Michael Kenna’s landscapes tend to diminish the line between abstract and real, while leading the viewer to a tranquil place. Natasha Desai attempts to put together the mystery behind the calm.
This article was originally published in April 2020.
“Our whole experience goes into seeing an image. As individuals, we should be able to see and photograph subjectively and individually.”
Lyrical, haunting, serene—these are just some of the words and feelings that are evoked in me while viewing Michael Kenna’s images. He paints an almost abstract view of the beautiful landscapes he visits and revisits, all over the world. In his own words, Michael tries to“provide something of an oasis, a place of rest, perhaps to meditate for a while, in today’s fast-changing world,” through his photographs.
It’s almost as if he hit the pause button on the world, capturing the remarkable beauty of his surroundings.
From A Different Path
As a young boy, Michael wanted to enter priesthood. For his parents, priests were the highest authority and very important to the community. Growing up, he enjoyed the rituals and ceremonies that he experienced in his church. In his teens however, he realised it was not the career for him and he moved on to learning art and photography. He shot on traditional medium format film cameras. In fact, he became so comfortable with the medium, he did not feel the need to shift to digital.
“I prefer processes that I know extremely well, am comfortable with, and I have lived with for years. I do not need or want to change because everybody else does. I still prefer the limitations and imperfections of the non-digital world.”
The Isolated Subject
Humans are uninvited to the mystical worlds Michael creates. “My imagery is about the mood and atmosphere before, after and between events. It is also about sheer beauty. I choose to photograph the absence of people, the memory of their presence, the traces of what’s left behind,” he says. “I like to revisit locations, but with all the time in the world, there still is isn’t enough to keep up, so some of my projects are inevitably left behind as new areas of interests are found. Sometimes, I specifically set out to a place or a particular subject and photograph there. Sometimes I stumble upon places.”
“I approach subject matter as I would a person—with respect.”
All of Michael’s landscapes show an unhesitating loyalty to monochrome. “Photography, for me, is not about copying the world. We see in colour all the time, and so, monochrome subdues distracting details and infuses the photographs with quietness—offering a place of contemplation and solitude,” he says.
From Influences to Tributes
Michael counts Bill Brandt as his biggest role model, amongst other giants like Eugène Atget and Josef Sudek. He even paid tribute to Brandt in his photograph Bill Brandt’s Snicket. As is true with many artists, Michael’s childhood played a big role in shaping his work. “I was brought up in Widnes, a small industrial town near Liverpool and I spent a lot of time wandering around the town, the park across the road and the local pond, which would later become photographic subject matter. Memories, traces, footprints, the latent atmosphere of a place—these are my true influences.”
A Love for the Nocturnal
When the clutter of daytime vanishes, his world emerges. “Our world is fast paced, noisy, colorful and full of distractions. When I stumble on something that emotionally touches me, or has a resonance, whether I know why or not, I want to make a photograph. Using a night palette makes the image very different from during the day. Light often comes from multiple directions, including artificial sources. Black and white combined with long exposures has a way of softening the image and making it otherworldly,” he says.
The Photographer and the Vision
Photography, for Michael, is the ideal way to make a living. He finds it a curious mix of logical thinking and wild imagination to bring out his creative expression.
“What I love about photography is that 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.”
I am in a happy state of reverie after viewing Michael Kenna’s images. I have an urge to stop, freeze time and watch as the stars make their journey across the sky. As Michael would.