Interview with Michael Kenna
Brooks Jensen: Your 20th book is about to be published – this one entitled Calais Lace. It was previously published in French, but will be published in English by Nazraeli Press later this year. You’ve obviously been a busy fellow!
Michael Kenna: (laughing) I’d like to think so. It’s been a wonderful journey. I’ve been doing photography now for almost thirty years. Many projects; many interesting experiences along the way.
BJ: You must have started photography right after high school?
MK: No, after high school I went to an art school for a bit. Then I went to photography school for three years. I started my first professional work when I was around twenty years old. I celebrate my 50th in a few weeks!
BJ: Most of the book projects you’ve done, like this current new book, are project work as opposed to greatest hits collections. It appears you tend to throw yourself into a project that results in an extensive body of work. How do you decide to pursue a project?
MK: Most of these projects naturally come up somehow. In a sense, I started in the way you were talking about – the “greatest hits” work. I just tried everything I could think of, but one naturally tends towards certain areas that eventually really interest you, that resonate with you. For me, those areas are varied – from studies of concentration camps in Europe to nuclear power stations, from steel works to interiors of kindergarten classes, sea-sides, parks, gardens; there are many subjects that interest me. In all of my work, though, there is a certain prevailing theme which has something to do with memory, with time, with change, with an atmospheres that seem to reside in these places. I apply myself to many different subjects using that same theme.
BJ: So your interest in a topic comes before you photograph it?
MK: It’s a little of both. Sometimes I specifically set out to go to a place or a particular subject and photograph there. Sometimes I stumble upon places. At times I’ve used other photographers to inspire me, like Bill Brandt, Josef Sudek, Eugene Atgét … sometimes it’s places they photographed earlier in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. I started going to the same locations they had been to see how they photographed, what they photographed, why they photographed. Often I’ve made extended series of works based upon that catalyst. I like to think that I add my own interpretations based upon their influences.
BJ: I read in another interview that you’re particularly struck by the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler also. One of the things that struck me, of course, was that they were involved in the world of painting.
MK: Yes, I dearly love the world of painting. In fact, when I went to art school I thought I would be a painter. But, I come from a working class background, and I knew that painting was going to be an extremely difficult way to make a living. I needed a profession whereby I could survive financially as well as pursue my own aesthetic goals. Photography seemed to be the ideal medium. I did train as a commercial photographer, and I’ve continued commercial photography throughout the years, at the same time as pursuing my own aesthetic targets.
BJ: I think the painting aesthetic definitely comes over in your photographic style.
MK: I hope so. I prefer the power of suggestion over description. Photography, for me, is not about copying the world. I’m not really interested in making an accurate copy of what I see out there. I think one of photography’s strongest elements is its ability to record a part of the world, but also to integrate with the individual photographer’s aesthetic sense. The combined result is an interpretation – and the interpretation, I think, is what is interesting – when the subject goes through the filter of an individual human mind and emerges in a changed state – not the duplication or the recording of something.
BJ: That’s the spirit of the artist, the spirit of the painter. A lot of photographers tend to make photographs that project themselves onto the world. It sounds to me like you’re willing to take what the subject gives you and to be sensitive to the world in that regard.
MK: I think that’s the best way to live in general. There are so many busybodies out there who think they know it all … (laughing) … Perhaps the single greatest ruin of the world. In the artistic field the best results are obtained through the combination of exterior and interior. Through working with something and in a relationship with something, rather than in a fight or confrontation.
BJ: Do you think this is the reason why your work tends to be minimalist?
MK: Possibly. If I use the analogy of writing, I feel that my work would be much closer to haiku poetry than full-length prose. I don’t need to describe everything that’s going on. I like to just suggest one or two elements and use those elements as catalysts for my own imagination, and hopefully for the viewers imagination.
BJ: You accomplish that successfully, I think, by the use of atmosphere – fog, mist – these elements are repeated themes in your photographs. Do you find places to photograph and then plan to be there when there’s going to be a visible atmosphere, or do you wait until there is a sense of atmosphere and then grab your camera and run out into the world to photograph?
