Michael Kenna is known in the world of photography for his unique black and white abstract photographs of deserted landscapes.
His images capture the atmosphere and mood of a place rather than simply the details. He doesn’t photograph people but rather explores landscapes that have the memory of their presence and the traces of what’s left behind.
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 stories. It is a different experience.Michael Kenna
Kenna’s approach is all about patience, and he visits the same locations many times over, waiting for the landscape to open up and reveal themselves to his lens.
He takes his time and gets to know the landscape first, then builds a connection, before finally photographing it the same way you would take a portrait of an old friend.
I am not interested in describing and copying what I see. I am interested in a collaboration with the subject matter.Michael Kenna
His use of long exposures (sometimes up to 10 hours) helps create unique and atmospheric images, while also allowing for unpredictability and chance.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is that it is possible to photograph what is impossible for the human eye to see – cumulative time.Michael Kenna
The aim of this article is to provide a brief overview of Michael Kenna’s work and photography style. If you find the article helpful, then we would be grateful if you could share it with other photographers.
Table of Contents
Michael Kenna Biography
Name: Michael Kenna
Genre: Landscape, Travel, Commercial, Nudes
Born: 1953 (Widnes, Lancashire, England)
Resides: San Francisco, California, USA (Since 1978)
Michael Kenna’s Style
- Minimalism and simplicity (influenced by Japanese haiku)
- Black and White
- Abstract, Long exposures
- Atmospheric, ethereal
- Meditative, reflective
What Camera Does Michael Kenna Use?
Kenna uses a Hasselblad medium format camera. His lenses range from 40mm to 250mm. He first used 35mm Nikkormats and Nikons for fifteen years before switching to the Hasselblad in 1986. For some projects, he uses a Holga camera and even a 4×5 large format camera.
I have a backpack and that determines how many cameras I carry. I insist that I can carry what I use to photograph as I don’t usually have an assistant. The backpack can hold two 120 camera bodies, two film backs, and two viewfinders. One is metered through the lens and the other one is a waist level.
I usually have five lenses with me ranging from 40mm to 250mm. All the equipment is Hasselblad. I also carry cable releases, a lightweight carbon fiber tripod, and sometimes a handheld light meter for the night. That’s about it.Michael Kenna
He often uses a red filter to darken the skies and add more contrast to his images. For his long exposures, he adds an ND filter/s to get the desired effect.
What About Film
Kenna’s go to film is Kodak Tri-X 400. When he needs slower film to shoot during the day, he’ll switch to something like Agfa 25. He always uses black and white film for personal projects, and sometimes color for commercial.
I use black and white film. For the most part, I use Kodak Tri-X. 400asa film. One of the nice things about this film is that it hasn’t changed much since I first started 40 years ago. It’s like an old friend; It’s flexible and forgiving, and easy to work with. That’s why I still use it. I also use other films depending on which country I am in and where I can buy the films. Tri-X is my old stand by.
I find black and white to be more malleable and mysterious than color; it is more an interpretation of reality than a reflection of reality.Michael Kenna
When it comes to processing film, Kenna always used the same formula regardless of light conditions and length of exposure:
I advise my students to develop their film about 10% less than whatever they normally do for daylight exposures. This is a good starting point. Serious night photographers may use any one of a dozen or so compensating developer methods to reduce the predictable contrast increase. Personally I’ve given up changing my developer times for different conditions. I now process everything 11 1/2 minutes, D76, 1:1, 68 degrees, and work out any adjustments at the printing stage. I’ve used this development process for as long as I can remember so I don’t even think about it anymore. Sometimes I’ve substituted Rodinal when D76 was not available but otherwise, I don’t experiment.Michael Kenna
On a typical photoshoot, Kenna shoots between 15-20 rolls of film daily. Instead of processing all the film himself, he normally sends it out to a film lab and waits for the negatives to arrive in the post before printing his images (one of the most important stages of his process).
When photographing I probably average about 10-15 rolls of 120 film each day, which adds up after a few weeks. I have not processed my own film for many years and instead prefer to send them out to a reputable lab and keep my fingers crossed. I usually have two sets of contact prints made, one gets filed and the other I use to edit out images that look interesting. I cut out frames from the contact proofs and further edit before going into the darkroom to work on an enlarged print.
Darkroom and Printing
Kenna is a highly skilled printer (he began as a darkroom printer in the 70s). He uses Ilford Multigrade IV RC paper (neutral, glossy) and spends many hours in the darkroom dodging and burning to get his prints perfect.
Processing film is really one of the most boring parts of photography, but printing is another matter – a most important and often underrated part of the creative process. A good negative can be wrecked by a bad print – often is – a bad negative can rarely be redeemed, but there is so much potential for subjective interpretation and discovery in the middle. I can stay in the darkroom for many hours exploring a new negative.
I believe printmaking is a critical component of the photographic process and I will always try to do it myself. The negative is raw material, which a skilled and creative printmaker can mold in a thousand different ways. There are many technical and aesthetic decisions to be made along the way, the sum of which makes a print unique and very personal.Michael Kenna
He never prints larger than 8×10 because he likes the intimacy of a small print:
I prefer the intimacy of the smaller print. I experimented with 16×20 prints in the late 80s but later destroyed most of them. Some collectors really like them but they just didn’t feel right for me. Apart from the more obvious technical and optical considerations, what is more important for me is the relationship that a viewer has with the print.
The eye comfortably views and focuses an angle of about 30 degrees. This translates into a viewer comfortably standing about 10 inches away from a 4x5inch print and 3 1/2 feet away from a 16×20 inch print.
Small prints have a greater feeling of intimacy – one looks into the print. Large prints are more awesome – they are something a viewer looks out at. I believe in fitting the print size to one’s particular vision and prefer the more intimate engagement of the smaller image.
