In the Darkroom with Michael Kenna

Interview by
Dean Brierly


Where did you develop technical knowledge?

From a number of sources. The first was The Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire, England, back in 1972. That’s when I became interested in photography and had my first photographic instruction. I went on to a three-year photography course at The London College of Printing. I should mention that although this college specialized in printing technology the photography department was quite small and completely separate from the rest of the school. My goal was to become an advertising photographer and in this regard I also gained a tremendous amount of practical photographic printing experience working with various black and white, and color printers. Printing was a subject area that particularly fascinated me.

After I left the LCP, I worked as a black-and-white printer for an advertising photographer named Anthony Blake who taught me an enormous amount. Later I also printed in color labs and for a short time at Sotheby’s Auction House, of all places. In 1979 I began to print for Ruth Bernhard here in San Francisco which was really an eye opener! I had never before witnessed such a radical subjective transition from negative to final print. Ruth gave me the freedom to think of the negative as a starting point with immense potential for further creativity. She also showed me how much persistence is needed to realize a finished print from a raw negative.I had the good fortune to work with her until 1987, eight invaluable years.

Were you drawn to the technical aspects of the medium from the beginning?

Both technical and aesthetic aspects were appealing. I think photography can be a curious mix of both logical thinking and wild imagination. As a boy in school, my twin subject areas of strongest interest were Mathematics and Art. Photography combines the two so I feel I’ve really landed on my feet. I originally wanted to be a painter - I seemed to be good in that medium, but I didn’t see myself surviving in England. I felt that I needed a way to make a living and photography is an ideal vehicle for both survival and personal expression.

Is the level of technical instruction fairly high in England compared to America?

Yes, it is, or at least it was. I can no longer say for sure as I am not exposed to the education system there, or here for that matter. From what I can gather, there is not a great amount of technical information offered in the fine art photography courses here in the U.S., which if it is true is a great loss, in my opinion. The particular course that I took in London packed in oodles of technical information. It was essentially run by part-time teachers, professionals who were active in the field, who would come in for one day a week. There wasn’t much theory - for example I knew very little about the history of photography when I first moved to the States. The emphasis was much more on the practical, technical and commercial aspects of the medium.

Can you describe your darkroom setup?

It’s very basic. I seem to have had a different darkroom every two or three years as I’ve moved around San Francisco. My current darkroom has been up and running for only three months. I have a Beseler enlarger. Previous to that I always used Omega enlargers. I haven’t noticed any appreciable differences. My lenses are pretty sharp - 50m, 80m and 135m Schneider Kreusnachs. Standard four bladed easel, paper-cutter, safe-lights, fresh air fan, plastic sink, (I don’t know who makes it, but it’s about the fourth or fifth one I’ve had), print washer, print drying screens and some sort of music system. That’s basically it, the dry side and the wet side are completely separate. All the darkrooms I’ve worked in have been pretty low-tech.

You did a lot of nighttime shooting with long exposures. Why such long exposures?

Basically because it’s dark at night so it takes longer to expose the film. Initially I started night photography because of it’s inherent unpredictability. I don’t consider previsualisation to be something particularly worth striving for. In fact I really liked something I read by Ray Metzker who equated it with constipation! However, if anybody does enough serious photography previsualisation is an inevitable destination. Night photography for me was one way of escaping. Exposures are quite subjective and usually long - anywhere from one or two seconds to seven or eight hours. Miscellaneous movement and changes of atmosphere during those long exposures makes for unexpected happenings. Light comes from multiple directions. Contrast is usually increased. Structures often appear as two dimensional cut outs. Dramatic black shadows add to the mystery and drama.

"Perhaps most intriguing of all is that it is possible to photograph what is impossible for the human eye to see - cumulative time.”

Do you use any filtration when you shoot?

I sometimes use a neutral density filter with slow speed films, (e.g. Agfa 25asa), for longer exposures during the day. Occasionally I also use a red filter.

How long are some of those daytime exposures?

Up to 30 minutes depending on the light conditions.

And at night?

They can go up to eight hours or as long as the night is dark. The majority of the exposures are 10 to 30 minutes but If I am working in a relatively safe environment I may put the camera out with the lens open for a couple of hours and have dinner or read a book during the exposure.


You’re known for using long exposures, especially at night. Does doing so affect your film development?

I advise my students to develop their film about 10% less than whatever they normally do for daylight exposures. This is a good starting point. Serious night photographers may use any one of a dozen or so compensating developer methods to reduce the predictable contrast increase. Personally I’ve given up changing my developer times for different conditions. I now process everything 11 1/2 minutes, D76, 1:1, 68 degrees and work out any adjustments at the printing stage. I’ve used this development process for as long as I can remember so I don’t even think about it anymore. Sometimes I’ve substituted Rodinal when D76 was not available but otherwise I don’t experiment.

