Kenna’s photographic work focuses on landscape. He is considered a master in the art of contemporary photography. His approach to everyday scenery is enigmatic, leaving the viewer seduced. The mysterious aura of his photographs is created by long exposures that allow time and movement to be a part of the landscape, something the human eye so easily ignores in a glance.
Most of Michael Kenna’s photography is taken at dawn or at night, and he has commented that “you can’t always see what’s otherwise noticeable during the day … with long exposures you can photograph what the human eye is incapable of seeing.”
Since about 1986 he has mainly used Hasselblad medium format and Holga cameras and this accounts for the square format of most of his photographs. The main exception was for the photographs in Monique’s Kindergarten for which a 4×5 large format camera was employed. His photography is sepia toned silver gelatin. A gelatin silver print is composed of four layers: paper base, baryta, gelatin binder, and a protective gelatin layer or overcoat. The multi-layer structure of the gelatin silver print and the sensitivity of the silver imaging salts require specialized coating equipment and fastidious technique to produce a consistency that is free of impurities harmful to the image.
Kenna first visited Japan in 1987 for a one-person exhibition and was utterly seduced by the country’s terrain. Over the years he has traveled throughout almost the entire country, constantly taking photographs. From these many treks, the book Japan, featuring 95 of these photographs, was conceived. The simplicity and clarity of Kenna’s Japan alludes to, rather than describes, his subject, allowing the viewer to have a completely unique and tailored interpretation. He has described this body of work as, “more like a haiku rather than a prose.”
British photographer Michael Kenna (1953-present) was born into a working class Irish-Catholic family in England. His upbringing originally inspired him to pursue priesthood and he attended a Catholic seminary school until 1972. After seminary school, his childhood love of art led him to study photography at the London College of Printing where he graduated in 1976. Working as a commercial photographer, Kenna moved to San Francisco in 1977 and has resided on the Pacific Northwest coast ever since.
The work of Kenna has been published, awarded, and collected for decades. He has published 47 books of his photography over his career of thirty years. His photography has been exhibited in numerous solo and group shows internationally in Asia, Australia and Europe and the USA. The artwork of Kenna has been acquired by permanent collections as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A; Fonds national d’art contemporain, Paris, France; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., U.S.A. the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Patrimoine photographique in Paris, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2022, Kenna was awarded the decoration of Officier des Art et des Lettres at Paris Photo by Rima Abdul Malak, the Minister of Culture in France. With this award, Kenna’s life archive is now being housed by the French State at the Mediatheque de Photographie et Patrimoine (MPP) at Fort Saint-Cyr in Montigny-le Bretonneux (Yvelines). The donation included 3,683 original silver gelatin photographic prints of images made in 43 different countries, along with their accompanying negatives and scans, 175,000 other negatives accompanied by their corresponding contact sheets, 6,422 working prints from the years 1983-2000, 1,280 Polaroid prints, 87 books and monographs printed on his work, and all the archives relating to his artistic activity for the past 50 years.
His photographs of the ruins of concentration camps was featured in the opening credits of the Holocaust film Esther's Diary (2010). Kenna has also done commercial work for such clients as Volvo, Rolls-Royce, Audi, Sprint, Dom Perignon and The Spanish Tourism Board.] In 2000, the Ministry of Culture in France made Kenna a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters.