ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Photographer: Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna creates monumental black and white photos of some of the most beatiful places on earth. In this episode, we accompany him as he prepares for early morning shoots in remote locations and learn why he returns to nature for inspiration.

AIRED: February 08, 2021 | 0:25:59

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Kenna: Today, we are in Carnac, here in Brittany,

in lovely France.

I'm here to photograph the wonderful alignments.

So the Patrimoine des Monument Nacionaux

have commissioned me to come and photograph

these alignments.

They're very beautiful.

So normally I live in Seattle.

That's where my home is.

I go everywhere.

I don't really have a particular mission.

So a few weeks ago, I was in Jakarta, in Indonesia.

Before that, I was in Tokyo.

But I'm in -- a lot in Asia frequently these days.

But I photographed in Europe throughout my life

photographed in Australia,

photographing in Russia, many places.

I was born into a working-class family in Widnes.

I have four older brothers and one older sister.

We were very poor, had a small house.

I remember, you know, we would all sleep in the same room.

Four brothers -- all five of the boys slept in one room.

So I remember in my early childhood,

I spent a lot of the time away from the house

just living in my imagination,

in the local parks, the local factories.

There was a lot of industry in Widnes.

I spent time in the Rugby League ground.

I would go to the cemetery

and had my little collections of things.

I spent a lot of time in the local Catholic Church.

I was an altar boy.

I loved the rituals of the mass and the baptisms

and even the funerals.

It felt like I was close to something

that I didn't really know about.

I would spend a lot of time in that church, actually.

And so it's not surprising that when I was age 10 years old,

I decided that, no, I didn't want to be a Rugby League player

or an astronaut or a fireman or a policeman.

I want to be a Catholic priest,

which seems a little strange at this point.

But I did go to a seminary school for seven years

away from my home, which was actually good for me

insofar as it gave me a very good education,

better than I probably would have received

if I had stayed at home.

It gave me a life of a certain amount of discipline,

silence, meditation, prayer,

kind of a lot of things

that I use later on in my own photography.

Came to puberty, you know, teenage years and realized,

"well, this is not such a good idea for me.

I should do something else."

And the only thing I seemed to be reasonably good at

was drawing, doodling, painting.

I just loved art of any sort.

And so I went to an art school in Banbury,

and that's really where I discovered photography.

Kenna: This took me an hour, this one here.

That one, maybe eight minutes.

This is probably 20 minutes.

But photography seemed to be an ideal mix

of competent professionalism.

So I could actually make a living,

and also, in a strange way, a good mode of self-expression.

Bill Brandt is one of my very favorites.

He influenced me early on.

Probably later in my photographic education

at London College of Printing. I saw an exhibition

called "The Land" at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This was really the first time

that I'd seen these landscape photographers.

Bill Brandt was in it.

I know Ansel Adams was in it.

Many of the landscape photographers were in it.

You can tell that came out a little odd.

I worked for Magnum to begin with,

selling photographs, not making photographs.

[ Laughs ]

I worked for a photographer printing.

Then I worked for Anthony Blake in England

as an advertising photographer.

I should backtrack a little bit, a segue,

because when I finished my studies,

I went to the United States

for a summer as an exchange student,

and I worked in a hotel in upstate New York,

which was -- it profoundly affected me

because it was the first time

that I'd actually seen photographs

exhibited in galleries.

I befriended an artist

who was a relative of the family I worked for,

and she introduced me to various galleries.

So when I came back to England, there was a seed planted,

a very strong one that said

"maybe you should go back

and try to get your work in galleries."

Do we sell pictures in here?

Gee, how are you doing?

I seem to somehow develop into a car photography --

uh, photographer?

I'm not sure how,

but I think these advertising agencies

saw my black-and-white work.

In my work, I tried to leave space

for an individual viewer to enter to it.

So there's always spaces around.

It's not full.

And I think they saw this, and sort of realized

that our product could fit into these photographs.

So I was commissioned by numerous car companies

along the way.

I think the first one was Rolls-Royce,

which was absolutely amazing.

I remember being strapped onto the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce

and driving around with sky

because we had to photograph with movement

and they had to have, you know, the symbol of the Rolls-Royce

in the front.

