An Exclusive HolgaDirect interview with Michael Kenna

Baby Elephant, Phuket, 2011 - Michael Kenna

Baby Elephant, Phuket, 2011 – Michael Kenna

This week we have a very special interview with one of the most internationally acclaimed fine art photographers of the modern era, Michael Kenna. Born in Lancashire, England into a working class family as the youngest of six children, Michael initially trained as a priest before changing direction to Art school at the age of 17. From there he slowly migrated to London and photography where he engaged in more commercial work while continuing his hobby of capturing landscapes. After a visit to the USA he eventually moved into fine art photography for a living and now lives in the country. Michael has published over 20 photographic books covering diverse locations such as Japan, China, and India and subjects such as power stations and concentration camps.

We had the pleasure of meeting Michael when he recently visited Hong Kong to open one his latest exhibitions and so we were delighted when we followed up with an email and he agreed to an interview! Interspersed in this interview you will see some images that Michael has made using his own Holga…

For more information about Michael Kenna and full galleries please visit:


HolgaDirect: Your name is often quoted by many photographers as a key influence on their work but who would you say were the key inspirations for your own photography?

Michael Kenna: I come out of a European tradition of photography and have been greatly influenced by some of the photographic giants: Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt and Josef Sudek in particular. Early on, I studied their styles and even visited their locations. These explorations of their work were valuable to me in finding my own vision. But, what interests me photographically now, often relates back to my childhood and background. I was brought up in Widnes, a small industrial town near Liverpool.  As a boy I spent a lot of time wandering around the town, the park across the road, the local pond, the railway station, the Mersey bridge, factories, the church, the rugby league ground, etc.. It seems that my experiences as a child would later become photographic subject matter. My consistent interest lies in the relationship, juxtaposition, even the confrontation between the landscape and everything that we place in it. Memories, traces, footprints, the latent atmosphere of a place – these are my true influences. Empty sports stadiums, old mills, abandoned structures and seafront buildings that have been built for our activities – when they are not being actively used can be strangely surrealistic, and I am fascinated by them. I try to photograph the invisible behind the visible.

Golden Gate Bridge, Study 16, San Francisco, California, USA, 2009 - Michael Kenna

Golden Gate Bridge, Study 16, San Francisco, California, USA, 2009 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: Your photography has taken you to some incredibly interesting places around the world including Japan, China, Brazil, India, Easter Island amongst many others. Can you tell us if there are any new locations or projects which you would still really like to photograph?

Michael Kenna: I suppose I have photographed the most in England, France and Japan. Currently, I am spending a lot of time in China, India and Korea.There are so many countries that interest me photographically. They do say ‘the world is your oyster’ and I am still delightfully exploring! As to what is next – I really have no idea. I’m looking forward to finding out though!

HolgaDirect: You’ve mentioned in the past that getting best out of a location is like getting to know a new friend. How do go about building that ‘friendship’? And have you ever fallen out or ‘finished’ with a location?

I approach subject matter as I would a person – with respect. One cannot predict how a friendship will develop and it is much the same with photographic connections. Optimism, patience and openness help. A degree of curiosity also goes a long way. An acknowledgement that the process is about collaboration – rather than ego – has served me well. I like to revisit locations but with all the time in the world, there still is isn’t enough to keep up, so some projects are inevitabely left behind as new areas of interest are found.

Tian Tan Buddha, Lantau Island, Hong Kong, China, 2011 - Michael Kenna

Tian Tan Buddha, Lantau Island, Hong Kong, China, 2011 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: Most of your work is shot on Hasselblad film cameras. But you have also produced images from a Holga. Apart from the first letter these two pieces of equipment are seemingly on the complete opposite ends of the technical spectrum. Do your technical and artistic approaches change much when switching to the Holga?

Michael Kenna: I’ve always considered the make and format of camera to be ultimately low on the priority scale when it comes to making pictures. I think personal vision is far more important. A sense of esthetics, a personal connection with the subject matter, an enquiring and inquisitive mind – these factors outweigh whatever equipment you use.

Hasselblads are fine photographic instruments. Basically, I have used the same Blads since the mid eighties. My usual working set-up for a photographic expedition is to take two camera bodies, two viewfinders (a metered pentaprism and a waist level), two film backs, five lenses, a hand held meter (chiefly for night exposures), a light weight graphite tripod with ball socket head, a polaroid back, and many cable releases (as I tend to lose them in the dark). Everything has to fit into a backpack (except the tripod) as I walk when photographing and need to be able to work in all conditions without thinking about the equipment. These cameras have become old friends, familiar and easy to be with. They are fully manual with no fancy bells or whistles. They can function in extreme conditions and are generally reliable. I get a decent sized negative which I can print whole frame or crop as required. But, they are quite heavy and also expensive!