MK: (Laughing). Those elements of mist and rain and water and so forth, they all act, in a sense, as veils to filter out a lot of the background clutter, noise and distraction. I like that. So I often hunt for places that have those elements which work very well with my own vision. At the same time, I’m quite at peace working in areas that don’t have those filters. Then, I have to make them myself. If I’m working indoors, for example, doing still life work, in the steel factories, or when I was photographing in the concentration camps, I don’t have a choice of when I’m working there and what the prevailing conditions will be. So, I make the best of what I find. Sometimes it’s a matter of technically doing something, throwing something out of focus in the background or choosing backgrounds carefully.
BJ: But with consistency, regardless of the location or subject matter, the resulting photographs you make very definitely have a Japanese aesthetic. The sense of mystery, haiku and atmosphere – clearly this is something that you feel strongly about as a part of your personal style.
MK: I love the Japanese aesthetic. I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan. One of my recent books is titled Japan. I spent three years on and off photographing in Japan for this book, and some of the photographs also date back to the 80s. It’s difficult not to be influenced by their sense of serenity, tranquility, pureness and simplicity of design. It again harkens back to the essence of haiku, just a few elements.
BJ: There’s been a lot of discussion in the last 40 years or so of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. It’s a popular theme as the Japan aesthetic has influenced so many Western artists. I think, perhaps, you’ve captured that feel better than most. Is that because you had some particular interest that took you to Japan before you were actually there to see it?
MK: I was invited to Japan in the mid-80s for some exhibitions and for some of the first books I had published. Although I’d studied Japanese art early on in art school, I can’t say that I had a particular predisposition to it. But once you get to Japan and see the temples and shrines, as well as the landscape and the general aesthetic, it’s hard to come back. (chuckling). There is kind of calmness and grounded-ness, and a centered-ness, which I really appreciate.
BJ: There is also a working method associated with the Japanese aesthetic that is very spontaneous. I’m thinking here particularly of calligraphy and sumi-e painting.You said, in a previous interview, “Many of my stronger photographs are the result of my option not to pre-visualize.” This implies that you, too, work spontaneously.
MK: Absolutely. I love Ray Metzker’s comment when he compared pre-visualizations to constipation.
MK: There is a tendency in human beings to pre-visualize and try to predict and control what is happening. But, I think we are bound by our own limited sense of aesthetics and intellect – and our abilities, which perhaps are not so great. I think there are so many possibilities out there. The potential is so great that if you allow yourself to be, in a sense, controlled by the external when you are photographing, or you combine your internal with the external and allow it to form a relationship the results are often far, far stronger. At least they are for me.
BJ: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve said for years that far too many photographers tend to think of photography as an act of acquisitive rather than an act of submission.
MK: Yes. It’s possible to think of photography as an act of editing, a matter of where you put your rectangle pull it out or take it away. Sometimes people ask me about films, cameras and development times in order to find out how to do landscape photography. The first thing I do in landscape photography is go out there and talk to the land – form a relationship, ask permission, it’s not about going out there like some paparazzi with a Leica and snapping a few pictures, before running off to print them.
BJ: Your images so often present a sense of three-dimensionality. This is obviously constructed compositionally, but my suspicion is that on a slightly deeper level you tend to think of the landscape as something that you can have a three-dimensional relationship with.
MK: Completely. Yes. We’re all part of the landscape and the landscape is part of us. It’s not separate from us. As photographers, we are working with a two-dimensional plane, reducing this amazing world with all these senses, smells, colors and textures to this little two-dimensional black-and-white rectangle. And with this we are trying to impress people! I sometime think photography is a little bit pretentious. So there needs to be a recognition of three-dimensions in the two-dimensional result. We’re working in a two-dimensional plane, but at the same time a photograph is an illusion and it reflects back to the three-dimensional reality.
BJ: Speaking of two-dimensional realities, you tend to work in book oriented projects, because you produce lots of books. This not only means that you are bringing the world into the two-dimensional book form, but you are allowing yourself the ability to think in terms of more than one image at a time. Each photograph may be a hint like a haiku, but your relationship with the subject matter as presented in a series of photographs is more of a conversation than an epiphany or revelation. Do you agree?