It was absolutely amazing.

But I photographed for Mercedes, for Audi, for Volvo,

for Saab, for BMW, for a Jeep.

I mean, I can't remember. They just go on and on and on

because I did it for many, many years on and off.

And it was wonderful. It was.

And that's kind of twin paths that I was talking about.

The advertising world really kept me afloat in the art world

because it's very difficult as a young photographer

to exist in the art world, selling prints and so forth.

So these commissions were very, very, very, very strong for me.



The concentration camp work came about in the late '80s,

and I just happened to be in some of those places

in the East Bloc,

so I began to photograph them.

I didn't really know why I was photographing them,

but it just seemed a very important project

that I was there at the right time, right place.

And I felt that I was the right person.


Two or three years into it,

I decided that I would give it all away.

I would do this work because I was there,

and then I would give it all away.

They ended up going to the Patrimoine Photographique

in Paris,

which is now in their archives.

It was 6,000 negatives and many, many hundreds of prints.

And I visited as many camps as I could.

And I think it was 30 something.

And yes, this was way before the time

of e-mails and Internet.

And it took a lot of research, a lot of traveling

It was a very, very powerful project for me.

And one of the ones I'm most proud of, I think.


As with a lot of the projects that I've done,

I was somehow invited, commissioned.

With Japan, I had exhibitions in the mid 1980s.

2004, I went for the first time. to Hokkaido in the winter.

I had gone in the fall, the spring.

People said, no, you can't go in the winter,

it's just too bleak.

It's just covered in ice, snow.

Nobody goes to Hokkaido in the winter.

And such a revelation.

It was absolutely incredible, beautiful.

Just as I say, it was like a big white canvas

with kanji characters and woodblock prints.

It's kind ofSumi-e,

which is this kind of ink-brush painting,

very minimalistic, beautiful for me.

Very, very difficult to photograph physically

because it's sort of freezing cold.

And, you know, I was always running into trouble,

you know, running my car off the road

or, you know, getting chest deep in snow.

My cameras got soaking wet, all this sort of stuff.

So I think I went there in 2002 to begin with, and 2003.

Then 2004, I found a guide, Tsuyoshi Kato-san,

who had a four-wheel drive car, snowshoes,

everything that one needs to photograph in Hokkaido.

And then I went every year, sometimes two or three times.

I just found this perfect place for me, you know.

And the work became very light with very few details,

very, very minimal.

Beautiful place. Beautiful.

I still go.

I was there three weeks ago in Hokkaido.


One time when I was in Hokkaido,

we went to a place called Kussharo Lake.

And as we normally do,

we just wander around looking for things, exploring,

seeing what you react to with a certain resonance.

We stopped in this one location,

and I started hiking into the woods,

and I came across this absolutely beautiful

Japanese oak tree.

It felt like it was, really, a woodblock print

because it was just so graphic against the sky.

I continued to photograph over the years.

Now I have, of course, many other trees throughout the world

that I have good associations with.

But this was a really, truly amazing tree.

[ Indistinct conversations, phone ringing ]

And I had an exhibition close to Detroit.

And as I usually do, I asked,

"is there anything around here that I should photograph?"

And I was introduced to the Rouge Factory.

This was a bit like the Kussharo Lake tree story

insofar as I went with a guide to show me.

And I spent one afternoon there, and I made pictures,

and I thought it was nice, but not so interesting for me.

I don't think I'll come back here.

And I've had my film processed.

And, you know, many weeks later, I made contact sheets,

and I looked at them and said, "wow, amazing.

What an incredible place."

You know, these images are fantastic.

And that's another of those learning things

that I mentioned before.

I cannot predict myself what is happening.

But I was able to work there in the middle of the night,

through the night, wherever I wanted, you know.

And I was in an incredible place

because half of the factory was closed down,

but half of the factory was still making steel.

So there's -- you know, there's sound, lights, fire.

Lots of stuff going on.

The ground would vibrate from time to time.

I would be able to climb up onto all these cranes

in the middle of the night and make these long exposures.

So it was an incredible experience.


