Driving past Chichester on Wednesday last week, I couldn’t help dropping in to see more of Michael Kenna’s prints at the superb Bosham Gallery.
In my previous post I talked about my delight at the ‘Michael Kenna – 45 Retrospective Exhibition’ that was showing through the summer. They had followed it up with another featuring his work called ‘New and Rare Works’ running from 2nd to 28th September…so just a few days left to see it as I write this.
I was able to chat with the owner Luke Whittaker, who had obviously set up a very good relationship with Michael to get more prints personally produced by him to show. There were indeed some ‘New’ ones but also some that had ‘sold out’ of the artists 45 print editions. For these Michael had released ‘Artist Proofs’ from his archives.
I was bold over by one of his images taken in Hokkaido back in 2002. A picture I had never seen before.
So simple but that faint dark line against the snow on the trunk made it a memorable a image and of course it was a really wonderful print. Alas the rarity of being an Artist Proof from a now completed Edition made it carry a £17750 price tag!
I look forward to more exhibitions in the future of Michael’s work at this delightful gallery. It’s a wonderful place to photograph as well…I was trotting around the Quay at 4 in the morning under a nice moon a couple of days later with my camera!
I’ve finally made it to the wonderful 45 year retrospective exhibition of Michael Kenna’s work at the lovely little gallery at Bosham, near Chichester.
It was pleasing to see the care with which the owner Luke Whitaker and manager Angus Heywood had put into choosing and hanging the 42 prints from Michael’s years of image making since the 1970’s through to this year.
Michael has always been the most intelligent and thoughtful of photographers and you can’t help but notice how consistent his photographic style has been since his earliest days. Quite remarkable in fact to have distilled your ‘vision’ into something so long ago and not feel the need to change it, only to refine it.
As you can see from the Bosham Galleries picture above, the prints were mainly hung as a double row and all were framed in what I’m sure is Michael’s preferred manner, in 20″x16″ black frames. This provides ample ‘white space’ as the images are always printed fairly small at around 8″x8″ and that sizing certainly draws the viewer in.
This is how a Michael Kenna print looks when framed. A pure white matt is used and the prints are dry mounted with a narrow border that carries the edition number and Michael’s signature. Sepia or Selenium toning is used though I don’t envy him having to handle the chemicals every day in the darkroom. He uses Ilford Multigrade photographic paper which is modified through filters in the enlarger and understandably allows considerable contrast adjustment when in the darkroom but personally I’ve never been in love with that papers slight sheen. The printing technique is totally beyond criticism, he’s just a wonderful printer and the time spent in the darkroom and undertaking spotting must be immense. The prints are ‘little gems’. As my own old ‘wet darkroom prints’ remind me, film grain is reduced by cold cathode enlargers and yet images appear wonderfully sharp.
The gallery must have been over the moon with capturing one of the great living photographers and so far had managed to sell over 30 prints at prices from £2500 to £7400. So it was particularly pleasing to see that Fine Art Photography can survive in the UK away from ‘Mayfair’ and good of his longstanding London dealer Giles Huxley to let Bosham have an exhibition.
The day before the opening in June, Michael had a book signing at The Photographer’s Gallery and I was able to get a signed copy of his new book ‘A 45 Year Odyssey’. This was also the name of an exhibition in Tokyo at the beginning of the year. Luke and Angus at Bosham hadn’t felt the need at all to follow the choices from the book and Tokyo exhibition and had scoured Michael’s vast archive for their own selections. So this was really a unique exhibition. Wonderful also to find that there was even a brand new ‘unseen print’. It was ‘Red Crown Crane Feeding’ in the the snow of Hokkaido, which although it dated from 2005, Michael had brought over in his luggage as it hadn’t been printed or shown before . It was just a simple beautiful image.
Driving home to Dorset I began to think of my own favourite Kenna images. The ones I would buy for my ‘Kenna Wall’. There would be’ Four Birds’…such a simple stylish image…just look at the birds positioning:
I love Corridor of Leaves:
I’ve already shown two of Michael’s other tree images in an earlier blog back in April, the ‘Stone Pine Tunnel, Pineto, Abruzzo 2016’ and my favourite of the many Kussharo Lake Tree images which is ‘Kussharo Lake Study 6 Hokkaido 2007’. So here’s another tree from Hokkaido…how perfect is that fence:
Keeping it simple again, like one of those ‘Harry Callaghan’ images I suppose, but perhaps even better:
Michael Kenna absorbed many ideas from others but went and made them his own. ‘Influenced by’ but never ‘copying’. Lots of photographers now mimicking Kenna should learn from this.
