Jim Kasson interviewed Michael Kenna at his home in San Francisco.
JK: Tell me about the new book.
MK: It’s called Easter Island and is published by Nazraeli Press. A couple of years ago my daughter, Olivia, went to spend a summer in Argentina as an exchange student—our summer, their winter. Usually I take the summer off from making photographs, because I don’t really like photographing in clear, sunny, warm weather, but that year I decided to experiment by going south of the Equator in the summer. I had wanted to visit Easter Island for ages, and Olivia’s trip was the catalyst.
JK: You went first as a tourist?
MK: Yes, I wanted to check it out, but of course I also took cameras! I immediately fell in love with the place. It is a small, triangular, volcanic island about 7 miles long on each side. There’s only one little village; the rest of the island is totally deserted. A thick atmosphere seems to pervade the place. A lot went on here! Then you encounter the Moai statues, which have an immense presence; they embody five hundred to fifteen hundred years of history. I began to photograph them, and to make friends with them. At times they’re intimidating and disturbing, and at other times quite friendly, almost like protectors.
JK: Did you photograph them in the daytime?
MK: To begin with. I took some of the guided tours and went around in the mini bus with other tourists, to get a feel for the place. Then I rented a jeep for four or five days and went out on my own at different times of the day and night. On that first trip I stayed for eight days, and then went back the following summer.
JK: That first trip, were you just running through possibilities, experimenting with different approaches, or did a unifying idea occur to you then?
MK: When I start a project, I like to visit a place, look around, see what the atmosphere is like, and photograph in an experimental manner, not really knowing ahead of time what I’m getting. Later, when I look at the contact sheets, I begin to analyze them to see the potential. I might then return and stay for longer periods and I’m usually more concentrated in my approach. During the interval between my first and second visits to Easter Island, I got together with Chris Pichler, publisher of Nazraeli Press, and showed him the work. We both thought it would be a good idea to do a book, so I returned to Easter Island with that specific goal in mind. I ended up with about two thousand negatives. I printed about 60 for the book and then edited it down to 44.
JK: So the book’s out. Are you done with this project?
MK: The way I work, I’m never completely done with a project. I just finish chapters.
JK: How can someone buy the book and see the first chapter?
MK: The first edition seems to be sold out already, but there will be a second edition in the spring, hopefully in affiliation with the CPA.
JK: You can work on the same thing for a long time without repeating yourself?
MK: I do repeat myself, but I think that’s often when the most creative work happens. After you realize you’ve covered the surface, you begin to look deeper to avoid repetition. In areas that I particularly like to work in, like the gardens, or seascapes, or the industrial/urban landscape, I go back to the same locations over and over. Even though a project may be done, and a book may be published, I still like to go back to the same places. It’s like visiting old friends. Usually I try to make the same photograph to begin with, and then I find something beyond that. Of course, the world is never the same twice: even if I go back to a place and try to repeat myself, I cannot. But it’s fun and instructive to try.
JK: What was the book before Easter Island?
MK: Impossible to Forget. It came out six months ago and the subject matter was the Nazi concentration camps in Europe. I worked on that project for twelve years, visiting the camps many times. I produced 6000 negatives and gave most of them to the Museum of Peace in Caen, France, along with the reproduction rights. Before the donation I edited out 300 negatives from which I made a set of original prints. I gave those negatives, prints and reproduction rights to the PatrimoinePhotographique in Paris. They subsequently organized the publication of this book with the joint publishers Marval and Nazraeli. Now there’s a touring exhibition.
JK: Tough subject.
MK: It’s a difficult subject. I rode an emotional roller coaster as I did the project, but it was something I needed to do.
JK: With your style, you probably could have made concentration camps into things of beauty. Did you?
MK: In some ways, yes.
JK: How do you feel about that?