Holgas, on the other hand, are made of plastic and are comparatively light weight – and inexpensive. They are also quirky, whimsical and unpredictable – a few of the many reasons I love them. I am often pleasantly surprised by the unexpected results I get, as well as occasionally disappointed. Holgas, in my experience, have a habit of keeping you guessing – surprise and spontaneity are hallmarks of their images. Both Hasselblads and Holgas have their pros and cons. I like both and hope to continue to use both.

White Bird Flying, Paris, France, 2007 - Michael Kenna

White Bird Flying, Paris, France, 2007 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: By using a 6×6 format aspect ratio for the majority of your work do you find that you can always obtain the result you are looking for? Are there ever any times when a subject would benefit from an alternative aspect?

Michael Kenna: Sometimes a horizontal or vertical rectangle, or even a panorama works better than a square, and I retain the option to crop negatives when I am printing.

HolgaDirect:  The Digital vs Film debate is a little old hat now but do you see your choice of using film an aspect of the philosophy of the slowing down of the art and craft of photography?

Personally, I don’t use the digital medium in my own fine art work. However, I am reasonably familiar with what is digitally possible. I’m sometimes commissioned to do commercial work and I’m fully conscious that a lot of what I do in the landscape and darkroom can now be more easily and quickly done on a monitor. However, the clients who have commissioned me, know my art well and are looking for my interpretations and personal vision. Fortunately, they respect my way of working and allow me to work as I see best. Often, they require scans as the finished output. This I can do from negatives. It is true that the whole photographic process has been made much easier, faster, cleaner and more accessible to more people by digital innovations. And that’s a good thing. I think artists should use whatever equipment is appropriate for their vision. For my part, I don’t need or desire instant gratification in photography and it is the long, slow journey to the final print that captivates me. I still prefer the limitations and imperfections of the non digital world. Perhaps my preferences have hindered my suitability for some commercial assignments, but that side of photography has never been my highest priority. I have no doubt that if I ultimately need to learn about the digital craft in the future, I can and will. While silver materials are available, I suspect that I will stay with what I know and love best.

Setting Sun, Beijing, China, 2008 - Michael Kenna

Setting Sun, Beijing, China, 2008 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: We see that you shoot a lot of Kodak Tri-X 400ASA. Do you have any thoughts or concerns on the recent news of Kodak’s decision to sell off its film division?

Michael Kenna: I try not to worry about the future and what might or might not happen.

HolgaDirect: Seneca, the first-century Roman philosopher, allegedly said, “Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.” How much would you say preparation is important in your own work?

Michael Kenna: I’m a big believer in both “Fortune favors the prepared mind” and “Fortune favors the brave” But I am an even bigger believer in “Fortune favors those who work hard”! I recently heard a tennis player say words to the effect that he became much luckier when he trained harder!

Amandier sur Muret, Bargeme, France, 2011 - Michael Kenna

Amandier sur Muret, Bargeme, France, 2011 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: It is often quoted in Landscape Photography that most of the time is actually spent ‘Waiting for the Light’. Have you ever felt that after many repeated attempts the ‘right’ light never appeared and a particular image has always eluded you or was ‘The one that got away’?

Michael Kenna: I’m always chasing the light but I’m not convinced there is a “best” or “right” light. I think a landscape photographer should be flexible and spontaneous, and I aspire to be able to work in all lights and all conditions. Sometimes the results are interesting and sometimes less so, but I try not to second guess.

I’ve often waited for amazing sunsets to find the sun disappears behind clouds and the expected drama doesn’t happen. Often it is raining at sunrise, but these are all parts of the wonderful, unpredictable process of being out in the world. One shouldn’t expect to control weather conditions.

Ferro da Gondola, Venice, Italy, 2006 - Michael Kenna

Ferro da Gondola, Venice, Italy, 2006 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: Long exposure and Night photography are just two techniques that appear in some of your work. Working on film it is often difficult to anticipate how successful a shot using these techniques will turn out. How do you approach these shots?

Michael Kenna: Technically, a lot of my photographs are made with long time exposures, sometimes just seconds, often minutes and occasionally hours. I often photograph at night or throughout the night. I love the fact that I never quite know what I am getting when I am getting it!  There is a great amount of unpredictability with night photography. As clouds, water, stars, etc., move, their accumulated changes are all recorded on film. The film is recording something the human eye cannot see – time passing. Light is often coming from multiple directions, from artificial lights, unlike during the day when light essentially comes from the sun. Contrast is increased. The night “palette” is very different from during the day. Working at night greatly influenced the way I now photograph during the day. Long exposures have a way of softening the image and making it other-worldly. Moving clouds and water can simplify backgrounds and reduce unwanted clutter and distraction. Darkening the day palette can give an ambiguous and sometimes unsettling effect. Questions are raised which are usually more interesting than answers.

