Michael Kenna: France | Photographs Do Not Bend

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Michael Kenna: France | Photographs Do Not Bend

Exhibition Dates: May 16 – August 1, 2015

This will be PDNB Gallery’s fourth solo exhibition for the renowned landscape photographer, Michael Kenna (b. 1953, Widnes, Lancashire, England). This very special show will highlight photographs of France taken in the past several decades. The exhibition follows the release of his latest book, FRANCE, by Nazraeli Press, and his exhibition in Paris at Le Musée Carnavalet.

Kenna has photographed all over the world, but perhaps the work he did in France in the 1980’s put him on the map. His long exposures of Versailles, taken at dawn or dusk, produced memorable images. His sublime photographs were first published in his most recognized book, Le Nôtre’s Gardens. The locations included Vaux-le-Vicomte, Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Fontainebleau, Chantilly, Les Tuileries, Saint-Cloud, Sceaux, and Marly.

Now, when we see the perfectly manicured trees of Versailles, we think of Michael Kenna’s photographs. Later, when Kenna photographed Japan (exhibited at PDNB in 2003), his meditative skill of photographing took off to a new level. But France was where this artist developed the eye to see the divine beauty of nature.

This exhibition will include some early works from the 1980’s, and some newer images that have not been exhibited. Locations will include Le Desert de Retz, Les Tuileries, Falaise d’Aval, Mont Saint Michel and the Eiffel Tower.

Michael Kenna’s photographs are housed in over 100 museum and institution collections throughout the world, including the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, George Eastman House, Los Angeles County Museum of Art,  Musée national d’Art modern, Paris, San Francisco Modern Art Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

He has received several awards including an Honorary Master of Arts from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, and the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the Ministry of Culture, France.

The companion book, FRANCE, will be available for purchase.

An Interview with Michael Kenna:

PDNB – Why France? I loved your earlier work from the 1990’s that was published in the beautiful monograph, Le Nôtre’s Gardens. What was your motivation to create a new book on France that includes old and new images?

MICHAEL – I was born in England and my early work comes out of the European tradition of photography. My masters were Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt, Brassai, Mario Giacomelli, Josef Sudek and others. These photographic giants influenced me greatly. I suppose they are all romantics at heart, all concerned with photographing a feeling as much as documenting external reality. Atget was the springboard for my work in Paris and the
Le Nôtre gardens that you refer to.

France is a huge country, very close to England, enormously varied, with unlimited potential for creative expression. My photographic work is generally about the juxtaposition, relationship, connection between the “natural” elements: earth, water, sky, etc., and the structures that we humans leave behind. I enjoy the patina of age, the passage of time, the footprints, traces, memories left in the landscape. I photograph what I am drawn to, which can be directly linked back to my childhood experiences in the Northern England: train tracks, church interiors, parks, gardens, seafronts, industrial buildings, bridges, urban environments, etc. France has all these elements and many more.

I first visited France in the late seventies and have been photographing there fairly consistently since the early eighties. It is a country that I feel very much at home in. These photographs are from my limited experiences in the places I have been fortunate enough to spend time. This is not a comprehensive survey of France. I see this collection as more of an ongoing personal, visual diary. I’m sure I could spend the rest of my life photographing in France and there would still be much, much more to see and photograph.
PDNB – How do you feel about your older work in France and was there any temptation purely to make this a book of your more recent French photos?

MICHAEL – I couldn’t image excluding older images just because I have newer images. Where would I draw the line? I like my newer friends to mix with my older friends. The chronological development of some thirty years of photography in France is also very interesting for me. Pairing new with old can add an extra dimension to both. Over the years I have had a number of books published on specific areas of France: Le Notre’s Gardens, Le Desert de Retz, Calais Lace, Mont Saint Michel, In France, Jefferson’s Walks in Paris, etc. I have also received commissions to photograph a number of other specific areas. This book combines all this work, mixes it up and presents it in a fresh way. I like that a lot.

Dawn Mist, Mont St. Michel, France, 1994
PDNB – Why do you prefer small prints?