MK: When I started to work with this subject matter I felt somewhat embarrassed. I started in the mid-80s, but didn’t talk about it for a long time. I felt uncomfortable photographing this potent subject matter in my style, which tends to make things look a certain way, but it is the way I see, and it would have been deceptive for me to work in a different way. I am not apologizing for my style; a calming photograph can entice a viewer to rest awhile in the image, and then to think about the content. The result can be most effective.
JK: If the photograph is too raw the viewer wants to go right by.
MK: It can be too much, too easy to reject. A tranquil image with strong subject matter can remain in your conscious and unconscious mind far longer than an overtly raw image.
JK: Yet you don’t seek out subjects that are universally thought beautiful.
MK: One does not have to photograph overtly beautiful things all the time. It is perhaps healthier to see the world in a more encompassing way. In earlier years I went from photographing romantic castles and mist shrouded trees, to nuclear power stations in the middle of the night.
JK: And in your photographs, the nuclear power stations are more beautiful than the trees and the castles.
MK: That is a subjective opinion! I agree that the “harder” content makes the images more thought-provoking, because we tend to attribute certain visual judgments based upon what we think is our knowledge. Often our knowledge is actually bigoted judgment. So we can see things as being beautiful when others see them as really ugly, and ugly when other see them as quite beautiful.
JK: Like Weston’s toilet bowl.
MK: Perfect example. So for me to photograph power stations or other hard core industrial subjects seem to be a totally reasonable step, even though I’ve had some interesting feedback from people who didn’t appreciate these transitions. I do like the fact that we all see things completely differently—it could get awfully boring otherwise.
JK: Did you have any strong feelings about nuclear power when you were making these images?
MK: I’m an environmentalist by nature, and I don’t appreciate pollution of any sort. Power stations do pollute, whether they are nuclear, coal or gas. However, I am also a realist, and a user of electricity. As a consumer I am a contributor to the problem, so I don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. Ratcliffe Power Station, which I photographed for many years, is coal fired. It is situated right in the middle of this otherwise pristine country valley and I certainly had an ambivalence about that. But then, the cooling towers themselves are really quite exquisite in their own sculptural way. Can something that is harmful be also beautiful? It is a complicated issue.
JK: With the Easter Island pictures, do you have this cognitive dissonance?
MK: The Easter Island natives went through their own environmental and ecological disaster. They overpopulated the island, used up all the resources, and then attacked each other, resorting to cannibalism. They destroyed their own statues in intertribal warfare. We all live on the earth with finite resources and what happened on Easter Island is relevant to our current situation, it’s almost a microcosm of what we’re doing with the planet.
JK: So you’re photographing the relics of an analog of what we could become?
MK: Very much. Many of my subjects have layers of meaning if you care to look for them. For example, I did a series of photographs of Le Nôtre’s formal gardens in France. They’re beautiful and exquisite: full of optical illusions, symmetrical axes, gorgeous landscaping. But look at the history. Louis the fourteenth, the Sun King, totally abused France at the time. The formal gardens are symbols of his arrogance and egotism. In that sense one could say that they’re evil places. At the same time, they’re still very beautiful. A viewer’s response depends on prior knowledge. When I was making the industrial north-of-England photographs, and talking with the locals about what I was doing, they told me that they would be happy to have all the old mills knocked down; they were reminders of pain, of having to work from six in the morning to six at night, and never seeing the sunlight. That knowledge makes for a very different interpretation of the pictures.
JK: You evoke a strong feeling of design in most of your pictures. Where does that come from?
MK: At age eighteen I took a one year foundation course in art, which exposed me to many different media. When it came time to apply to a three year specialized area of study I didn’t know whether I wanted to concentrate on graphic arts or photography. I applied to The London College of Printing in both areas. The photography department interview was first. They accepted me, so I didn’t bother to go to the graphics interview. Things could have worked out very differently.
JK: Did you take design courses in photography school?