Do you primarily work in medium format?

Two and a quarter, mainly Tri X.

No longer shoot in 35 mm?

Just occasionally. But quite rarely at this point.


With such long nighttime exposures, is it hard to reproduce a night effect in your prints?

I find ambiguity of time to be an integral part of my interest in night photography. I often photograph at night and print as though the exposure was made during the day. I also do the opposite: photograph during the day and print as though it were at night. In answer to your question - no it is not hard to reproduce a night effect but sometimes undesirable.

Do you enjoy darkroom work?

Yes - for the most part. Processing film is really one of the most boring parts of photography, but printing is another matter - a most important and often underrated part of the creative process. A good negative can be wrecked by a bad print - often is - a bad negative can rarely be redeemed, but there is so much potential for subjective interpretation and discovery in the middle. I can stay in the darkroom for many hours exploring a new negative. Reprinting, trying to duplicate an existing interpretation, is of course not nearly as much fun or as exciting. Art becomes craft.

How often do you print?

Two or three days a week unless I am working on a specific project, then it can go up to seven!

Ever get burned out on darkroom work?

Occasionally, if I am reprinting older negatives or if I don’t have a good book-on-tape to listen to.

Does listening to books-on-tape help relax you?

It helps me to focus, which seems a little strange. Most photographers, when they print, listen to some kind of music, usually classical. If I do that, my mind wanders, I begin to day-dream and lose concentration. Often my printing exposures run into many minutes with complicated burning and dodging. I need complete attention and focus to consistently remember what I’m doing from one print to the next. Having somebody read to me really does help!

What’s the biggest challenge for you at the printing stage?

It varies from negative to negative. Sometimes the challenge is technical, at other times it’s aesthetic - often it’s both and both are important. I believe there are many fine images around that have not realized their full potential because of mediocre printing. Similarly there are many exquisite prints around with mediocre contents. There are so many decisions involved on the path to a finished print that I hardly know where to begin in the short space of this interview. One has to take into account all sorts of technical issues with equipment and chemicals - for example, just in the area of paper selection there are decisions of size, color, texture, weight, silver content, price, etc. so I would prefer not to spend much time in that area, besides, there are a thousand and one articles out there already. When photographing, I find certain basic aesthetic questions arise, such as; What is important in this scene that I want to include? What is not important that I want to exclude? How do I balance the various elements in the viewfinder? How do I make them pleasing or interesting to the eye? How do I emphasize the elements which are personally more significant or important in order to persuade a viewer to look at them? What do I do with elements which are unimportant or distracting? etc. The photographic printmaker has the option to exercise these same subjective decisions. So, when I print I try to see the image as an abstract arrangement of lines, shapes and tonalities. My aim is to order and balance these elements, thereby focusing attention on areas that I consider to be significant. On the technical side again, obviously the print should be as good as possible but there is no one standard to meet. The variables in printing are as wide as in photographing. Each photographer should have their own palette and style to suit their own vision.

Does it take you awhile to learn how to print a negative, or does it come fairly easily?

After I’ve processed the film and made contact sheets, I have 5x7 RC work prints made of every image that seems interesting. I have boxes of these, literally thousands of prints. I go through these repeatedly and pick out images that retain interest. I usually pin them up on my bulletin board and I live with them for as long as I can before actually printing them. I find that living with an image, even though it’s just an RC work print, helps me to understand ahead of time some of the questions that will be asked later in the printing stage. When I finally go into the darkroom to make finished prints I am already half way there.

Many photographers try to go for the perfect print right after processing the negative.

Yes, people like Brett Weston, that was his philosophy; to photograph, process and print almost in the same day. On the other hand you have someone like Josef Sudek, who liked to leave his negatives for six months or so before making prints. That’s closer to my approach. Different ideas work for different photographers.

So you’re not on fire to see how the final image will look?

No. Once I have a work print I’m quite content and can live with that work print for quite some time before making a finished print. I find the interval of time also helps me to become more objective about the image. That is very useful - it is difficult to have objectivity about one’s own work.

When you reach the stage of making a real print, are you able to achieve it fairly quickly?

I usually work with two to four negatives in a long day in the darkroom.

To make one acceptable print?

Once I have a good print from a negative - which may take anywhere from 1-4 hours - it is not so difficult to repeat the interpretation so I try to make another 10-15 prints. The hardest part of the process is of course getting to the point of being satisfied with the print. I find printing a negative for the first time is very exciting and creatively challenging. The second time, it is not as interesting because I am working more as a craftsman . The third time, it becomes hard work!

Are there some negatives that you just hate printing?

Oh, yes. Sometimes it is as I just described - basic boredom. There is not too much creativity in repeat printing. At other times the negative is just so difficult to technically interpret. Over the years I have reinterpreted some negatives in subtle or more overt ways. I persuade myself that it is because I want to improve the print but perhaps occasionally I think it might be more of a reaction to doing the same print in the same way too many times! In 1982 I started making all my prints in strict limited editions. (All prints since that time have been in editions of 45).

