Michael Kenna is an English photographer known for his atmospheric, monochrome photographs achieved through prolonged exposure and often captured at dawn or at night.Read More
Born in the small town of Widnes in northwest England, Michael Kenna grew up in a working-class Irish-Catholic family. Kenna attended seminary school until the age of 17 but showed a proclivity towards art that made him reconsider priesthood.
Kenna attended the Banbury School of Art, where he studied photography before applying to the London College of Printing, graduating from the Commercial Photography department in 1976.
Kenna's iconic square format has been replicated using the same Hasselblad medium-format and Holga cameras since 1986, photographing theatre dress rehearsals, taking photos for record companies and the press, as well as assisting other photographers, all the while retaining landscape photography as a hobby.
In 1977, Kenna moved to San Francisco, where he met German-American photographer Ruth Bernhard, who hired him as her printer. Under Bernhard's tutelage, Kenna learned the printing process and acquired the highly idiosyncratic techniques he uses to develop negatives.
Michael Kenna's photographs show high-contrast landscapes shot at unusual hours, often with the exposure drawn out for ten hours at a time, depicting urban structures and nature devoid of occupants.
While Kenna's photographs are devoid of colour, their pointed use of light and composition imbue eerie locations with a vitality of their own. A harbour captured from a distance or a line of trees can appear as universes drawn from a storybook scene.
Black-and-white gelatin silver prints like Maoi, Study 50, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island (2001) or Circle of Stones, Easter Island (2000) show the landscapes of Easter Island with a hint of strangeness, either compressing the statues along a horizontal line, or capturing the scene slanted from afar.
Other photographs like Yuanyang, Study 1, Yunnan, China (2013) show smog descending on rice fields along sloping hills—atmospheric and stark, the effect of the long exposure time renders visible what lies beyond sight.
Referencing the haiku as an analogy for his pictures, Kenna indicates that his photographs do not seek to describe but to suggest. Photographs shot in Japan show lone trees, gates, and bridges in atmospheric conditions, prompting viewers to locate beauty in simple compositions.
Amongst them, the thin hanging tree with sparse branches in Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 9 (2009) offers a silent lamentation on a hillside, while the tree in 'Philosopher's Tree, Study 1', Biei, Hokkaido, Japan (2004) stands tall and reflective on a sloping hill, submerged in a light veil of grey.
Amongst Kenna's early influences are the British photographer Bill Brandt and Japan's landscapes. Throughout the years, Kenna has photographed almost the entire country, resulting in books like Hokkaido (2005) and Japan (2002).
The same juxtaposition of background and figure notable in Brandt's work can be found in photographs like 'Mina, Study 3, Japan', Rafu, Japan (2010), a monochrome silver gelatin print showing the back of a woman coiled beneath a horizontal shelf. Likewise, in 'Yayoi, Study 1', Rafu, Japan (2008), the partially naked body intercepted from the side is no more physical being than it is pure shape.
In addition to Japan, Kenna has published over 20 books over the years showing collections of photographs captured across prominent landscapes and known locales around the world.
Impossible to Forget (2001) features 300 photographs documenting the remnants of Nazi concentration camps over the course of 12 years. The photographs allude to the atrocities that permeated the sites, which now serve as places for remembrance.
A 45 Year Odyssey (2018) looks back to the career of the photographer, gathering 100 images hand-selected by the artist. The book was originally published to accompany Kenna's 2019 retrospective of the same name at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum.
Michael Kenna is the recipient of the 2016 Special Photographer Award, Hokkaido; the 2013 Hae-sun Lee Photography Award; the 1996 Golden Saffron Award; the 1987 Art in Public Buildings Award; and the 1981 Imogen Cunningham Award. In 2000, he was honoured as a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Kenna's photographs have been shown across Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Select solo exhibitions include Gallery Art Unlimited, Tokyo (2020); Ira Stehman Gallery, Munich (2020); Robert Mann Gallery, New York (2019); Gallery K.O.N.G, Seoul (2019); Blue Lotus Gallery, Hong Kong (2018); Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (2018); Princeton Art Museum, New Jersey (2017); Timeless Gallery, Beijing (2014); Musée Carnavalet, Paris (2014); Shanghai International Art Exhibition (2010); and Kushiro Art Museum, Hokkaido (2009).
Select group exhibitions include Blue Lotus Gallery, Hong Kong (2021); Galerie Albrecht, Berlin (2021); Bolton Museum, Lancashire (2020); Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne (2018); Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris (2018); Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2017); Château de Versailles (2010); and Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (2002).
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2021