I started going to Versailles and then to Seoul

and then to Provence, and the Tuileries Gardens,

and the Vaux-le-Vicomte,

and all these beautiful, gorgeous gardens.

It's not so different from everything else I'm doing.

I'm still looking for the influence of humans

in the landscape, in a sense.

The gardens are full

of these amazing optical illusions.

My major thesis as a student was on optical illusions.

I was fascinated by it.

It's very strange being in Carnac now

because we're talking about alignments,

which is very much about what I love is photography

is aligning things and how they move.


I feel that all the projects I do

are essentially just -- they're building blocks.

They're all part of a tapestry somehow,

and I don't see it as a kind of a geometrical ladder

that goes up on a single graph and a single shape.

So I can be photographing over here and over there

and up here and down there,

and they're all part of one picture somehow,

I think in nineteen seventy seven,

which is a long time ago now,

I went back to the States.

I had jet lag.

And I remember being in upstate New York

photographing in the middle of the night.

And I think that was really my first serious night photography.

I had no idea what I was doing

because the exposure meters don't really work at night.

They're not sensitive enough.

But it made me realize that there was a whole other palette

that I could work with.

So I started getting up earlier, going to bed later.

And slowly I became a night photographer.



There's a sense --

There's a sense of technical challenge, too,

because it's difficult to predict and control

what's going to happen.

So, yes, you can begin to see where the clouds are,

so you'll know where the movements are.

You can understand how the stars

kind of revolve around the North Star,

so you can work out your star trails.

But, you know, this morning,

we're photographing here in Carnac,

just 10 or 15-minute exposures,

but suddenly a car comes down the road with big headlights,

and the exposure is probably ruined.

So this is something you can't really prepare for.

But for me, it's exciting.

I like it when I'm not in control,

when I don't really know what's going on completely.

Often I leave cameras for an hour,

sometimes four or five hours,

sometimes all night for 10 hours,

even up to 12 hours.

You know, I've left them on roofs and fields.

Usually you can't really do that in the city

unless you're right next to it.

But I can happily leave a camera on a tripod

in two different places and go to bed.

And then wake up, you know, an hour before dawn

and collect them.

I mean, for the most part, early on,

I used to teach night photography,

and I was much more proactive

in my early night photography career

about actually using flash and night lights,

you know, flashlights, torches,

you know, to illuminate things,

to fill in shadows.

For many years then, I just didn't bother.

I just used exactly what was there.

More recently, I carry along flashlights with me.

Sometimes I actually carry an electronic flash.

And that electronic flash, I bought in 1985.

You know, it's an old thing.

It's very manual.

Everything I use is manual

that I can try to control myself.

Nothing is automatic.

So with the alignments this morning,

the exposures were long,

and the grey stones tend to blend into each other.

So I felt it was important to just add some light.

So I painted with my flashlight.

And then when it started getting lighter,

I wanted to use actual electronic flash

because it's a little stronger.

In the mid '80s, I bought a Hasselblad camera

my first one.

And essentially that has been my mainstay

since that time.

So it's 30 years, I suppose, is it?

30 years, yes.

And some of the camera --

some of the pieces of camera equipment I have

are 30 years old.

You know, I don't need to change them very much.

They seem to go on forever.

I made a point early on that

that I would only use whatever I could carry myself

because I don't really use assistants

unless I absolutely have to or it's commercial work.

But I like to be able to travel

with just a backpack and a tripod.

That's it.

I still come from a background of trying to create and connect

with things that are inspirational,

that are beautiful in some way,

that awe-inspiring, mysterious.

And I tried to make photographs

that somehow instill some of these values.

I believe we've lost a lot

of our kind of awe, reverence, respect

about who we are,

what we're doing, where we live.

I believe that whether animal, vegetable, or mineral,

we're all in it together in a sense.

So when you -- for example,

when you see me crawling around this morning on the ground,

sometimes I actually say,

"Alright, well, how would a mouse look at this?"

Or how would how would an eagle see this photograph?


I'm often asked why there are no people in my pictures.

I find if there are people in my pictures,

we are immediately drawn to them.

It shows you exactly where things are spatially

and what the scale is.