MK: Yes, absolutely. I believe it is more of a conversation. I don’t favor the creation of an elite, one of a kind masterpiece that you print for the rest of your career and do little else. I believe as a photographer it is a continual journey. I find things out as I wander along, and they’re wonderful discoveries. Photography is a beautiful, elegant process. It’s not my primary goal to create the perfect masterpiece that somebody can put over the sofa. I much prefer this ongoing relationship. The more I create the more satisfying it is.
BJ: What size prints do you make?
MK: Most of my prints are quite small. They’re about 8x8” and are presented in exactly the same way. I’ve been doing essentially the same presentation for the past 25 years. I’ve had a few variations, but I prefer not to have to spend a lot time thinking about how I should do the work – a large size or a small size, a big edition or a small edition, this photographic process or another. I prefer my work to be an easy transition from photographing, processing, contact sheets, work prints, final prints and out into the world!
BJ: So, you’ve essentially structured the practical and pragmatic part of your production process to make it interfere as little as possible with your creative life.
MK: Yes, exactly. I’ve also tried to do this with the technical side of photography. People ask me what lens do I use? I don’t even know, most times. They’ll ask what films I use? Well, it depends where I buy the film! If I’m in Japan I use Fuji because it happens to be readily available in Japan. If I’m in France I’ll buy Agfa, Ilford or Kodak. I find that when one has worked long enough, technical know-how becomes almost irrelevant. In photography, it’s not difficult to reach a technical level where you don’t need to think about the technique any more. I think there is far too much literature and far too much emphasis upon the techniques of photography. The make of camera and type of film we happen to use has little bearing on the results.
BJ: This explains too why it is that your commercial work uses your same creative vision and style. You don’t abandon your style when you do commercial work you actually apply it to your commercial work as well!
MK: Very much. When I first started commercial work – like I’m sure every other commercial photographer – I did anything I could do just to survive. But as time went on and I was able to make my own living in the fine art world, I dropped a lot of the commercial work. In fact, I went through a period of perhaps seven or eight years where I didn’t do any commercial work at all. Then I began to be represented by my commercial agent, Tiggy Maconochie in London, who has now represented me for 15 years on the advertising side of things. She essentially sold my creative work to commercial clients. So, from time to time, I photograph for cars or telephone companies, or various other clients. I only do it perhaps two or three times a year. It’s financially very good and it gives me the freedom to do other projects which are not financially viable. Also it is a creative and technical challenge to do commercial work. For a lot of fine art photographers who’ve never lived under that pressure, it would be very interesting for them to do so because you really have to think, work and make decisions very quickly, on your feet with a lot of people around you – a very unusual and demanding situation.
BJ: When you first came to America you were working for Ruth Bernhard.
MK: Yes, for many years. I started working for Ruth in 1978.
BJ: Is that what brought you to America, to be her assistant?
MK: There were a number of reasons. Adventure was one of them. (Laughing). Another was the fact that galleries didn’t exist in England – barely in Europe, but definitely not in England. There was only one photography gallery in all of England, that was in London. The first time I came to the States was 1976 as an exchange student. That’s when I first saw galleries that showed creative photography as objects that people actually bought! If I had stayed in England I’m sure I would have stayed in commercial photography and I would have pursued my fine art proclivity as a hobby.
BJ: We’ve published several photographers from England and they all repeat that same story.
MK: Yes, you’ve had Fay Godwin recently. I’ve met Fay a number of times and greatly appreciate her work.
BJ: Yes, and Paul Kenny. He’s had the same sorts of struggles.
MK: Exactly. Compared to the status of photography here in America, England is a different place.
BJ: There was another aspect of your working for Ruth Bernhard that I wanted to explore just briefly. Most photographers would never have the opportunity to print someone else’s negatives. Photographers tend to make their own exposures and print their own work exclusively. By having the challenge to print her work for all those years, did this influence either your craft or your vision?
MK: Oh, powerfully, of course. I should go back a little further and say that, when I was a student I also worked commercially as a black and white printer. Then my first job when I left school was being a printer for an advertising photographer, Anthony Blake. I later became his assistant. Before I came to the States I thought I was a pretty good printer. When I started working for Ruth Bernhard I realized I didn’t know the first thing about printing!
