Profiles in Black&White: Michael Kenna

In Article, Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on March 18, 2014 at 9:35 am

I gravitate towards places where humans have been and are no more, to the edge of man’s influence, where the elements are taking over or covering man’s traces.”


For many artists, there are junctures in life that pull them towards more grounded aspirations. Or, in Michael Kenna’s case, more spiritual. Fortunately for lovers his work, Kenna shifted course  from priesthood to art school at 17 and has now photographed for over 40 years. Born in 1953 in Lancashire, England, Kenna’s education included stops at St. Joseph’s College, Banbury School of Art and London College of Printing. While originally a commercial photographer, his repertoire evolved and expanded after moving to the United States. One of his earliest jobs in the United States was working as Ruth Bernard’s printer while residing in San Francisco.

While primarily a landscape artist – he credits Josef Sudek, Eugene Atget and Bill Brandt as notable influences – Kenna’s photography has been quite dynamic, varied and unorthodox in both location and subject. His books have portrayed such topics as his daughter’s kindergarten class, the Rouge Steel Plant in Michigan and the Golden Gate Bridge in California. Internationally, he has photographed Europe and Japan extensively, while spending more and more time on China, Korea, India and other parts of Asia.  Below, a 2011 photograph features a baby elephant from the beaches of Singapore. Due to his European roots, he is most fond of his home continent; living away from it has allowed him to gain fresh perspective.

Baby Elephant, Phuket, 2011, Michael Kenna

Baby Elephant, Phuket, 2011, Michael Kenna

People are rarely the subject of his photographs, preferring to photograph the “absence of people, the memory of their presence, the traces of what’s behind,” Kenna told Japan’s Pro Cameraman. “I often use the analogy of a theatre stage. I prefer to photograph the stage before the characters appear, and after they leave. At those times, there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation in the air. We can live in our imagination and our own stories on the empty stage, but as soon as the characters arrive, we begin to be caught up in their stores It is a different experience.”

When shooting, Kenna typically uses Kodak Tri-X. 400asa black and white film for its malleability. Whether it’s a short exposure or one of his famed, sleep-while-he-waits 10-hour exposures, he will pack as much equipment as he carry, forgoing the use of an assistant. This is oftentimes a pair of Hasselblad viewfinders, 120 camera bodies and film backs, along with five lenses ranging from 40mm to 250mm.

Kenna currently calls Seattle, Washington his home.

Michael Kenna Galleries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: