“There is something magically seductive about a creative process that is not fully in our control,” Michael Kenna says of his work, particularly his night photographs.
Not that his work seems out of control. Perhaps that’s because, as he points out, “It really doesn’t take long to figure out how to photograph at night.” (Kenna says his exposures range between a few seconds and many hours.) Still, many photo afficionados have indeed found something magical about his images—he’s represented by some 17 galleries throughout the world, has published more than 30 books, and recently had 30-year retrospectives on multiple continents.
Kenna attributes the lack of full control to the unpredictability of lengthy exposures. “While the shutter stays open,” he says, “objects and elements may move at any time, and the Earth is moving all the time relative to the planets and stars. Contrast may shift due to reciprocity failure and the idiosyncrasies of particular films. Weather conditions may vary or change dramatically during the exposure. Light can appear in many forms and from unforeseen and multiple directions.”
Some photographers would find the same circumstances maddening, but Kenna, who also photographs extensively during the day, finds the mystery of photos taken at night to be sufficiently alluring that he has tried to carry over the feeling of night to some of his daytime work. “Photographs made in sunshine, I printed as though they were made at night, with deep shadows and high contrast,” he relates. “The result was a certain enigmatic quality that questioned when the image was made. And as we all know, questions are much more interesting than answers.”
All of which may help explain why he so seldom photographs people. “People, I find, make my images too specific in time and place, perspective and scale,” he says. Perhaps that is part of why his images of power station cooling towers seem almost medieval, or why his views of the often-photographed Mont St. Michel appear so fresh. But plenty of old-fashioned hard work also has gone into creating his body of work. The cooling towers and Mont St. Michel are both subjects he has gone back to repeatedly over a period of many years. Kenna befriended the Benedictine monks who live in the monastery atop Mont St. Michel, and actually stayed there and had access to the abbey and the area around it day and night.
With Ratcliffe Power Station, which Kenna began photographing in the mid-1980s, he started by pulling over his car and taking out his camera as he passed it on his way to and from London. After getting questioned by the security police a few times, he contacted the manager and asked permission to photograph inside and out. The result was a tour of the station, and something approaching carte blanche to photograph it. Not that it was a vacation.
He spent many frigid nights alone with his cameras, including “One wintry night [when] I had set up two tripods with two cameras in different parts of the power station,” he relates. “Upon returning to one I found it had been blown over by severe winds, the cooling towers acting almost like a wind tunnel. I ran back to the second camera to find that it had also gone over. Both cameras were destroyed. It was a most expensive and dismal night.”
Kenna has been farther afield as well, including many photo trips to Japan, which he feels especially drawn to, and has done several series of images there since 2001. “I like to think my work in Hokkaido, in the north of Japan, echoes Japanese ink paintings, Sumi-e, black strokes on a white canvas. I am very happy about that.”
Wherever he’s working, his usual approach to photographing a landscape “is to circle from a distance and then slowly move closer. I try to repeat this pattern in different weather conditions, times of year, during the day and night, etc. I don’t exactly know what I look for, but I sometimes recognize it when I see it. There is a resonance, an interest, a feeling, an atmosphere… .”
Kenna says he uses two “old and battered Hasselblad 500cm cameras. They are fully manual, no batteries, no digital displays, fancy bells, or whistles.” He always carries five lenses, ranging from 40mm to 250mm. He usually has his film processed in trustworthy labs and prints the negatives himself, “as I believe it is an integral part of the creative process.” His prints usually are “fairly small and intimate, reflecting the way I like others to view my work.”
Overall, it’s been an amazing ride for someone who was drawn to photography by an unromantic motive. “I initially chose photography for survival reasons,” Kenna admits. “I wanted to be an artist but knew the possibilities in England at the time were very limited. Photography could be a means of expression as well as a way to make a living. It was a good choice for me. I have been able to survive since then doing what I love to do. Imagine being out at night, alone, under starry skies, listening to silence, watching the world slowly move, all senses alive, thinking, imagining, dreaming. The camera is recording, creating, documenting, seeing what the eye cannot see— cumulative time. Or the sensation of being in a field as the snow falls on a single, exquisite tree. White all around. Just the sound of snow falling. Or the crashing of angry waves, pre-dawn, against white sand, clouds in the sky, a glow on the horizon from the slowly awakening sun. Then call that ‘work.’ I feel very, very, very fortunate to have stumbled on this path through life and I am so thankful.”