But I like the feeling

of allowing space in a photograph

for viewers, which includes myself,

to come in and be the actors, to come in and be the people.


This is an interesting one.

Eiffel Tower, '33, Paris, France,

Norman Parkinson, a very well known photographer.

I had my work in a gallery in London called Hamiltons,

and he was represented by the gallery.

This was late '80s.

And he saw my work.

I was a young photographer in '87.

He said, "Michael, I like your work."

I said, "oh, thank you very much.

That's very kind.

why do you like my work?"

Because I was interested, and he said,

"Well, I like your work

because in every one of your photographs,

you have an erection."

I said, "what?" [ Laughs ]

And then I looked at my next photograph,

you know, there's -- [ Laughs ]

But it was very interesting.

It was a kind of a humorous way to demonstrate

that we really all see things individually.

We see kind of, in a sense, what we want to see,

what we've been brought up to see,

what our experiences and our imagination

teaches us to see.

But we all see things differently.

And so we all see individual photographs differently.

When I started becoming a photographer,

I went back to many of these beach resorts

that we would go to,

and photographed what was lying around.

The deck chairs here,

I mentioned earlier, it's the combination

of the geometric structures that we leave

and kind of the organic flow of here in the sky

and the motion of the waves.

Already in 1983, I started to do these long exposures

because it made things less specific.

It made them slightly timeless.

This kind of period, this flow of time

was something I didn't really know

what was going to happen

and how the configurations would come out.

And it became very, very interesting for me.

So I photographed Mont Saint-Michel

from a distance.

I went to the top of the spires.

This is in the middle of the night

with the light that's coming from all the way at the base.

This is the cloisters again in the middle of the night.

This is in the crypt, which is completely black.

This is probably an hour exposure.

It looks like it's daylight, but...

And this is when I got

right onto the top in the belfry, basically,

and was photographing down.


Photographing at night.

This is in the middle of the night.

So this is at night,

but it could be during the daytime.

I have many images that I've made during the daytime

that I print as though they're made at night.

So there's a certain darkness to them again.

We have these dark shadows and so forth.

Again, just random -- random sticks.

I mentioned sticks in water,

just this element of shapes that are left behind.

For me, this could be kind of a combination of a Rothko painting

and just a beautiful, odd abstract line

sort of left behind.

And when I print photographs,

I usually print them upside down or kind of on its side

so that I'm not engaged

as to what these things are, you know?

That's the way it should be.

But I could equally see it this way.

I think this works very, very well like this.

That looks amazing.

But it could be this way or this way.

And there's something about images for me --

I don't even know what it is again.

It's -- it's -- it's -- it's some --

It's like an orchestral arrangements of music somehow,

but it's an orchestral arrangements of shapes

and tonalities and subject matter.


Part of working with silver process

is that I don't know what I have,

which means that I'm never, ever satisfied

because I don't know if I have anything.

That often happens with me,

that I just keep hunting

and keep kind of scratching and finding

until I can find something else.


For me, it's meeting a friend or finding a friend

and then not saying, "well, yes, that was a nice conversation.

We'll never see each other again."

But meeting them again the next year

and then meeting them again the following year.

And in any relationship that that deepens,

you need time.



I think to be a creative photographer, almost,

you have to be an eternal teenager.

You know, when you're a teenager,

you just do things

without thinking of the consequences somehow,

and you're, in a sense, much more adventurous

because you don't know what's going to happen.

You're just ready to do anything

because you've never done it before.

And I think to be a photographer,

you almost have to kind of keep that spirit,

almost that Peter Pan spirit of just wanting to do things

just for the sake of doing it, just to see how it is.


I just find it's a journey

that life passes far too quickly.

I haven't accomplished anywhere near as much

as I would like to accomplish.

I haven't visited as many places as I want to visit.

I haven't made as many photographs as I want to make.

I wish I had at least two or three more lifetimes.

I can never understand this feeling of --

of not having subject matter, you know,

feeling that one doesn't have creativity.

For me, it's just there's not enough time.

I wish I could be busy at all times.

I mean, I love the fact that I've been able to survive

for this amount of time doing what I love doing,

and I really love photographing.









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