Michael Kenna

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Hillside Fence, Study 5, Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Japan, 2004 Michael Kenna
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Michael Kenna is one of the most acclaimed landscape photographers of his generation. His photographs have been the subject of some 50 monographs and are held in the collections of over 100 museums worldwide.

Michael Kenna Prints

Artist Biography

Michael Kenna

B. 1953

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In 1953, Michael Kenna was born in Lancashire, England, into an Irish Catholic family. He studied painting and then photography, before going on to pursue a degree in photography at the London College of Printing. Initially Kenna concentrated on commercial photography, however, he soon turned to landscapes after seeing the work of Bill Brandt, Josef Sudek, Eugène Atget and Alfred Stieglitz, who were highly influential on him.

In 1977 Kenna moved to San Francisco where he has lived and worked as a photographer for over thirty years. He also only photographs his work in black and white, as he believes, “black and white is immediately more mysterious because we see in colour all the time. It is quieter than colour.” He started printing for Ruth Bernard when he moved to San Francisco in 1977 and learnt from the creative license she took with the negative to achieve compositional and tonal precision. Greatly influenced by the transformation of negative to final print undertaken by Bernhard, Kenna patiently makes every print himself, burning and dodging to perfect the balance of each image.

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Kenna travels around the world constantly photographing the varied landscapes of the planet, including China, the United States of America, Brazil, Czech Republic and Egypt. However, it is France and Japan that he has returned to most frequently. Kenna looks for interesting compositions and arrangements within the natural landscape. Working in a tradition that owes more to the Romantic landscape painters Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner than to trends of his contemporaries, Kenna’s vision of the landscape sees the human dwarfed by the grandeur of the natural world. He transforms the mundane into the extraordinary by registering the presence and absence of the human in the landscape.

Kenna prefers to photograph on his own, in silence, creating a sense of calm, solitude and tranquillity in his photographs. As he stated, “I prefer suggestion over description. The world is pretty chaotic, seemingly always speeding up and getting louder and more visually dense. I am interested in finding and/or creating calm shelters from the storm, places where quiet and solitude is encouraged and inner contemplation possible. I think we could all use a break from time to time…”

Asparagus Sticks, Study 2, Hokkaido, Japan, 2007 Michael Kenna
Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 6, Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan, 2007 Michael Kenna

    In many ways Kenna is an anachronistic contemporary to the Pictorialists, the pioneering pre-Modernist movement of photographers that saw the atmosphere of the photograph as central to its emotive force. Like the Pictorialist photography of Alfred Stieglitz, Kenna’s photography places an emotional hold over its viewer through the atmospheric effects of photographing at night, in crepuscular light or in mist, fog and snow. Kenna does not seek to present an accurate copy of the world, but to extract something original and emotive from it. Kenna prints all his own work in the darkroom, ensuring that the tonality of his small, black and white images is evocative rather than informative, interpretive rather than documentary.

    Kenna currently lives in Seattle. His photographs are held in permanent collections at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has been exhibited globally including solo exhibitions in the United States, India, Japan and South Korea. Kenna is also the recipient of numerous awards including the Imogen Cunningham Award in 1981 and in 2003 he was made an Honorary Master of Arts at the Brooks Institute, California.

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