Empire State Building, Study 4, New York, USA, 2007 - Michael Kenna

Empire State Building, Study 4, New York, USA, 2007 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: You have often likened some of your photographs to a Japanese Haiku. Can you describe how you distill a scene down to its bare essentials to achieve this?

Michael Kenna: Our world is fast paced, noisy, colorful, full of distractions. I do try to provide something of an oasis, a place of rest, perhaps to meditate for a while. Calm, solitude, a moment to breathe – these are all aspects to the work. I photograph pathways, plank walks, bridges – invitations for a viewer to wander. Usually, there is no obvious destination. It is up to the individual to find their own way, to use their own imagination, to create their own stories, dramas, tragedies, comedies, etc. I often use a theater analogy. Before actors appear on the stage, or before a concert begins, there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I enjoy that and it is fertile for our own creativity. Once the characters appear or the music starts, we are led into somebody else’s story. After the performances, memory lingers and again our minds can be very active. My imagery is about the mood and atmosphere before, after and between events. It is also about sheer beauty. When I see a beautiful tree I want to make a photograph, a portrait. When I stumble on something that emotionally touches me, has a resonance, whether I know why or not, I want to make a photograph. Life is a miracle, this world is a miracle, and often I feel completely dazzled by what I see. I feel privileged to be able to make photographs.

Four Birds Flying, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2008 - Michael Kenna

Four Birds Flying, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2008 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: Do you see your photographic style as continually evolving and heading into new stylistic directions or do you feel that you have reached ‘the destination’ in this aspect?

Michael Kenna: I have never felt like I needed to hop from one style to another as my career has developed. I photograph now in very much the same way as I photographed 35 years ago. Subject matter and style has perhaps evolved but my style hasn’t radically changed

HolgaDirect: The lighting conditions in a scene play an important part in your photography. How did you develop your skills in reading light and understanding how it can affect a scene?

Michael Kenna: I was very fortunate to work with Ruth Bernhard as her printer for a number of years. She had a wonderful understanding of light and I’m sure her teachings were important in my work. But I think experience is key to development. It’s back to “Fortune favors those who work hard”. I have been looking and photographing for many years now and I hope that some of the hours I have put in have helped my skills and understanding.

Window Seat, Study 7, Shanghai, China, 2006 - Michael Kenna

Window Seat, Study 7, Shanghai, China, 2006 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: Many photographers would say that the art is less about ‘looking’ for an image than ‘seeing’ it. What advice could you give our readers in moving beyond ‘looking’ to ‘seeing’?

Michael Kenna: Recognition is key. We could have 100 photographers look at the same scene and have 100 different interpretations. How wonderful is that? We all see and interpret in different ways. It is our task to find what touches us personally and translate that into an image. Our whole experience goes into seeing an image.

As individuals, we should be able to see and photograph subjectively and individually.

HolgaDirect: We have many keen amateur readers. What is the most important advice you would give to an aspiring fine art or landscape photographer?

Michael Kenna: Be passionate about what you do, and do it to the best of your ability. There is no need to try to be like somebody else, another photographer. Learn from other photographers by all mean but think about what YOU enjoy and connect with, follow your own muse, find your own vision and have fun in the process.

Umbrella, Shexian, Anhui, China, 2007 - Michael Kenna

Umbrella, Shexian, Anhui, China, 2007 – Michael Kenna

HolgaDirect: What projects are you working on now and planned for the future?

Michael Kenna: That’s difficult to answer accurately. As I mentioned, I try not to think or worry too much about the future, as it’s so unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable. I prefer to embrace life now, along with all its convolutions and complications. I think that when we define a destination we are often destined to travel a straight path to it. The diversions and detours en route are sometimes more fascinating. I’ve always appreciated John Lennon’s words : “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”. Based on my past itineraries, I suspect and hope that the road ahead will be full of interesting twists and turns. Of course, I greatly look forward to seeing what is around the next corner!


Wilshire Park Tree, Portland, Oregon, USA, 2004 - Michael Kenna

Wilshire Park Tree, Portland, Oregon, USA, 2004 – Michael Kenna

We’d like to thank Michael for taking the time from his very busy schedule to talk to HolgaDirect. It has been a fascinating discussion into the philosophy behind the fantastic images that Michael has produced. An exhibition of some of Michael Kenna images, ‘Focus East’ will be shown at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco from November 1 – December 22 2012. For those of you who can get to this venue we highly recommend it as these hand crafted darkroom images are even more stunning when viewed in person.

The HolgaDirect Team




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