MICHAEL – I’ve experimented with big prints but I just don’t like them. We all see about 35 degrees in focus so naturally approach artwork from a certain distance. I prefer viewers to be about ten inches from my prints. It is a very intimate viewing distance. Also, I have printed this way since the seventies so my work is one large, quite happy family. Prints from 1975 get along fine being exhibited next to prints from last week.
PDNB – You printed for Ruth Bernhard when you lived in San Francisco. How long did you work for her? How did she influence your career?

MICHAEL – I was very fortunate to meet Ruth Bernhard in 1978. She had signed an exclusive contract with The Stephen White Gallery in Los Angeles. As part of this contract, she agreed to make many prints over a period of two years. Unfortunately for her, she had recently suffered some carbon monoxide poisoning and did not feel able to make these prints. I had just begun to be represented by the same gallery and Stephen White kindly asked me if I would be interested to help Ruth.

My ten years of working with Ruth
Bernhard were priceless. I cannot over estimate her influence on both my life and work. Before working with Ruth, I thought that I was a good photographic printer. I had printed my own work and that of a number of other photographers along the way, both in colour and black and white. However, Ruth gave me new insights into the process. Her basic starting point was that the negative was a starting point! She would radically transform an initial straight print into a Ruth Bernhard print. This might involve tilting the easel to achieve a different perspective, softening the focus to create an evenness of tone, making masks to burn and dodge, using different chemicals to change the contrast or color of the image, etc. She essentially refused to believe that the impossible wasn’t possible, and that there were no rules that couldn’t be broken, which made for many late nights in her darkroom.

Ruth often said that she regarded her role of teacher to be far more important than her role of photographer. I was a young photographer trying to navigate in the extremely puzzling world of art galleries, publishers and commercial agents. Ruth was a guiding light for me. “Today is the day” was her mantra, and her determination to live in the present, to appreciate every moment, to always say yes to life, has left an indelible impression on me. I remain in debt to her kindness and wisdom.

PDNB – You are known for your black and white work. Do you ever photograph in color?

MICHAEL – Black and white is immediately an interpretation of the world rather than a copy of what we see. We see in color all the time. I have always found black and white photographs to be quieter and mysterious than those made in color. For me, the subtlety of black and white inspires the imagination of the individual viewer to complete the picture in their mind’s eye. It doesn’t attempt to compete with the outside world. I believe it is calmer and more gentle than color, and persists longer in our visual memory. In the past I have worked as a commercial color printer and I have also photographed in color for advertising assignments, but it is not my preference.

PDNB – Do you collect photographs? Describe a few of your favorites.

MICHAEL – Sitting here typing out this interview I look around my studio and I can see prints from Ruth Bernhard, Bill Brandt, Linda Connor, Imogen Cunningham, Jim Dine, Frederick Evans, Mario Giacomelli, Andrea Modica, Daido Moriyama, Edward Muybridge, Olivia Parker, Penti Sammallahti, O. Winston Link, and yes, even an Alfred Steigliz photogravure! I have many more prints in flat files and boxes so, although I have never considered myself a collector, I seem to have collected some beautiful photographs along the way. These images continue to give me inspiration and visual pleasure. It’s interesting that they are all black and white too!

PDNB – Finally, for the techies out there….analog or digital?

MICHAEL – I am 100% analog. I use film cameras and insist on making all prints myself in my own traditional wet darkroom. Having said that, I believe that every photographer, every artist, should choose materials and equipment based on their own personal vision. I don’t believe that analog is better than digital, or the reverse for that matter. They are just different, and it is my personal preference and choice to remain with the traditional silver process. I don’t need or desire instant gratification in photography and it is the long, slow journey to the final print that captivates me. I still prefer the limitations, imperfections and unpredictability of the silver based analogue world. Having worked with silver materials and film cameras for well over forty years, both commercially and in my own fine art work, I now find it a little out of character to fully embrace the digital medium even though I have experimented a little with it. It is true that the whole photographic process has been made much easier, faster, cleaner and more accessible to people by digital innovations, and that’s a very good thing. It doesn’t mean that all photographers need to follow this trend, or perhaps I should more accurately describe it as a tidal wave : ).

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