BJ: (Laughing) Even though you’d been doing it “professionally” …
MK: Her standard of printing was so much higher than anything I’d come across in England. She had complete technical skill, but it was her total disregard for accepted norms of printing that opened my eyes. She used the negative as absolute raw material and would do anything she wanted with it. She just refused to believe that because she had a particular negative, then this is what the print should look like. She’d print until it looked like what she wanted it to look like. (Laughing). That gave me, in turn, both the technical skills and the freedom and artistic license to print my own work. I was able to go back and print negatives that I had never been able to print before. I could now come up with new interpretations which had never previously occurred to me.
BJ: That leads back to your comments about not using photography as a means to record the external world, but using it as a means to bring forth your interpretation of the external world.
MK: I encourage people to think of their negatives as a new world that they have complete freedom to interpret – it doesn’t need to be a straight print. I mean, it can be a straight print if that’s your sense, but it doesn’t need to be. That’s why I think it’s very difficult and limiting to allow other people to print your work.
BJ: You print in editions of 45 plus 4 artist proofs. Making 45 duplicates that are the same is often a serious challenge in the darkroom.
MK: (Laughing). Well, first of all, I don’t make all 45 at once. I usually start with 10 or 15. An edition of 45 is my limit. There are many images that are sold out, but the greater percentage never get that far.
BJ: Do you find that near the end of the edition it’s a challenge to make them exactly the same as the beginning, or do you allow yourself to change how you interrupt a negative as the edition progresses?
MK: I allow myself complete artistic license. (Laughing). There is no reason I would get the print from, say 1981 and produce it exactly the same. I use it as a reference point, but if I feel there’s a different interpretation that will improve the print I will certainly do that. So, if someone has print #45 there is no guarantee that it’s going to be the same as #1.
BJ: How do you convey edition information on each print?
MK: On the back of every print it says the date the negative is made and the date the print is made. Then they’re just numbered as the prints are made.
BJ: A lot of your images end up being known from the reproductions in your books. Does that ever cause you consternation because the print is your original vision but the book is how the print is known?
MK: Not really. I like to think that we don’t own any of these things. We don’t own the prints, we don’t own the negatives, we don’t own the books that go out. Once they leave my doorstep, they have their own life and that’s perfectly fine. They reflect me and they interpret me. I’ve touched them, I’ve influenced them, but they’re not mine. Why should I see them as mine?
BJ: That explains an interesting item I noticed about your Twenty-Year Retrospective book that Nazraeli Press reprinted. They didn’t just do a straight reprint of the first edition. They up-sized it a bit so they could print all of your prints with a one-to-one relation to your original prints. This change now makes more sense when I think that each one of your books has its own life and is its own entity – even a reprint.
MK: Yes. The reprint is, I think, much superior than the initial printing. Nine years separate the two! The initial publisher went bankrupt and all the plates were destroyed. (Laughing). So, it was great to have the opportunity to have the book completely reworked, redesigned and complete new plates made. Chris Pichler, publisher of Nazraeli Press, did a fabulous job.
BJ: Let me ask a few specific questions about the work we’re publishing in this issue of LensWork. Your book, Calais Lace, is currently available only in a French edition, and will be coming out very shortly in English, again from Nazraeli Press. We’re delighted to publish this work in LensWork for two reasons: it is your newest book, but also it’s quite a bit different from a lot of the work that you’re more well-known for. I understand your interest in the Calais lace factories started when you were a boy.
MK: I come from a small but very industrialized town called Widnes, in Northern England. In my childhood, I was always around factories. When I first started photography I thought it should be escapist and beautiful, pretty and pastoral. It was only in the 1980s that I started going back and photographing a lot of industry. I was strongly influenced by Bill Brandt, who photographed in the North of England very close to where I was born. He photographed the wool and cotton mills in the 1930s. When he died in 1986, I went back and started photographing in Lancashire and Yorkshire as a homage to his work.
