Michael Kenna was born in Widnes, England in 1953. As one of 5 children born to a working class Irish-Catholic family, he initially aspired to enter the priesthood but his passion for the arts led him to The Banbury School of Art where he studied painting and then photography. Later he attended The London College of Printing and began working as a photographer and artist. He moved to San Francisco in 1977 where he was astounded by the number of galleries the city housed which allowed artists to showcase and sell their work. San Francisco has remained his home ever since.
Michael Kenna’s work has often been described as enigmatic, graceful and hauntingly beautiful much like the Japanese landscape. Kenna first visited Japan in 1987 for a one-person exhibition and was utterly seduced by the country’s terrain. Over the years he has traveled throughout almost the entire country constantly taking photographs. From these many treks the book Japan, featuring 95 of these photographs, was conceived.
The simplicity and clarity of Kenna’s Japan alludes to rather than describes his subject allowing the viewer to have a completely unique and tailored interpretation. He has described this body of work as, “more like a haiku rather than a prose”; his work being like photographs written in short poem form. Kenna’s photographs are often made at dawn or in the dark hours of night with exposures up to 10 hours. Kenna has said “you can’t always see what’s otherwise noticeable during the day… with long exposures you can photograph what the human eye is incapable to seeing”.
Michael Kenna’s prints have been shown in numerous exhibitions throughout the world with permanent collections in the Bibliotheque, Paris; The Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague; The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Kenna has also done a great deal of commercial work for such clients as Volvo, Rolls Royce, Audi, Sprint, Dom Perignon and The Spanish Tourist Board. Japan is one of 18 books of Kenna’s photography to have been published to date.
Michael Kenna is one of the most influential landscape photographer of his generation, photographing for 50 years, best known for his black & white landscapes. Often working at dawn or during the night, he has concentrated primarily on the interaction between the ephemeral atmospheric condition of the natural landscape, and human-made structures and sculptural mass.
Kenna has proven time and again that his vision knows no boundaries. Whether working along the shores of South Korea, the Great Wall of China, the snow-cover island of Hokkaido in Japan, the Rouge in Dearborn, Michigan, mines in Germany or the gardens in France, Kenna seeks places of solitude, which speak volumes about humanity and the haunting beauty found in nature. Over fifty books, monologs and catalogs have been published on his work. The Retrospective series are probably the most wanted.
His unique minimalist imagery has inspired many, and earned him a huge and loyal following.
Kenna attended Upholland College in Lancashire, the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire, and the London College of Printing. He has had shows in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. His photographs are among the most exhibited and collected photographers working today. They are held in permanent collections at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and many others.
Michael Kenna looks for interesting compositions and arrangements within the natural landscape. He is drawn to certain times of day and night, preferring to photograph in the mist, rain and snow clear blue sky and sunshine do not inspire him. He only photographs his work in black and white, as he believes that,
“Black and white is immediately more mysterious because we see in colour all the time. It is quieter than colour.” – Michael Kenna
Kenna connects his initial fascination towards landscape photography to “The Land: 20th century landscape photographs” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, curated by photographer Bill Brandt.
For a year Brandt worked closely with Mark Haworth-Booth (then of the Circulation department). The exhibition, shown in 1975, introduced British audiences to many classic modern photographers, including a strong showing of Americans: Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Eliot Porter and Paul Caponigro, among others – plus fine works by Brandt’s favourite Parisian photographers, Man Ray, Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Brassaï. Twelve of Brandt’s own landscapes, chosen by Mark Haworth-Booth, were also included.
In London, Michael undertook advertising photography while pursuing his personal work – photographing the landscape. In 1977, he moved to San Francisco, where he met Ruth Bernhard and became her assistant and photographic printmaker for eight years. Michael is equally dedicated to the darkroom and makes his own prints ensuring a subdued, intimate atmosphere in every image. Ruth had quite an influence on him: “print negatives guided by imagination, rather than the allegiance to what had been in front of the camera”
In a interview on Photo Review by Carole Glauber published in January 2003, Kenna shares details about his first photograph and techniques:
“There are many characteristics associated with night photography that make it fascinating. We are used to working with a single light source, the sun, so multiple lights that come from an assortment of directions can be quite surreal, and theatrical. Drama is usually increased with the resulting deep shadows from artificial lights. These shadows can invite us to imagine what is hidden. I particularly like what happens with long exposures, for example, moving clouds produce unique areas of interesting density in the sky, stars and planes produce white lines, rough water transforms into ice or mist, etc. Film can accumulate light and record events that our eyes are incapable of seeing. The aspect of unpredictability inherent with night exposures can also be a good antidote for previsualization. I find it helps with jet lag too! Indeed my first night photograph, made in 1977 of a set of swings in upstate New York, was a direct consequence of not being able to sleep. At the time I used the “empirical method” of exposure measurement, (i.e. trial and error), with much bracketing. The results were very interesting and since then I’ve worked on my technique a little.”