist Board and British Rail, Don Perignon and Sprint. “Commercial work is very challenging. It’s also well paid and has enabled me to work on other projects.” Occasionally, Kenna thinks of somewhere he’d like to visit, and three weeks later he’s there, like Easter Island.

“I like to go for at least a week or two, to give me time to adjust to the rhythm of the place and my own creativity.” He tends to return again and again, photographing the familiar in different ways each time, as he did for ten years with Calais, France and its lace factories. “There’s a deeper satisfaction when you have a long-term relationship with a place. The process of photographing becomes more meaningful and complex, because it encourages self-reflection. In a sense it’s like meditation. Listening is as important as anything else.”

For 12 years, Kenna photographed Nazi concentration camps, visiting 27 of them, sometimes repeatedly, from 1988-2000. It started at Banbury, with the mountain of shaving brushes that emerged from the communal developer tray in a photo by a fellow student who had taken a bus tour in Poland. “I felt repulsion, and a powerful intrigue. It kindled in me the desire to know more about the Holocaust, taught only briefly at school,” he says.

Ribbons of Birkenau railroad tracks stream out to a sentinel of trees in the misty distance. Dead vines choke a barbed wire fence in Gross Rosen. Like weeds strangling a neglected lawn, a heap of wire-rimmed eyeglasses lay snarled and knotted in Auschwitz. More interpretive than documentary, Kenna’s images facilitate our gaze, so we can never forget. “But if these photographs let us remember the Nazi barbarism, they also suggest the peace. Good is in them as much as, and maybe more than, evil,” says Pierre Borhan, director of Patrimoine Photographique, in an email to me. The Paris photography organization included Kenna’s photos in their 2001 group exhibition, “Mémoire des Camps.” The year before, Kenna donated 300 of his 6,000 negatives and prints (and their rights) to the French Ministry of Culture. The rest he gave to the Caen Memorial, a museum for peace in Caen, France.

The same benign stance in Kenna’s concentration camp photos shows in his images of the Ratcliffe Power Station in England and the Rouge Steel Works in Dearborn, Michigan. “I may point a finger, but I try not to make judgments,” he says. “I do have strong convictions and political opinions, but I don’t think it’s necessary to imbue my photographic work with them. I use photography as a vessel for visual material to flow through, to encourage conversation with the viewer. I try to present a catalyst and invite viewers to tell their own stories.”

The story Chris Pichler of Portland, publisher of Nazraeli Press based in Tucson, Arizona, tells is one of the “ghost-like presence” that he feels in Kenna’s work, especially his industrial landscapes. “There’s an ominous beauty, a little bit fraught with danger.”

Then there are his photos of the kindergarten classroom contents from the Waldorf School attended by his daughter, Olivia (now 18). Inspired by the close-up contemplations of museum specimens and jellyfish in the photos by his wife, Camille Solyagua, Kenna took a turn in subject matter with this take on childhood. The hand-stuffed dolls in “Marie-Lise and Tom-Bu-La” (1994) gaze at us with utter faith in the make-believe. The glassy rows in “Painting Jars” (1994) and the light-drenched marbles in “Games in the Sun” (1997) crouch down to a child’s eye level.

Also straying somewhat from his previous work are Kenna’s most recent photos from all over Japan, having traveled there eight times, so far, since the late-1990s. Instead of the lurk of shadows and clouds fraught with foreboding, a quiet buoyancy dominates in images like “Usoriyama Lake” (2002), in Osorezan, Honshu, with its seamless, opaline water and sky, interrupted only by a line of pilings, like sumi brush strokes on rice paper. Meanwhile, the Shikoku portraits of an origami-surrounded Buddha in “Protector with Cranes” (2002), at Mandara Temple, and the ornately shrined metal statue in “Head of Buddha” (2002), at Jizo Temple, represent the few human likenesses in Kenna’s oeuvre. His next project has him following the Pilgrim Trail, in Shikoku, spending a month in Buddhist temples, the subject of yet another Nazraeli Press book, due in 2005.

Pichler’s wife, Maya Ishiwata, who represents Kenna in Japan, and who joined him and his camera there for some days, tells me, “We’d be driving or walking, and he’d see a place that he’d return to the next morning or late afternoon by himself,” but not necessarily to take pictures. “Sometimes he just wanted to say thank you to the trees. That shows in his photographs.”

While some may criticize Kenna’s work as being overly romantic and atmospheric, Bill Jay, a photographic journalist in San Diego who has known him for 25 years, has this to say: “The reason I like Michael’s photos is because they’re antithetical to the unemotional, deadpan work of his contemporaries. He’s a pictorialist, in the modern sense of someone who creates pictures with real feeling. He’s willing to plough his own furlough, remaining consistent and true to his own vision, in opposition to the pressure of the establishment.”

And he doesn’t always need film to do it. “Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.”

Recently, at the Oregon Coast, I did just that, until the cry of seagulls began to lift open the day. And I thought to myself, What would Kenna’s camera do with this moment? Then I saw it: A pale membrane of sky reaching luminous past the corpse of night, and above the somber sea, a shimmer of wings.