Reflections: Michael Kenna

We’ve just booked our tickets for The Photography Show 2016 at the NEC, Birmingham. This gave me the sharp reminder I needed, that:

A. I’ve not written up my thoughts and reflections on last years speakers.


B. I’ve not blogged for a very long time.

“I was there.”

Michael Kenna @ The Photography Show 2015, March 22.

Michael Kenna is an incredibly inspiring photographer with a unique and creative style. Regardless of whether or not you’re into landscape photography I would recommend taking a look at his work either on-line, in print or, if you have the opportunity, at a gallery, book signing or talk.

I’d like to share with you a few reflections I’ve had after listening to him talk about life, philosophy and photography.

Kenna introduced the talk as his life story told through his photographs. He touched on how our experiences in early life directly effect our later years. Speaking firstly on the development of his style, Kenna explained how growing up as part of a working class family in an industrial area influence what he found beautiful. Kenna spoke of searching for ‘less grand’ landscapes. After coming from such a built up and busy environment Kenna sought out calmer environments and less complicated vistas. Secondly Kenna spoke of being one of six children. Coming from such a bustling household he described how he lived in his own imagination and learning discipline through solitude and thought at school. When taking photographs later in life Kenna spoke of walking alone to absorb the atmosphere of a place; a continuation of his childhood meditations. During his time as a photographic assistant he found his best work was achieved when he was out walking the dogs.

Themes, informed by Kenna’s meditative style, shine through in his subjects and composition. He explained he often looks for an ’empty stage set’, of not filling the whole frame and letting your imagination fill the space. Searches for not only lines and graphic shapes but also visual questions, memories and traces of what was left behind. An example Kenna highlighted was  ‘Upset Chair’.  The chair is one of the ‘marks we leave behind’. He went on to explain ‘Once you know, you loose interest.’; so he strives to keep the mystery.

On long exposures: Kenna explains how this process reveals ‘What was there, but not seen. What you feel, not what you see’ enabling us, as photographers, to create ‘pictures our eyes cannot see’.  He went onto explain how, during the long exposure process, we can use the time to become grounded in our own reality. Kenna highlighted how a photograph is a visual record of a moment when ‘You are there and you are experiencing it. You had a conversation with an amazing landscape.’ He went on to say how photography is a path to having a conversation with the world. Later he talked about how each photograph we take has it own history. That the photo itself may not be as good as the experience of getting it was. Kenna shared with us about his time spent shooting in Hokkaido, Japan. He explained that he only captured a successful image on the third visit. Kenna describes a photographer, not as an author, but as a part of an equation.

A topic I feel we can all relate to, as photographers, is being unsatisfied with our own work. Kenna described how, no matter how good his images were, he felt they could always be slightly better. This is perhaps on of his motivations for revisiting the same sites, year after year, to completely study and truly connect with a location. Kenna explained that how we view the world is informed by our own individual history. He went on to talk about how we must always push ourselves to find our own unique angle in our photography, through making a personal connection with the world around us.

I’d like to leave you with a two quotes, which I found particularly inspiring, from Michael Kenna during the talk:

On capturing a moment:

“Those sheep were there.

I was there.

It happened.”

On the experience over the photograph:

“If it breaks, who cares?!

If there was no film in the camera who cares?!”

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