I initially photographed the Calais lace factories from the outside. That was how it always was up until the 1990s – I was always photographing things from the outside. In the North of England, the aging factories and mills were about to be demolished. I wanted to document and interpret them before they disappeared. I could only do that from the outside. I was introduced to the Calais lace factories in the early 1990s. They also needed to be documented. The curator of the Calais Museum, Annette Haudiquet, invited me to see these places. Almost as an aside, she asked me whether I wanted to go inside to see a working factory – one of the few that was actually still working. I did and was absolutely fascinated and amazed. I remember as a child that my father, who was a builder, had this huge metal cabinet. When he was out, sometimes I would open this cabinet which was full of his old saws, wood planes, screw drivers, hammers and all sorts of odd paint tins and other stuff. I was obsessed with these things. I loved to just touch them, move them and feel them. Going into these old lace factories was a feeling very much akin to that of my childhood. In the lace factories they were still using 19th century technology that is way out of date. Everything was large, bulky, heavy – even the instruments and the huge wrenches they used – like something out of a museum.
BJ: But they were making lace …
MK: Beautiful, fragile lace, what a paradox. The noise level in these places was incredible. The whole building would vibrate up and down with these enormous mechanical looms. The interiors were very dark, because the windows were painted so that the fabrics didn’t fade. I began to photograph both the inside and outside of the factories that had already closed down. I also photographed inside a factory that was still in operation. I continued to photograph over a period of eight years. Slowly, the last remaining factory became quiet. The machinery moved out and the building started to disintegrate. I followed the progress of time.
BJ: This work doesn’t have a strictly documentary feel – which would have been so easy to do. It goes beyond documentary because it has that same aesthetic we were talking about earlier – that sense of quiet, of atmosphere. These come through in your photographs.
MK: Thank you. That is essentially what I was looking for. I’m not a newspaper reporter. My function is to interact with the people and the objects I’m photographing. I did a project on my daughter’s kindergarten class awhile ago called Monique’s Kindergarten. Just to clarify, Monique was the teacher, Olivia is my daughter. I would go in on weekends and photograph the objects in the kindergarten classroom when the children were away. I was looking for atmosphere, memories, stories – for these objects still seemed to contain the presence of the children who had passed through this room. In this same period of time I was also photographing in concentration camps in Europe, where, as you can well imagine, there was a completely different atmosphere. These two projects counter balanced each other. What they had in common was an attempt to translate memories and stories into visual terms. In the Calais lace factories the intent is quite similar. I wasn’t looking to document weird objects. I was trying to recognize that these objects have been utilized for literally a hundred years. They’re old, they’re worn, they’ve been well used, they’re dirty – but they’re full of character and atmosphere. I wish I could get into them and listen to what they have to say. Alas, I cannot. But, I can try to translate a little bit of this rich history into my photographs.
BJ: I think this is why these are different than mere nostalgia. Mere nostalgia can often come off a bit trite when it’s just an emotion. These are different than that because they try to do more then just pull at our heartstrings.
MK: It’s a double edge sword. These were nasty places in many ways. The industrial heart of England where I come from, those buildings, those chemical factories, those wool and cotton factories, they were mean places. Lots of people suffered and they worked extremely long hours for a pittance. Basically, the people were abused. At the same time, the people that worked all their lives in these lace factories were sad and demoralized when they were laid off because the industry was declining. They were devastated when the factories were shut down, when the buildings were demolished. It was their very existence. Suddenly, when all the buildings were quiet and still, their history and existence had been ripped away, too.
BJ: It’s wonderful to capture the sense of life that was there at one time. Now that this work is being published in book form, I assume you are finished with it. What are the next projects coming up? I’m assuming the pattern we’ve seen from you – project-oriented work that eventually ends up in a book – is a pattern you’re going to continue?
MK: Definitely. I find that I work best when I work on five or six projects at one time. The books are, in a sense, the acknowledgment that a project has reached a certain culmination point. It does not mean it’s the end of that project, but it has reached a certain point where I feel that it can go out as a body of work. The next book after Calais Lace will be on the subject of the Ratcliffe Power Station in England – a project I’ve been working on since the early 1980s. That will be published by Nazraeli Press in the Spring of 2004. I’m working it on right now.
BJ: That almost touches back on themes that you’ve done before – power plants, I think of the Elkhorn Slough project, etc. With five or six projects going at any given time I would bet that the time is most precious commodity you have.
MK: Time is the most precious commodity. There is no doubt about it.
BJ: We certainly appreciate the time you’ve taken just to share some of your life and creative thoughts with those of us here at LensWork.
MK: Great pleasure, great pleasure, indeed. Thank you.
10th Anniversary Issue, No. 50 Dec 03 - Jan 04