MK: No, they weren’t offered. However, I worked with a designer from the Graphics department on a number of projects. The photography course I did in England is unlike an American art school. Here, even though you’re doing a fine arts course, you tend to get a taste of different academic areas, whereas in England, you concentrate almost exclusively on your major subject area. I did photography non-stop for three years. I never had the chance to go back to design, painting, drawing, sculpture, or any of the other subject areas that I enjoyed doing.
JK: What was the photography curriculum?
MK: I was trained as a commercial photographer. We did fashion, advertising, editorial, sports, large format, small format, you name it. It was great training for me. One of the reasons I chose that course was that I knew it would give me the skills to make a living. Photography is one of the few arts where the same set of skills that one uses in the arts, applied commercially allows you to survive.
JK: Many, maybe most, art photographers also support themselves through either commercial work or workshops. When I was going to Stanford, I was in the middle of a physics class, and Ansel Adams showed up and started taking pictures.
MK: Unfortunately many “art” photographers look down on commercial photographers, they look down on even doing commercial work as if it is some sort of blasphemous act that sullies the purity of art. I could never understand that attitude. Commercial photography is just a facet of the medium. I’ve never had any trouble wandering back and forth between the commercial and the fine art worlds. I still do advertising work several times a year. It’s fascinating, challenging and often very difficult work.
JK: Commercial work forces you to develop your craft. You’ve got a strong idea of what you want, you’ve got a lot of people telling you what they want, and then you’ve got to produce it.
MK: Yes. There’s no ifs and buts. It doesn’t make any difference if the weather is not in your favor, or you’ve got a headache. You can’t say, “The film wasn’t processed very well, can you do it again?” There’s too much at stake and you have to produce the goods, first time, no excuses.
JK: If you’re making art, you can get something that’s not quite what you were looking for and declare it good. It might even be better as art than what you were trying for. But I have the sense that in art and well as commercial work, people with great craft hit their target a lot more often then people with so-so technical skills.
MK: You need to hone your craft to the point that it becomes second nature, where you don’t have to think about it and it has become a part of you. It’s important to get past the technical side, in order to be able to put more energy into being creative.
JK: On the subject of craft, one of the problems of night photography is contrast management. You usually start out with a high-contrast scene. It’s dark, which means long exposures, which means reciprocity failure, which means still more contrast. How do you deal with that, aside from finding scenes with fog or mist or something that lowers the contrast?
MK: The choice of subject is, of course, important. Once you’ve made that decision, if the contrast range is too great, you can underdevelop the negative to reduce highlight density, or print on lower contrast papers or with lower contrast filters.
JK: You go too soft, and the blacks get all mushy.
MK: I use variable contrast paper and a mixture of filtrations so I can print some parts of the image at say grades 0-1 and other parts at grades 4-5. It’s rare now that I print a negative with just one grade. Years ago, I think I was more technically finicky than I am now, and would pick a particular combination of film, exposure, developer and time for any given subject. Now I tend to expose all the rolls the same way.
JK: Because you’re a better printer now?
MK: Maybe. I have more confidence that I can correct in the printing stage any extreme negative aberrations, and as I said before, I don’t like to spend too much time thinking about technique. One of the joys of night photography is that you can’t completely control it. I like to do eight hour exposures — just leave the shutter open, and see what happens. Fog moves in, clouds come and go, condensation might appear on the lens, the unexpected and unpredictable happens. I love that. One of the reasons I first did night photography was that I got a bit bored with pre visualization. In the daytime, if you’re a reasonably competent photographer, there’s no reason you can’t get exactly what you see. I started making very long exposures and working at night in part to get some unpredictability back.
JK: There’s a feedback cycle if you have an unpredictable outcome. You try something different. You get a result. It’s not quite what you were looking for, but it gives you an idea for what to do next. Does it work that way for you?
MK: To get creative ideas, I’ve got to be working, or running! I don’t sit around and think about what I’m going to do next. It’s largely through the actual process of producing work that I come up with other ideas, the next project, and the one after that.
