(Widnes, Lancashire, England, 1953 - )
Michael Kenna was born November 20, 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, an industrial region in northern England.(1) Kenna was the youngest of six children and was the only child who didn't have to leave school to help support his family. Instead, from 1965 to 1972, Kenna attended St. Joseph's College in Upholland, England, a junior seminary where he explored his interest in the priesthood. He eventually decided against becoming a priest, and in 1972 he enrolled in the Banbury School of Art, Banbury, England to study painting. In 1973, he transferred to the London College of Printing, where he remained for the next three years. It was during his years in London that he began doing photography.
After graduating from London College in 1976, Kenna began a successful career in commercial photography. He became interested in the artistic potential of photography during a trip to the United States when he encountered entire galleries dedicated to showing the work of fine art photographers. In 1979, Kenna took a temporary job in San Francisco developing prints for the photographer, Ruth Bernhard; he settled there permanently the following year with his wife, Camille. Their daughter, Olivia, was born in 1985.
Kenna's photographs from the 1970s generally concentrated on landscapes. In 1983, however, the death of English photographer Bill Brandt (1904-1983) prompted Kenna to visit English industrial sites Brandt had photographed in the 1930s, and create his own series of photographs. For this project, from 1983 to 1987 Kenna created a series of studies of cotton and wool mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire, England. During the same period, he began photographing the Ratcliffe Power Station in Nottinghamshire, England and the Chapel Cross Power Station in Dumfries, Scotland. During the late 1980s, Kenna photographed landscapes surrounding WWII concentration camps and he began experimenting with a four-by-five inch view camera.
In 1994, Kenna became interested in the Rouge automobile plant in Dearborn, Michigan which Charles Sheeler had photographed in the 1920s. Kenna created an extensive series of studies of the plant over the course of the next few years. In his most recent work, he has been pursuing an interest in still lifes using black-and-white contact prints.(2)
Michael Kenna has taken photographs and exhibited throughout the world. Since the mid-1980s he has had one-man exhibitions of his work at locations as diverse as Zurich, San Francisco, Calgary, Santa Fe, Kyoto, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, London, and Paris, among others. He also has participated extensively in group shows in the United States, Europe, and Japan and his work is in both public and private collections worldwide. Since 1984, several books of his photographs have been published (3) including an edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles which he illustrated. Kenna has won a number of awards for his work including the 1981 Imogen Cunningham Award, the Art in Public Buildings Award from the California Arts Commission in 1987, and the 1989 Institute for Aesthetic Development Award.
Kenna works in monochrome with a wide tonal range and tends to prefer smaller prints. He does most of his photographing during trips that range from four days to two weeks, working intensely during these periods. Since he photographs in a variety of light conditions and most often at dawn, dusk, and at night, his shutter speed ranges from the standard fraction of a second to as long as eight hours. Because of the long exposure times, results are unpredictable and so Kenna focuses his interpretive energy on the printing process. Kenna makes his own silver-gelatin prints, often using sepia to deepen the shadows. He will often wait months or even years to make prints from his negatives so that he can distance himself from any memories or impressions that might color his impressions of a scene. Also to maintain the element of chance in his work, he experiments with different format cameras and he continually explores new subjects. However, though he relies on the element of chance in his images, the high degree of finish and consistent quality of his work reveal an underlying technical sophistication and control.
Bill Brandt's work has been the most pervasive influence on Kenna's photography(4) but Kenna has also acknowledged the work of Ruth Bernhard and Eugene Atget as influences. Because of the wide tonal range used in his work, Kenna's pictures also often have been compared to the works of the turn of the century Pictorialist photographers. Kenna has regularly stated that he uses tradition and the past to "nourish" his work.(5)
Kenna's photographs almost always contain some element that suggests the presence or intervention of people, but he does not include actual figures.(6) He is particularly drawn to subjects that reveal man's intervention with nature, such as industrial landscapes.(7) Adjectives used to describe his work range from timeless to romantic to mysterious. The silence and stillness characteristic of his work have led some critics to describe his photographs as "landscape as still life".(8) Kenna's preference for working in the liminal hours between day and night and for lengthy exposures means that his photographs often seem to contain the present, past, and possible future in a single image. Also his love of mist, fog, and other obscuring elements moves his photographs beyond the literal and descriptive to a level where everyday landscapes become evocative and meaningful.(9)
(1)Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Artist's vitae on file, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective, Treville, Tokyo, Japan, 1994; "Michael Kenna: The Magic of the Witching Hour", ARTnews, Vol. 94, May 1995, pp. 109-110; The Rouge: Photographs by Michael Kenna, Ram Publications, Santa Monica, California, 1995.
(2)A show of this recent work will be held at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco, from November 12 to December 28, 1997. A publication will accompany the show.
(3)Titles include: Michael Kenna Photographs, Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, California, 1984; Michael Kenna 1976-1986, Min Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, 1987; Night Walk, The Friends of Photography, San Francisco, California, 1988; Le Désert de Retz, Arion Press, San Francisco, California, 1990; Michael Kenna--A Twenty Year Retrospective, Treville, Tokyo, Japan, 1994.
(4)"Brandt's influence is significant in ways beyond the style of his high contrast printing, or his concern in the 1930s for photographing the industrial areas of Britain; it is Brandt's complete sense of history, and of psychological character that is what connects him to Kenna. Surrealist in sensibility, in so far as they both share an interest in juxtaposition and symbol, Brandt and Kenna also have a commitment to humanism and freedom." (Peter C. Bunnell in Michael Kenna--A Twenty Year Retrospective, Treville, Tokyo, Japan, 1994, n. p.).
(5)Bunnell, 1994, n. p.
(6)"In a photograph I find that people dominate—they're too magnetic. They also create too much scale. A person is a certain size and has a certain relationship to his or her environment. It gives too much information. I'm more attracted to artwork that has questions rather than answers, where space and even subject matter are more mysterious and elusive than specific." (Michael Kenna as quoted in "Michael Kenna: The Magic of the Witching Hour", ARTnews, Vol. 94, May 1995, p. 109).
(7)"He is drawn to places where some action has taken place. He is drawn to history; that is, to a subject that reveals a past act of man's intervention into the natural order of things. This is perhaps the most important legacy of his upbringing in the past-gloried industrial North of Britain." (Bunnell, 1994, n.p.).
(8)See for example Peter C. Bunnell in Michael Kenna--A Twenty Year Retrospective, Treville, Tokyo, Japan, 1994, n. p. and Maria Porges, "Michael Kenna", Artforum Vol. 33, February 1995, p. 96.
(9)"I favor the power of suggestion over descriptive documentation and often use smoke, steam, or mist in my work. These elements obscure details, simplify forms, strengthen foreground graphic shapes and simultaneously tone down background distractions. Smoke in particular fascinates me, it symbolizes so much and can, at one time, be both beautiful and deeply ominous." (Kenna as quoted in The Rouge: Photographs by Michael Kenna, Ram Publications, Santa Monica, California, 1995, n.p.).