Bill Brandt later in life printed his negatives with much more contrast.

Yes, he printed them on the equivalent of grade 5 paper. I think he also made copy negatives and printed those on grade 5 too! All of the vintage work he made for publications were printed fairly soft. I think it was in the 1960s when he decided to start printing with more contrast. That was for the print market. The first time around was for reproduction.

So it wasn’t an aesthetic decision so much as a pragmatic one?

I suspect both - over so many years, twenty or thirty, it is possible to radically change one’s vision. I do not completely understand his particular change but I certainly respect it.

What type of paper do you use?

Ilford Multigrade right now. I’ve been using it since Ilford did an experimental pilot project in the early 80’s and gave me some to try out. I was teaching at UC extension in San Francisco at the time. I think they gave paper to various institutions to get some feedback before mass production began. I liked the paper very much at the time and have found no reason to change.

Many photographers don’t like multicontrast papers as well as graded papers.

I find it so much easier to use a multi grade paper. One major reason is that I can use different contrast filters on different parts of the image. Before using Multigrade I had to use different chemicals and developers, like Selectol Soft, to get half grades. Now I can just change the filter, which is great. I will often print deep shadows with a grade 4 1/2 or 5 and burn in skies with a grade 1. Also, the economics make much more sense. I buy 250-sheet boxes of multigrade and no longer have to have stacks of boxes of different grades in the darkroom.

Do you do much burning and dodging?

Yes, on pretty much every print. It’s a great luxury if I have an image that doesn’t need any burning and dodging. Actually I don’t think I have any negative that I print “straight.” The world doesn’t conform to the way that I see it, so I change it in my prints. As I mentioned above it’s usually a question of playing with space and directing viewers attention into areas where I want them to go. When I photograph, I look for what is significant to me, what resonates with me, touches me. When I print, it’s exactly the same process. I edit, direct and visually point to areas of the print that I feel are important and that I want others to look at. I try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. I often think of my work as visual haiku. It is an attempt to evoke and suggest through as few elements as possible rather than to describe with tremendous detail.

Is that a continuous process of trying to pare things down?


Even though you work in medium format, your prints still exhibit a nice sense of grain.

Grain is a facet of the photographic process that I like to use. It’s akin to seeing the brushstrokes in a a painting I really don’t understand why photographic manufacturers and many photographers seem to be on an endless search for finer and finer grain structures. Hopefully Kodak will never phase out TRI-X. I enjoy the way that grain can break up an image. Of course grain can increase by going up in paper contrast. As I previously mentioned, I often use different contrast filters for different areas in the same print so I sometimes have pretty harsh grain in some areas of a print and fine grain in others. Also, I tend to photograph in misty conditions, which results in a lot of flat, gray areas of tonality, that also accentuates the grain.

What’s your normal developer?

I use Ilford Universal print developer.

Do you prefer neutral-tone paper?

Yes, but I also sepia tone all my prints. I like to warm up the highlights slightly, thereby visually bringing them forward in space.

Your tone is quite elegant, never overpowering? Do you use selenium?

No, only sepia right now. Sepia tones the highlights first and then works into the dark areas. Selenium does the opposite and tones the shadow areas first and works towards the highlights. Sepia and selenium therefore arrange space in different ways.

What size do you make your prints?

They’re all on 8x10 paper. Usually they are approximately 7 1 /2 by 7 1/2 inches.

You never print larger?

No. I prefer the intimacy of the smaller print. I experimented with 16x20 prints in the late 80s but later destroyed most of them. Some collectors really like them but they just didn’t feel right for me. Apart from the more obvious technical and optical considerations, what is more important for me is the relationship that a viewer has with the print. The eye comfortably views and focuses an angle of about 30 degrees. This translates into a viewer comfortably standing about 10 inches away from a 4x5inch print and 3 1/2 feet away from a 16x20 inch print. Small prints have a greater feeling of intimacy - one looks into the print. Large prints are more awesome - they are something a viewer looks out at. I believe in fitting the print size to one’s particular vision and prefer the more intimate engagement of the smaller image.

Do you think the pendulum is swinging back towards smaller prints?

I honestly don’t follow the photography world enough to know what is going on. But as you say, it is predictable that if big prints have become popular, there will be a pendulum swing away from them. As there are always dedicated followers of fashion, we also know the grass is always greener on the other side!

Are you still learning things in the darkroom?

Of course. Printing is both an art and a craft. One cannot ever know it all.

Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective, was recently published by Treville. For further information please contact; The Stephen Wirtz Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94108. Telephone 415 433 6879.

PhotoWork - Art & Technique
Premiere Issue 1997 vol. 1, No. 1