I highly recommend checking out the interview section on the Michael Kenna website for more darkroom and printing tips.
Michael Kenna Quotes
Ideas, Process and Composition
As a landscape photographer we should be open to possibilities, for one thing often leads to another.
I enjoy places that have mystery and atmosphere, perhaps a patina of age, a suggestion rather than a description, a question or two. I look for memories, traces, evidence of the human interaction with the landscape. Sometimes I photograph pure nature, sometimes urban structures.
Nothing is ever the same twice because everything is always gone forever, and yet each moment has infinite photographic possibilities.
In my photographic work, I’m generally attracted to places that contain memories, history, atmospheres, and stories. I’m interested in the places where people have lived, worked, and played. I look for traces of the past, visual fingerprints, evidence of activities – they fire my imagination and connect into my own personal experiences.
Essentially, I look for what is interesting to me, out there in the three-dimensional world, and translate or interpret so that it becomes visually pleasing in a two-dimensional photographic print. I search for subject matter with visual patterns, interesting abstractions, and graphic compositions.
Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me, it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic, and satisfying because the very process forces me to connect with the world.
When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.
Patience and Time
Approaching subject matter to photograph is like meeting a person and beginning a conversation. How does one know ahead of time where that will lead, what the subject matter will be, how intimate it will become, how long the potential relationship will last? Certainly, a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be patient to allow the subject matter to reveal itself are important elements in this process.
Different assignments, different places, require different approaches. Sometimes I take minutes in a location, at other times days. There are many places that I have returned to over several years. When I photograph, I look for some sort of resonance, connection, spark of recognition.
The first time, I usually skim off the outer layer and end up with photographs that are fairly obvious. The second time, I have to look a little deeper. The images get more interesting. The third time it is even more challenging and on each subsequent occasion, the images should get stronger, but it takes more effort to get them.
Most people are content just to take instant photographs and put them out into the world very quickly and easily. There are always going to be some who take the time and delve deeper. It’s a bit like using Garageband on the computer. You can make music very quickly, but to really master an instrument takes years.
Most of my work involves slowing down rather than speeding up. I prefer to look at prints than scans, and I prefer to look at original silver prints rather than digital prints. I prefer to look at fewer images, but spend time with those individual images.
Accidents and Chance
We have infinite options of how to photograph something. That extends into the darkroom afterwards. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t gone over to digital. I prefer the slowness, the unpredictability, the complications. You never know what you have. It’s like the excitement of opening up a Christmas package when you get your negatives back.
For me, this is one of the advantages of not using digital, I never know when I have a good photograph! I practice doubt as a way to push myself into alternative compositions by selective focus, different speeds of exposure, and unusual perspectives.
Sometimes the most interesting visual phenomena occur when you least expect it. Other times, you think you’re getting something amazing and the photographs turn out to be boring and predictable. So I think that’s why, a long time ago, I consciously tried to let go of artists angst, and instead just hope for the best and enjoy it. I love the journey as much as the destination. If I wasn’t a photographer, I’d still be a traveler.
One needs to fully accept that surprises sometimes happen and complete control over the outcome is not necessary or even desirable.
Many of my stronger photographs are the result of my option not to pre-visualize. I believe that it’s important to allow the possibility of an accident and not be too controlling.
Craft is important, but cameras for their own sake are not. A sense of aesthetics, a connection with the subject matter, an enquiring, and an inquisitive mind, these factors outweigh whatever equipment we use.
If I had to give advice to other photographers, I would first suggest quickly getting over the camera equipment questions. In my humble opinion, the make and format of a camera is ultimately low on the priority scale when it comes to making pictures.
The photographer Ruth Bernhard used to tell me that this is like asking somebody how they evolved their signature. It is not something I’ve ever worked on consciously. I think style is just the end result of personal experience. It would be problematic for me to photograph in another style. I’m drawn to places and subject matter that have personal connections for me and I photograph in a way that seems right. Where does it all come from, who knows?
There can be no doubt that probability increases with practice. Fortune favours the brave, fortune favours the prepared mind, and fortune favours those who work the hardest.
Time is of the essence, particularly if we’re sending images out on social media. The reality is that the majority of images are only viewed for a few seconds, often on a phone or computer. There are so many images freely available that it takes a lot of will power to concentrate and prolong the gaze on one picture at the expense of the thousands of others waiting to be viewed!
Black and White Photography
We see in colour all the time. Everything around us is in colour. Black and white is therefore immediately an interpretation of the world, rather than a copy.
I don’t have anything against colour. It is just not my first preference. I have always found black and white photographs to be quieter and more mysterious than those made in colour.
For me, the subtlety of black and white inspires the imagination of the individual viewer to complete the picture in the mind’s eye. It doesn’t attempt to compete with the outside world. I believe it is calmer and gentler than colour, and persists longer in our visual memory.
Recommended Michael Kenna Books
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Michael Kenna Videos
Michael Kenna: A Letter from Shinan, 2013
Hokkaido Documentary, 2006
Michael Kenna Photos
Looking for more Michael Kenna photos? Visit the image archive on the Michael Kenna website.
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Michael Kenna: A 20 Year Retrospective, 2003
On the Shoulder of Giants, Camera Darkroom Magazine, July 1995
In the Darkroom with Michael Kenna, Photowork, 1997
Interview with Michael Kenna, Photoforum, 2003
Michael Kenna Interview, Photo Review, 2003
Pro Cameraman interviews Michael Kenna, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, July 2012
Curiosity is important, Light and Land, 2019
Official Michael Kenna website
Michael Kenna: A Letter from Shinan, 2013
Hokkaido Documentary, 2006