ALIGHT IN THE DARK
by Anne Telford
Michael Kenna comes alive in the hours when most are sleeping, in places time has not forgotten. Treading between night and dawn- he captures the soul of crepuscular light. He creates images that fall somewhere between seeing, feeling and reason; painting with light a world at peace without humans. His landscapes elicit calm or grief, meditation or mystery. In both horizon and foreground he reveals the grammer of Nature’s beauty and melancholia in ways the naked eye would easily miss. There is no mistaking authorship of his photographs, they all bear the stamp of his unique, and poetic vision.
What first interested you in becoming a photographer?
When I was almost eleven years old I went to a Catholic seminary boarding school in England, to study to become a priest. I would stay there for seven years. In retrospect, the education was excellent, but the “career guidance” was pretty much non existent - it was a one track vocation school and prior to graduation I realized the priesthood was not for me. Fortunately, I was pretty good at painting and when it came time to decide what to do after final exams, an art school seemed the natural choice. It was while I was attending The Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire, that I discovered photography. I knew that I needed a profession where I could make a living and painting wouldn’t have provided enough security. I felt that commercial photography could help me survive financially, landscape photography could be my hobby as well as a means of self expression. Of course this seems clearer with hindsight. Anyway, I mailed in applications for some photography courses and also some in graphic design. I was accepted into a photography course first and didn’t bother showing up for any other interviews.
As a kid I was quite solitary, content for the most part with making up my own adventures and acting them out in the parks and streets of the small industrial town in which I grew up. I liked to wander around in train stations and factories, on rugby grounds and canal towpaths, and in empty churches and graveyards - all locations that I would later find interesting to photograph. Even though I did not use a camera at the time, I suspect this period was ultimately more influential on my photography than the time spent in art school.
What formal and informal education did you receive?
1964-72 St. Joseph’s College, Upholland, Lancashire, England
1972-73 Banbury School of Art,Banbury, Oxfordshire, England
1973-76 London College of Printing, London, England
How did you evolve your style?
The photographer Ruth Bernhard used to tell me that this is like asking somebody how they evolved their signature. It is not something I’ve ever worked on consciously. I think style is just the end result of personal experience. It would be problematic for me to photograph in another style. I’m drawn to places and subject matter that have personal connections for me and I photograph in a way that seems right. Where does it all come from, who knows?
What draws you to photograph at night and at dawn?
I used to only photograph in the early morning. I like the calm and peacefulness of the waking hours. There are usually few people around and there isn't a constant annoying chatter in the air. Morning light is often soft and diffused. It can reduce a cluttered background to graduated layers of two-dimensional tone. A facet of my work is about trying to simplify and slow down this fast-paced, chaotic mess we live in. I still like the dawn more than any other time of the day or night, but now I photograph at all hours.
Photographing at night can be fascinating because we lose some of the control over what happens in front of the camera. Over a period of time the world changes; rivers flow, planes fly by, clouds pass and the earth's position relative to the stars is different. This accumulation of time and events, impossible for the human eye to take in, can be recorded on film. For the photographer, real can become surreal, which is exciting. During the day, when most photographs are made, scenes are usually viewed from the vantage-point of a fixed single light source, the sun. At night the light can come from unusual and multiple sources. There can be deep shadows which act as catalysts for our imagination. There is often a sense of drama, a story about to be told, secrets revealed, actors about to enter onto the stage. The night has vast potential for creativity.
What is your greatest enjoyment in your work?
The whole process is satisfying for me. I love being out at odd times of the day and night, experiencing the world in fascinating places where I would want to be even if I wasn't making photographs. I love traveling and all that comes with it. I intensely dislike processing film - and fortunately there are some excellent labs around...Seeing the first proofs is always exciting, editing, making work prints, then the challenge of making final prints, even retouching the first print - all these stages are enjoyable and immensely satisfying. Then there is the exhibiting, getting reactions from others, making books, etc. Photography is immensely challenging, with a good deal of work, but I am thrilled to be a part of it.
