Interview: landscape legend Michael Kenna

In March 2020, when COVID-19 caused lockdowns around the world, Michael Kenna had a full calendar of trips and exhibitions planned for the coming months. Instead, he found himself stuck at home with nowhere to go. Rather than taking new photos, he returned to his archives to take a fresh look at some of his early work. The result is North of England 1983-1986a picture book made over 30 years ago, of the area where Kenna was born and raised.

What was it like when lockdown hit?

It was ridiculous, as my schedule was absolutely packed in 2020. I had many exhibitions planned and book projects going on, and I had planned to shoot in a number of countries. Then it was a matter of canceling, postponing and canceling again one after the other.

Bill Brandt’s Snicket, Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. 1986. © Michael Kenna Photography

How did you decide to return to your archives?

My editor, Chris Pichler, at Nazraeli Press, said we should make a book out of something. I couldn’t finish any of the projects I was working on at the time, so it was a matter of looking back. Luckily I have thousands of unprinted negatives to fall back on, and some of them were from the North of England. This work was done before I left for Japan in 1987. Between 1983 and 1986, I took many photographs during various trips over three or four years. I had printed a few for exhibits and then just forgot the rest.

Your photos today are all in square format, and what stands out here is the fact that these photos are all in a standard 3:2 aspect ratio.

In 1987, I bought my first Hasselblad camera with a waist-level viewfinder. For the previous 15 years, I had looked through a 35mm viewfinder. Things had become a little predictable. I was composing in certain ways that I knew. I always made the decision, whether it was horizontal or vertical. I was ready for a change.

A black and white photo of an empty set of stone stairs.
Fairclough Mills, Halifax West Yorkshire, England. 1986. © Michael Kenna Photography

How has the Hasselblad changed the way you take pictures?

After purchasing the Hasselblad, everything was suddenly seen upside down in the ground glass viewfinder. I found it very difficult to work with! But I also found that I was starting to experiment and do new things. I put the camera on the ground because now I could. I placed the camera just above the water to see the reflections from that vantage point. I leaned the camera against the side of a wall. Everything became a bit different and my compositions changed to be more graphic.

You are resolutely a film photographer, and you always have been. What’s in the process of shooting a movie you love so much?

I think the whole analog process exudes calm. For me, it’s a meditative journey. I am absolutely sure that I could not be a photographer without film, without images. I could go through the whole process: traveling to places, looking for situations and landscapes, spending hours exposing, looking at the subject, and not having a result. It would be frustrating in some ways because I couldn’t make a living, but it’s a wonderful process to work as a photographer. I love what I do from start to finish.

A black and white photo o
No Show, Blackpool, Lancashire, England. 1983. © Michael Kenna Photography

[I love] planning trips, making timetables, booking plane tickets, going places, finding or trying to find things to photograph – the search, the frustration sometimes, and then suddenly discovering something that is just phenomenally fascinating for can -be a few seconds or for hours or days. And then there’s the processing and months later I saw the pictures first, [it’s] almost like opening Christmas packages. “Oh, look at these pictures! Where do they come from?” Sometimes photographs that I thought were interesting turn out to be quite mundane. Likewise, sometimes those that I thought were quite predictable are really interesting! The joy of not knowing! any other story; alchemical and magical with a steep learning curve.

Digital photography, at least for me, takes away some of that indecision, that ignorance of what I have. With cinema, precisely because it’s so unpredictable, I want to seek even more. I know myself well enough to realize that I have little or no idea when I have an interesting image. It comes later when I see the negatives. Therefore, I am always on the lookout for additional possibilities and options.

A black and white photo of laundry hanging on a line in a deserted street.
Wash Day, Colne Lancashire, England, 1986. © Michael Kenna Photography

The style of the North of England photos is similar to your current work: there are no people, and the light and shadows are almost like characters in the scenes. Do you compose these photos as if they were decorations on a scene of life?

I sometimes allude to precisely that. For me, my photographs are like decorations on the scene of life. In this North of England series, the empty warehouses, for example, had only recently been vacated, many of them were to be demolished, and most are no longer there. When I photographed [them] at night, along the canals where no one went anymore, these places were artificially lit, like on a stage.

I sometimes refer to my interest in the moments before the actors appear, when we can still use our own imaginations, and there’s a certain kind of pent-up atmosphere of anticipation. Once the characters are there, I let myself be drawn into their story and I listen. I become less aware of the scene as the characters draw me in. After the actors leave the stage, my head is filled with their stories. But before they appear, there is a certain ambiguity, a potential for my own story. I can try to imagine what might happen, what happened in the past and what might happen in the future.

A black and white photo of a street lamp in a vacant street.
Steep street, Blackburn, Lancashire, England. 1985. © Michael Kenna Photography

One of my favorite photos from the series is Steep Street, Blackburn, Lancashire, England, 1985. The quirk of the titled lamppost in front of the buildings means you can’t tell if it’s the pole or the buildings that are angled.

I still wonder why I didn’t print this image when I made it. I love this photo, but I just ignored it when choosing my initial selection in the 80s. When I came across this negative again, I thought, “WOW, that’s amazing!” I guess we look for different things at different stages of our lives. I just didn’t see it at the time.

You have published dozens of photo books; how important are they to you?

A black and white photo of an empty pier.
Blackpool Pier, Lancashire, England. 1983. © Michael Kenna Photography

They are extremely important. I think it is a duty, a responsibility, a desire and a wish for a photographer to propagate his work, to share images, to transmit photographs in the public domain. I am fully aware that the prints I make are gelatin silver, handmade, hand retouched, matted, mounted, signed and numbered. They are like precious jewels to me, and I love this process. But how many people will see the original prints? Alas, not that much. Books are therefore a privileged means of showing the work of a photographer.

The cover of Michael Kenna's new book,
North of England 1983-1986 is available now. © Michael Kenna Photography

See more work by Michael Kenna here.

Stewart C. Hartline