Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna : Biography

Michael Kenna was born in 1953, in Widnes, Lancashire, an industrial town in the north-west of England. He attended St Joseph’s College, Upholland, a Catholic seminary school from 1964 to 1972, and went on to the Banbury School of Art, Oxfordshire, for a year before starting a three-year course in photography at the London College of Printing. He graduated with distinction in 1976.
“In my early years, I was [quite] good in the arts, painting in particular, and that’s what I wanted to do at the time. However, after spending some time at the Banbury School of Art, I realized that there wasn’t [much of] a chance I would survive as a painter living in England. I studied photography in part because I knew I could at least attempt a living doing commercial and advertising work.”
His interest in more artistic work was sparked during “The Land” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1975, directed by the photographer Bill Brandt. Kenna acknowledges Brandt’s major influence on his work, along with that of other great European photographers such as Atget, Emerson and Sudek, or Americans with as widely different aesthetic positions as Bernhard, Callahan, Sheeler and Stieglitz.

While working commercially in his early career, he went on with his own research, concentrating primarily on the landscape. “[I pursued more personal work] as a hobby, [and that continued for a number of] years …” In the late seventies, he moved to the United States and eventually settled in San Francisco. There he met Ruth Bernhard (1905-2006), a legendary photographer, most famous for her nude studies, but also well known for her still lifes. For over ten years, he helped her with printing, a field in which she was a stickler for quality. “I learned an immense amount from Ruth. She [was] a remarkable and unique woman.... She has been a very powerful [influence on my life and work].” Kenna later moved to Portland, Oregon, then to Seattle, Washington, where he is now living.
Kenna constructs his work in large chapters, long-term projects which may require him to go back to places he already knows and has photographed many times, exploring them over and over again.
“I like to be working on three or four projects at once, and even when these projects are supposedly finished I often continue working on them indefinitely.” These projects often take as much as seven or eight years to complete. This was the case for The Rouge, Le Nôtre’s Gardens, Monique’s Kindergarten, Japan, Ratcliffe Power Station or Mont St Michel. Sometimes the work takes even longer: his study of concentration camps, exhibited in 2000 — and donated to France — took over ten years and led him to the sites of all the Nazi camps still remaining.
Kenna’s projects are much more than the books or exhibitions which mark the stages in their progress. He still continues to return to many of the sites he has photographed, while at the same time he researches other locations, for example, Latin America and Asia, two of his current areas of interest.


Avoiding the vicissitudes of fashion as well as aesthetic dogmatism, Kenna has built up a body of work over the years that centers on representation of the landscape devoid of human figures. Yet, the imprint of a human presence is there in a strange, ghostly way, in the traces humans leave behind. A gleam of light and the shape of the landscape emerge in long exposures at night or in dim light, magnifying contrasts in texture and matter, and engendering a refined, intelligent rhetoric of light and shade that is the hallmark of his work.
Another telltale signature is the quality of his prints. Like Mario Giacomelli, Kenna is one of those artists who are fascinated and impassioned by the alchemy of printmaking. For them, a work does not stop at taking a photograph but must extend to the perfect match between the image and the print, the flawless materialization of the initial vision. This dedication can also be seen as a way to constantly question and evolve the creative process. Over time, Kenna has gone from small negatives, with an interest in a pronounced grain rather like a Seurat-style charcoal sketch and strong graphic contrasts, to a square format and prints in which sepia tones unfold rich nuances of grey and white. An originally rather dramatic form has given way to an incisively sparing image and free lines. In Kenna’s work, description is less important than suggestion. He leaves plenty of room for the viewer’s imagination and musings.
“In my photography I consider myself much closer to [Basho] than to Joyce! In other media too, I am attracted to seemingly ‘unfinished’ works that are not full of information. [I like audience participation, in my work and in others. When I don’t feel invited], I begin to feel disconnected, no matter how awesome the artwork or the artist’s genius might be.”
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