Do you have any long term plans?
I try not to.
Any other projects that you are working on?
I like to be working on three or four projects at once, and even when these projects are supposedly finished I often continue working on them indefinitely. Right now I am very interested in Japan. Earlier this year Nazraeli Press published a volume of these photographs. The production was superb - very Japanese. Thank you Nazraeli Press. In November it will be my fiftieth birthday and as a present to myself I will spend the month on an 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku in Japan. I will photograph the temples en route.
How has the vision of your work changed from when you started to today?
Photographs I made almost 30 years ago in England stand up well with very recent images from Japan - so perhaps I haven’t changed that much at all. My subject matter has clearly broadened, my understanding may have deepened and my concerns are perhaps a bit clearer, but that probably parallels the normal aging process.
What is your favorite place to photograph. The most unusual place you have photographed?
Impossible to answer. Locations are like apples and oranges. All locations are meaningful in there own special ways.
How do you choose your locations?
This goes back to what projects I am working on. I don’t have any particular method to my madness. When I decide “what” I want to photograph, I choose the appropriate locations. Sometimes I choose “where” I want to photograph, then look for the “what” when I get there! Simple - no magic involved. I have a theory, which seems to work for me, that the best ideas come through thinking about something else! One of my hobbies is long distance running. I find there is something therapeutic and hypnotic in this activity, similar to practicing landscape photography. While thinking about one thing, and being active at the same time, other ideas float in and out. These floating ideas usually turn out to be the catalysts for my future projects.
How spontaneous can you be once you’re shooting in a given locale?
I’m often asked why I don’t photograph locally and my answer usually relates to the difficulty of being spontaneous. I like to work with no time limits, nobody watching or asking questions, no phones, etc. When I go to any location I do not know if I will be there for five minutes or five days. Inspiration depends on the light, the atmosphere, and what the photographer reacts to. Being creative often means following a lead, working on half chances, half thoughts, coming up to dead ends and re tracking. Being creative for me often means photographing things in ways that might seem completely ordinary at the time but which may turn out to be extraordinary later. The inverse happens more frequently. Creativity means being open, listening to what comes from within and without, which is very hard to do when you are looking at your watch. It is important to be focused and concentrated, which for me usually means being solitary, away from distractions. In long distance running one talks about going into the “zone”, a point of total concentration and relaxation, both at the same time. I think one can find this in photography and it can be an extremely satisfying and productive state of mind.
The theme of our issue is chameleons, which speaks to a natural ability to adapt to new environments. Can you discuss the ways in which you adapt to various environments, or vise versa, the way you try to adapt an environment to match your creative vision? Are there other ways in which you are chameleon-like?
In my photographic work I’m generally attracted to places that contain memories, history, atmospheres and stories. I’m interested in the places where people have lived, worked and played. I look for traces of the past, visual fingerprints, evidence of activities - they fire my imagination and connect into my own personal experiences. Using the analogy of the theater, I would say that I like to photograph the empty stage, before or after the performance, even in between acts. I love the atmosphere of anticipation, the feeling in the air that events have happened, or will happen soon. I have found that atmosphere in many different locations. For example, in the mid eighties I began photographing Nazi Concentration Camps in Europe. Over a twelve year period I photographed in over thirty camps, and I often returned to the same camps several times. In the early nineties I began a series titled “Monique’s Kindergarten.” I visited one kindergarten classroom at the San Francisco Waldorf School, repeatedly over five years, and photographed the objects that I found there. As you can imagine, these two projects were almost polar opposites in atmosphere. On the one hand there were feelings of evil, hatred, oppression, cruelty, death, etc., on the other; optimism, beauty, innocence, happiness and life. Does it take a chameleon to work in both areas? I don’t think so. In my photography I try to be sensitive and responsive to whoever or whatever I meet. Everything else naturally follows.