JK: When I’m working hard on things that stretch the analytical side of my mind, it takes me a couple of days of photographing before I can really be open to accepting what I see out there, and working with it. Do you have difficulty with that transition?
MK: I do. That’s why I find it difficult to photograph in San Francisco. I lead a busy life, and it’s hard for me to just photograph for a few hours. I can’t get into the mind set so quickly. I like to go away for ten days or so, and do nothing but photograph, work day and night. That’s how I produce the best results, because then I can get into a rhythm and pace that’s necessary. I think one begins to think visually, but it takes a little time.
JK: But going back in the other direction takes no time at all, right? I wish it did, because I find the state of openness, of being ready for pictures, to be calming.
MK It can be quite meditational. It’s nice to work with no deadlines, where you can go with the rhythm of the light, what you see and what you react to. Being creative often means following a lead, working on half chances, half thoughts, coming up to dead ends and re tracking. Being creative for me often means photographing things in ways that seem completely ordinary at the time but which may turn out to be extraordinary later. It means being open, listening to what comes from within and without, which is very hard to do when you are looking at your watch all the time. It is important to be focused and concentrated, which for me usually means being solitary, away from chatter and conversational distractions. In long distance running, which I also like to do, one talks about going into the “zone”, a point of total concentration and relaxation, both at the same time. I think one can find this in photographing and it can be an extremely satisfying and productive state of mind.
JK: You came over here in the mid 70s. When did you hook up with Ruth Bernhard?
MK: I met Ruth in 1978. I had my work at the Stephen White Gallery in Los Angeles. They had just signed a contract with Ruth to represent her exclusively. She had to produce 200 prints over two years, and she was looking for a printer to help her. At the time I was working as a framer. I’d also been a bicycle messenger boy, a gardener, house painter, etc., so printing sounded good. I’d work during the day in the framing store, walk up Divisadero Hill, and print for her at night.
JK: Were you matching prints that she’d already done?
MK: To an extent, but we were reinterpreting them as we went along.
JK: So you had more freedom?
MK: Pretty quickly we got to the point where she’d be in the kitchen and I’d be in the darkroom. I’d make a print and bring it out. She’d tell me what direction she wanted the print to go in. Softer, lighter, crop here, etc. She would make all the creative decisions, I just did the hands on work. I’d make more prints until we got one she liked, then I’d go back in the darkroom and make a small series like that. I learned so much about printing with Ruth and worked with her for about eight years. I thought I was a good printer before meeting her, but quickly found out there was a whole lot more to learn.
JK: After you knew what she wanted out of a particular negative, it was probably a lot simpler for you.
MK: As time progressed, she’d leave me alone more. I’d be printing In the Box Horizontal for the eighth time, and I pretty much knew what she was looking for. But we should be clear that Ruth was always the photographer/artist, I was the printer/craftsman. There is a big difference between the two.
JK: What’s the biggest print you make now?
MK: I make small prints, usually seven and a half inches square. I like to have an image that, when seen on a distant wall, is graphically strong enough to make you want to look more closely. I also like to have that image feel intimate when the viewer approaches. We have a range of about thirty five degrees of focused viewing, so we would predictably get about ten inches away to really see a print of this size. That is a pretty intimate distance, closer than we get to most people.
JK: Some of your pictures you get right away. Others you have to look at a lot before you can figure them out. Is that on purpose?
MK I hope that my images pose some questions. For example, some of the images have paths that disappear. I didn’t set out with anything in mind, it’s just something that started to recur. I like the fact that both the viewer and I can follow those paths and work out our own destinations. When things are a little puzzling, the photograph becomes a catalyst for dialog. Sometimes it’s just the space and perhaps a feeling of absence, an area is left where the viewer, who is hopefully engaged by now, can create their own story, can finish the photograph in a sense. The image should establish a relationship with the viewer.
Sometimes the relationship is based purely on the overt beauty of the subject matter. You can’t help it. The photographer has to photograph it, the viewer has to look at it; it’s just beautiful, what else can I say?