Michael Kenna and his influence on me

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I don’t think anyone has influenced me more photographically than the famous Mr Kenna. It is unfortunately a little ‘twee’ perhaps to list him as an influence as everyone is likely to say “well, duh!!” since he is one of the most influential black and white film photographers of the last century and this one. Nevertheless, it is true.

Hilltop Trees by Michael Kenna
Hilltop Trees by Michael Kenna

My first experience of Michael’s work was, along with many people’s I suspect, his photographs of northern Japan; Hokkaido island in particular. He has a strong affinity for the place and has visited there a number of times, even going so far as to revisit the same tree on the edge of a lake that he photographed years before in order to ‘catch up’. This way of thinking is very Japanese so it is no surprise that he feels connected to the place.

Delicate Tree by Michael Kenna
Delicate Tree by Michael Kenna

The style of Michael’s Hokkaido photographs is mostly a mix of high key and minimalism. As you can see form the photograph to the left “Delicate Tree” it’s almost impossible to say anything about the surrounding landscape, it’s almost as if it has been painted or (these days) computer generated.

These photographs instantly drew me to them artistically. They were picking out very specific aspects of the countryside and presenting them is a very controlled, precise and sort of Japanese way. I should stress that I am not Japanese, nor have I spent any time there, but I have a life-long love of the culture and history of those islands. Some of the photographs from Hokkaido, this one included, almost look like Kanji, the Japanese/Chinese writing system of pictograms. Plain black or dark grey against a largely white background like writing on a scroll.

A (very) brief biography

Michael Kenna studied at Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire, England in the early 70’s and then immediately after at the London College of Printing for a further two years. Through this period he was studying graphic design and commercial photography side by side whilst indulging in his hobby of landscape photography in his free time.

From the late 70’s to the mid 80’s Michael worked in San Francisco as a printer for Ruth Bernhard, a fascinating character and photographer in her own right. He also had the opportunity to show his own work in galleries and shows there, and his own name and style grew quickly well known.

Ruth Bernhard was an experimental and accomplished printer and Michael learned a lot from working with her over the period of 8 years. He has continued to print many of his own works over the years.

A perhaps lesser known aspect of Michael’s photgraphy is that he has been a commercial photographer for a borad and varied range of clients including Volvo, Audi and Dom Perignon.

He has had shows all over the world and has published or been included in dozens of photographic books and journals. His work is probably one of the most recognisable in the film photography world. It is perhaps telling that if you search for “Michael Kenna Photographer” in google, the “people also search for” box has Ansel Adams in it.

What have I taken from Michael Kenna?

I would like to think that I have absorbed a little of Michael’s approach to photography in

Hand of the Emperor
Hand of the Emperor

general. He often says that he isn’t completely in control and he likes that. Subjects that he thinks will be amazing are often not, and subjects that his assumption of has been less than positive are sometimes the best shots of the day. I try to have no preconceptions of what I am going to photograph when I am out with the intention of capturing something.

The (digital) photograph to the right is the hand of a statue of Emperor Constantine at the place where he was crowned in York, next to York Minster. My intention for the day was to go inside the immense gothic church and take photographs of the ceiling, but I was drawn to the statue as I was walking past, especially to the hands which are beautifully crafted. I thought it would look good against the blue sky with wispy clouds. I think I was right. This is an example of just walking and looking, taking advantage of what you see.

I think that my love of detail and showing only parts of things is a Kenna influenced trend. As I mentioned above with Hilltop Trees, Michael’s work often leaves you wondering what is just outside the frame as the photograph seems to suggest that there isn’t anything, that the whole universe is just condensed to what you can see here and now.

Eighteen Birds
Eighteen Birds by Michael Kenna

I love the sense of rhythm in a lot of Michael’s work. For me the best example of this is “Eighteen birds” and his many other bird photographs, but “Eighteen birds” (to the left) in particular just sings to me. It’s a photograph of birds in flight so it must have been a quick snap without long and thoughtful composition, but the fact that Michael includes it in his portfolio says a lot about what he is looking for in a photograph I think.

This sense of rhythm is something I am deliberately looking for in my own compositions now. I think I have found it occasionally in the past almost (or completely!)  by accident, but I am actively looking for it now; I will let you know how that goes and share any photographs that I feel have succeeded.

Pillar with Lubitel
Pillar and Couds at Castle Howard

My first medium format camera, which to this day I have only put two rolls of HP5 through, was a Lubitel 166+. The photograph above was one of the very first that I shot with it and to my mind it has a little of the sense of tempo or rhythm that I am looking for. The eye is easily drawn in a specific route up the frame from the bottom right and there is a bit of a clash between the mostly ‘blue’ sky to the left and the mostly cloudy sky to the right that creates a counterpoint and additional interest. I must (first find and then) take the little russioan camera that could out more often.

You will probably have noticed that both of my photographs above are square. This is another of the influences of Michael Kenna upon my photography; I love the square format.

Christ carrying cross
Christ carrying cross in York Minster

My main medium format camera is a Mamiya RB67 which takes 6×7 photographs that aren’t quite square and it vexes me! I love the camera to death as I wrote at length in this article on emulsive.org, but I have never stopped yearning for a native square format. One day I will be able to afford to pick up a TLR or perhaps a Bronica 6×6.

Square seems to fit the way I see things. For many years I just used 35mm film and aps-c digital cameras, both of which are wider than they are tall, but ever since seeing Michael’s Hokkaido photographs many years ago the square format has just felt right. I quite often crop the RB67’s results to a square format, the huge negatives can certainly take it! The photograph above was taken digitally but it shows my square cropping. It’s a shot I am considering re-taking with the RB67.


So there we are, a quick tour through what I see as the influences of Michael Kenna on my photography. I hope you enjoyed it and that you too have one or more photographers who have influenced you – I would love to hear about them in the comments below 🙂

EDIT – 26th November 2019

I was very excited to exchange a brief email with Michael regarding a possible interview. Both him and his agent were brilliant to deal with and whilst it’s a ‘back burner’ thing for the time being dues to Michael’s packed agenda, it was a pleasure and if I am honest a complete fanboy moment!

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