COOL was born in hope of becoming a bridge to let the art lovers all over the world inspire each other, link together as one, and create a new future in arts. The main contents consist of interviews of both New York-based and international artists and creators, special feature articles, art reports from around the world, reviews and column series. We contribute to the cultural exchange through arts and to the development of the art industry so that people in the world can enjoy arts casually and New York and major cities in the world can connect through the media COOL.
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Michael Kenna, the titan of landscape photograph, keeps attracting people with his unique prints which reminds of Japanese ink printing. He visits Hokkaido almost every year, and this winter he conducted photo shoots at Lake Kussharo, which he explains as the ‘most memorable place’ for him. He shot the black-and-white pictures of ‘the most beautiful moments’ taken out from his encounters with nature in his own and unique way. COOL looks into his aesthetic, which is backed up by his brilliant sense and spirit.

© Michael Kenna/RAM

COOL: How did photography get introduced into your life first?

Michael Kenna: Well, I was born in 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, England, the youngest of six children in a working class, Irish-Catholic family. There was certainly no tradition of art among my family at the time. Growing up I was highly impressed by the Catholic church and at just under 11, I entered a seminary school to train to become a priest. I left the school when I was 17. Art had been one of my strongest subjects and I was accepted at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire. I later went onto the London College of Printing, where I studied photography for three years. After that, I did some assisting and b&w printing for an advertising photographer, and continued my hobby, landscape photography, on the side. It was really only when I went to the USA in the mid seventies that I considered the possibility of making a living in the fine arts. There were photography galleries in New York and there seemed to be a higher acceptance of photography as an art form. I decided to base myself in San Francisco, and subsequently lived there for many years, before moving North to Portland, Oregon in 2004.

COOL: When did you first start taking pictures and how did it happen?

MK: I think I took pictures in my mind from when I was a child, but my first serious efforts were made while studying at the Banbury School of Art in the early seventies. Photography was one of many art mediums that I was exposed to as part of the coursework. I made images of my surroundings. It was very exciting.

COOL: Who were influential photographers and artists for you?

MK: Initially I studied more commercial aspects of the medium; fashion, advertising, sports, still lives, photojournalism, etc., and did not know about the rich tradition of landscape photography. Later on I saw the works of such luminaries as Bill Brandt, Josef Sudek, Eugene Atget, and Alfred Steigliz. They were profoundly impressive and influential. I had studied the history of art in other courses and I was particularly entranced by the painters Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and JosephTurner. But who knows where influences come from. I am sure that there have been thousands of painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, musicians, poets, etc., who have greatly influenced me. The list would be very long.

COOL: What are the attractions of photography?

MK: Imagine being out at night, alone, under starry skies, listening to silence, watching the world slowly move, all senses alive, thinking, imagining, dreaming. The camera is recording, creating, documenting, seeing what the eye cannot see - cumulative time. Or, the sensation of being in a field as the snow falls on a single, exquisite tree. White all around. Just the sound of snow falling. I love almost all aspects of the photographic process - except perhaps processing film! Traveling, searching, image making, seeing the first contact sheets, printing, exhibiting, making books, everything. I am a very lucky person to have found this path through life. I cannot think of a better way to spend my time.

Kussharo Lake Tree, Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan, 2002 ©Michael Kenna/RAM

COOL: In what moment do you feel the urge like “wow, I want to take pictures of this” ?

MK: There are moments when things come together; conditions, place, subject matter, inner connections; moments that are singular and special. It is a privilege to be present at such times and to have the possibility to integrate into the scene and subjectively interpret. It is an experience that defies description, at least from me.

COOL: What were the impressive places or things that occurred while you were in Japan this time?