Serious, like-minded photographers used to bond together in dogmatic schools and stylistic movements, much like painters. Successful photographers today seem more inclined to go it alone. Do you spend much time with other photographers? Is there a place you go for a regular creative exchange of ideas?
No and no. By nature I am a bit reclusive. Talking about photography is not overly interesting for me. If I’m asked a direct question related to photography I can sometimes give a reasonably intelligent reply but I try to avoid talking “shop” whenever possible.
Traditionally, distinctions were made between fine art and commercial photographers. More recently, these lines seem to have blurred, even disappeared altogether. As someone with experience in both worlds, what distinctions do you make? Are such labels of any use these days?
I’m not so sure that those distinctions were actually made. It could easily be argued that many of the earlier photographers whose works are sold and traded as fine art now, were primarily commercial photographers in their time. The photography print market is a relatively recent phenomena so it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, for a photographer to make a living selling prints. There are currently many practitioners of commercial photography who have a foot in the fine art world, and vice versa. I don’t see that lines should be drawn or divisions set. Some commercial work is amazing and some fine art work is extremely boring, but the reverse is equally true. I’ve had some fine art photographers be aghast that I do advertising work. One of my earliest reasons to study photography was so that I would have a marketable skill. Commercial work has given me valuable financial support to work on very personal and uncommercial projects. But, money aside, let’s face it, commercial work can be extremely challenging, strenuous and stressful, and I like to compete in that world from time to time.
When you shoot commercial photography, to what degree are you in a different creative head space than when you shoot your own work?
I have already mentioned some of my optimal conditions for creativity: solitude, quiet, no time limits, agendas or distractions, etc. Now try to picture this scenario from a recent advertising assignment I did for Mazerati. It took a full morning for a huge crane to haul two Mazerati cars onto a private yacht in the port of Genoa. Finally, after eight hours of preparation, the yacht sails out a short distance from the land and it is time to photograph. Six walkie talkies communicate in a mixture of italian, spanish and english. My assistant and I are balanced high over the water in a cherry picker, which breaks down repeatedly, then miraculously works again when we block in cars. A creative director on the yacht gives directions on triple expressos. Polaroids are thrown back and forth. I am getting seasick lunging up and down on the cherry picker photographing a moving target from a moving platform, all the time looking through the camera, trying to direct the cars, the yacht, and the cherry picker. The cars have to be photographed with a cumbersome panoramic camera, and then close up in the same position. Union dock workers decide to have a late lunch break in the middle of photographing. The sun is beginning to go behind buildings and time is running out. My producer, pulling his hair out, is arguing with the crane operator, over the walkie talkies. Assembled for this production are the ships crew, the car prep people, two cranes and therefore two crane operators, with their assistants, various dock workers, the creative director, the client, the producer, the assistants, the lighting coordinator, and various others whose functions have become a vague blur for me. Controlled chaos - the staple of creative advertising photography!
You mentioned (earlier in our interview) that it would be difficult for you to shoot in another style. Does this make commercial shoots particularly hard for you? Have you ever found yourself at the aesthetic mercy of a client?
Commercial work is often a compromise between the thoughts and ideas of the client, the advertising agency and the photographer. From time to time I have had dream jobs where I have been given the time and freedom to photograph what I want, when I want. It is from those jobs that I have had the most cross over into my fine art work. At other times I have worked clos Ïely with art directors and creative directors to produce creative collaborations based loosely on initial layouts presented to the clients. This can be an extremely stimulating process, depending on the chemistry between photographer and art director. Occasionally, I have to photographically reproduce a pretty strict layout. This is, from my point of view, the least satisfying and creative alternative. But don’t feel sorry for me - I’m not forced to take these jobs. I always do the very best professional work I can do, have some fun, and am ultimately relieved and grateful that I can contribute to another semester of my daughter’s college education!
Vol. 1 No. 1 / Fall 2003