For a photographer with a thriving international reputation (he currently has one-man shows on display in San Francisco, Boston, Tokyo, London and France), Michael Kenna keeps an unexpectedly low profile in Seattle, where he lives.
But that’s in the process of changing.
In October, the Tacoma Art Museum opened a two-phase, six-month exhibit, “Memories and Meditations: A Retrospective of Michael Kenna’s Photography.” It covers 30-odd years in Kenna’s career, with a total of 190 black-and-white shots. Part 1 is on display through Jan. 6, 2013. Part 2 runs Jan. 11-March 23, 2013. Kenna also has a small show up at G. Gibson Gallery through Dec. 22.
In shot after shot, Kenna strikes a fine balance between classical elegance and subtle experimentation. His photographs, taken in Asia, Europe and the Americas, often have a pictorialist quality that looks back toward such masters of the medium as Atget, Sudek, Brassai and Bresson. At the same time, they show daring in their sometimes strikingly geometrical composition and in their use of hours-long nighttime exposures to bring out sights the human eye can’t see.
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At 59, Kenna is a preposterously youthful, lanky character with a ready laugh and a still-boyish enthusiasm for what he does. He first picked up a camera in his teens and was instantly smitten with the smells of darkroom chemicals and what he calls the “alchemical magic” of photography.
He lives with his family on the western crest of Queen Anne Hill, where his office and darkroom (he works exclusively in film) occupy the house’s daylight basement. Poke around down there and you’ll see contact sheets and prints scattered about, along with boxes of photos labeled “Easter Island,” “Korean Watch Towers,” “Mont St. Michel” and other locales.
Kenna grew up in Widnes, a small industrial town near Liverpool, and still has a marked northern English accent (he’d have no trouble doing a Beatles impression). He was raised a Catholic, and as a boy wanted to be a priest. By the time he reached his teens, however, the priesthood looked less attractive.
He had always spent much of his spare time “doodling and drawing and painting,” he said in a leisurely interview last month. So in deciding what his next step would be, he opted for art school.
“I had no idea what else to do,” he admits.
Commercial photography wound up being the answer.
“I floated into photography. It was never a big conscious decision,” he says. “It was really a matter of: What am I good at? Photography, thankfully, I was good at. It seemed easy.”
If photography came naturally, so did travel — first in Europe on a Eurail pass. (“It was one of these things where you go to a station and you decide: Where shall I go to? What’s the next train?”) Following his studies in London, he wandered in North America, where he hitchhiked from New York to the Mexican border. There, he took a bus to Mexico City and continued on to Belize and Guatemala, before somehow getting back into the U.S.
“I don’t know how I did it because I only had a visa for one-time entry,” he marvels.
After a stint in London working for Magnum Photos as an agency salesman, he returned to the U.S., where he worked for famed photographer Ruth Bernhard in San Francisco as her printer.
“During that time,” he says, “I started to become aware of photography as a fine art.”
Bernhard also exposed him to the business side of photography, which led to his finding gallery representation for his own work. He had his first one-man show in Seattle in 1979 at Equivalents Gallery, run by Chase Rynd, who later became director of the Tacoma Art Museum.
“Seattle was my start,” Kenna says.
By the 1980s, his pattern had become: Work for a year, then take a break for travel.
“I tended to travel back to England all the time,” he says, “because my parents were alive and I wanted to keep contact.”
As far as photography went, he took inspiration from returning to places he already knew well: “Initially my work was very pictorial … trees, landscapes, church steeples, and so forth.”
Some of those early shots — including the spectacular “Wave,” in which North Sea breakers smash into the Scarborough promenade and rise like frothy sculpture — are included in the Tacoma exhibit. So are later industrial landscapes.
While his earliest work was in color, he soon became devoted to black-and-white photography.
“I’ve always found it more malleable, more mysterious, more personal,” he says. “It’s just different from reality, which is color. It’s open to our imagination and suggestion.”
The sights that draw Kenna often lend themselves to the pallor and shadows of black-and-white photography. A number of shots in “Memories and Meditation” were taken in winter, many of them in Russia and on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Cold is never a problem for Kenna. Moody skies are welcome.
Swarming crowds of people, however, make things tricky.
“A good situation for me is when I’m left alone, where I have access, where I don’t have to worry all the time what’s behind me. If you’re photographing in the city on your own, sometimes it’s difficult,” he says, “because you always have to be conscious of security.”
He also prefers shooting in silence.
“I like to be able to establish some sort of meaningful relationship with what I’m photographing,” he explains. “And you have to listen to do that. You can’t be chattering all the time.”
Even though people rarely appear in his photographs, the human element is rarely absent from them. “I’m really attracted to places that we’ve been,” he notes. “I often talk about the ‘presence of absence’ — the atmosphere that’s left behind in places where we have lived or worked or played or had conversations. … places that just have stories, footprints, traces of our presence.”
Kenna’s move to the Pacific Northwest is a relatively recent development. He lived in Portland from 2004 to 2007, when he moved to Seattle.
What drew him here?
He comes from the northwest of England, he explains, and the sea air, climate and “spatial quality” of the Pacific Northwest feel like home to him.
His travels continue apace, with trips to Tasmania, New Zealand and, possibly, North Korea on the horizon. He also revisits certain places again and again.
“If you have too many friends,” he explains, “you can’t actually have a meaningful relationship with any of them, because it becomes very superficial. And it’s the same with photographing, in some ways. If you just keep going to a different place every 10 minutes, you’re not really going to see the depth or be able to feel the place.”
Wherever he’s working, he likes to build an unpredictability into his photographic results, especially with long film exposures that seemingly change the very texture of water or the sky at night.
“I like to think that photographs are not straight copies of what we see,” he says, “that photographs are a collaboration between the photographer and the subject matter. And then the viewer is invited to become part of it.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com