MK: Hokkaido was exquisite as always. Cold, expansive, solitary, white, graphic. It seemed every time I saw something that I wanted to photograph, the elements would be kind to me; snow, wind, mist. In-between the sun would come out again. I think the highlight was revisiting Kussharo Lake Tree which I had previously photographed in 2002, 2004 and 2005. We got there when it was still dark. The stars were out, a startlingly clear morning. As I circled the tree, making my presence known without disturbing the snow, the clouds moved in. A gray mist descended. Silence, for awhile. The nearby swans woke up creating a wonderful dawn chorus. I photographed for some hours, slowly, getting ever closer, having a conversation. Finally I was able to touch the tree and wish it her a Happy Valentine’s Day. It was, after all, the morning of February 14th.

COOL: Why do you think you get so attracted to the scenery in Japan?

MK: There are characteristics of the Japanese landscape that resemble and remind me of my homeland England. Japan is a country of islands, surrounded by water. It is a place that has been lived and worked in and on for centuries. It is geographically small and spaces are quite intimate in scale. The people are fastidious and disciplined, friendly and welcoming. I feel there is a powerful sense of atmosphere that resides in the Japanese soil and I identify with it. I like to photograph memories and stories, and I feel strangely at home wandering around this beautiful land. I could happily return many, many more times.

COOL: Why do you choose to use 7 1/2 x 7 1/2 inch sized prints?

MK: It is a fairly intimate size that reflects the way I like others to view my work. Our eyes see about 35 degrees in focus so my prints usually mean viewers stand 10 inches away to view them. That is pretty close. I like that engagement. Larger prints would mean a greater distance. I have made prints pretty much the same size for a long time and like the thought that a print from 30 years ago can happily live with one I make today. One big, happy family....

COOL: Where do you want to visit next, out of all the places that you have never been?

MK: The places I photograph are like friends. I like to revisit them over and over to deepen the friendship. I don't need new friends all the time. They would take up a lot of time. In general I would prefer to spend more time in places I am currently photographing, particularly in China, India, Japan and Korea. We will see where the winds of travel take me. I am happy to go anywhere, anytime. I love to travel.

COOL: In what moment do you feel the pleasure of being a photographer?

MK: When I read your question I thought you said “pressure” instead of “pleasure”! Sometimes it is difficult to juggle and prioritize all the aspects of a life well lived. There are not enough minutes in a day or days in a year or years in a lifetime to do everything that one would like to do. So, yes, there is some pressure at times. There is also a lot of pleasure. I love what I do and it gives me great satisfaction. Being a photographer means that I go hunting for experiences. I feel them and photograph them. I act as a medium for others to see them. I touch them with my own subjective interpretations but I am really a guide. I get to point out aspects of the world that are wonderful, mysterious, inspirational, beautiful, at least in my mind and eyes. What greater pleasure could there be?

Pine Trees, Wolcheon, Gangwando, South Korea, 2007 ©Michael Kenna/RAM

COOL: What is your favorite camera?

MK: Right now I use pretty old and battered Hasselblads. They are fully manual, no batteries, no digital displays, fancy bells or whistles. They can function in extreme conditions and are generally reliable. They are versatile and don’t weigh too much, which is an important consideration for me. I get a decent sized negative which I can print whole frame or crop as required. I have used these cameras for the last 20 years so know them quite well. We get along together. Until the digital revolution dictates that no more traditional film or printing paper is manufactured, I will probably stay with my friendly work horses..

COOL: Messages for your fans, please!

MK: If there is one thing I KNOW, it is that I don't know anything. I receive many e mails these days asking for “answers”. How to photograph? How to live? How to break into the art world? How to get an exhibition? How to have a book published? I wish there were answers. I don't think there are. Well, at least I don't have them and I always feel frustrated trying to write back. Perhaps there are no secrets to living a good life or being “successful”. Work as hard as you can. Live in the moment. Be responsible. Enjoy life, you might not get a second chance! And, treat others as you want to be treated yourself. Be well. Thank you for this interview.

Interview by Kyoko Kobayashi, Photo © Michael Kenna/RAM

Michael Kenna Official Site

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