Yet another from Hokkaido:
He’s made many fence posts images in the snow, taken mainly in Japan. They are all stunning. I’d really need to have one of the Huangshan mountain pictures, perhaps this one with it’s mist and ‘layers’ of mountains:
And the first ‘Moonrise’ that triggered my interest in capturing the passage of the moon in very very long exposures:
And something from the French countryside, how about moonlight and lightning?:
And a Holga image from Paris of a perfectly captured ‘peace symbol’:
Spain?This one’s got a wonderful dark sky to offset the windmills:
Michael has never been frightened by ‘less picturesque’ industrial subjects. He followed in the footsteps of Charles Sheeler who had spent 6 weeks photographing the giant Ford plant at Dearborn in Michigan in 1927.Michael undertook his project every year between 1992 and 1995 and produced photographs far exceeding Sheeler’s work. I’d choose this one, used on the book cover of ‘Rouge’. It’s perhaps not a typical Kenna image at all, but he’s printed it so there are lots of silhouettes:
Mist has often played a part in making his pictures special and I love this long lens shot which uses clouds to produce the same effect :
And one from his early years, this from his arrival in the US, a quiet, satisfying against the light composition in mist:
So many that I would pick but those would get me started I guess! Michael Kenna is a truly prolific photographer who has just got the ability to go right to the soul of almost any subject and make a meaningful image.
I’ve been shooting long exposures of the moon ‘rising and setting’ ever since I went back to using a film camera, a few years ago now. I was taken with an image by, once again, Michael Kenna, of the moon rising over the Chausey Islands off the French coast. I realised that over the years I had photographed the moon many times, but never as a really, really long exposure. The magic that happens during an excessively long exposure is quite wonderful and Kenna had started a whole ‘minimalism movement’ in monochrome photography with his ‘frozen water’ and also his many images by moonlight. Others had done long exposures before but Kenna did lots of it and made some outstanding pictures…as he still does.
So my first attempt was an exposure over a couple of hours or so a Corfe Castle. I stood around for a few hours, whilst the full moon rose up behind the castle…and my images were rubbish! First lesson, the moon only lights what it can shine on so find something in the frame that will get illuminated….a silhouette of a dark castle isn’t very interesting!
On then to attempt number two. This was perfect…the moon rising behind the wooden ‘Low’ lighthouse that stands on the beach at Burnham. I had to find a night of the full moon when the tide would stay off the part of the beach long enough to capture a very long image. Moon tables and tide tables…planning always comes into this sort of photography.
I feared my tripod would move during the 3 hours and 15 minutes that this exposure took as the beach was soft as you can see….but I got away with it. The magic that happens is partly to do with the reflections from the moon ‘spreading’ across the image to give a much bigger illuminated area than is observed by the human eye. Plus of course you don’t actually know where the moon will ‘travel to’ during the exposure…although you soon learn to judge it pretty well. There is no ‘live view’ screen on my Hasseblad film camera alas.
Here’s a slightly different one, of the moon ‘setting’ over misty water and mountains.
That’s a 2 and a half hour exposure. I set up two cameras, the Hasselblad SWC/M with it’s 38mm wide lens and another 501CM camera with a 50mm widish lens. If I’m lucky with my location I can wander back to my campervan and make myself a coffee…as I did here. The mist arose as I was away and I hadn’t put anything on the camera to keep the condensation off but the images were OK.
I’m aware that I’ve mainly been shooting the moon ‘rising’ soI now have to find locations for more of the ‘setting’ moon images. It’s less easy to findinteresting ‘west looking locations’, particularly in my home area on the Dorset coast. The lens I choose obviously determines the size of the moon in the image. Those like the Blea Tarn one above have a pretty small moon, whilst in this Southampton River Test image, shot with the 250mm lens the moon is really big. Some passing clouds also do ‘nice things’, as they add texture to the moon, even better then than a totally clear sky.Over such long exposure times, most moving clouds won’t even register, just the ones that get brightly lit my being close to the moon.
Here’s my latest image from the full moon earlier this month. I haven’t yet had the full ‘rising moon’ monochrome image (that I took over 2 and a half hours) processed as it’s still sitting on a roll of Acros in one of my camera film backs. However here’s my first colour ‘moonbeam’, although the moon obviously is still bright white. This was taken over 15 minutes at the Durdle Door arch, here in Dorset. Shot on Portra film. I’m still deciding if I like the image in colour, even if it is pretty ‘monochrome’, ie one colour!
I do love trees, but their beauty is pretty hard to capture in photographs.
I feel much of monochrome photography is similar to producing ‘line drawings’ and one of my favourite artists producing really great pen and ink drawings of trees is Sarah Woolfenden.
Here’s one of her exquisitely detailed pictures, of a Yew:
Incredible detail in Sarah’s drawing. Sarah has the artists’ advantage over the photographer…she can ignore the background. Us poor people behind cameras haven’t got any easy ways to eliminate confusing backgrounds, so we often turn to choosing subjects where the background just doesn’t exist.
Michael Kenna has made some truly wonderful pictures of a single ancient oak beside Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido by making them in the snow, sometimes against misty backgrounds.
What a stunning ‘minimilist’ image, but then Kenna encouraged a whole genre of photography didn’t he. He certainly makes this withering tree look like an ink drawing.
Back to Sarah Woolfenden. She doesn’t ignore ‘the background’ that often in fact. Here’s a wonderful image of an oak.
A large oak in it’s forest setting and a photographer would have to catch it like that as well.
I can see that there would be a predominance of mid-tones in a monochrome photograph of that oak and Sarah chooses to make much of the background lighter than it would have been. The photographic trick to achieve this is by using filtering and a green filter would render the foliage lighter than usual. There’s an even more extreme trick the photographer can play…but it leads to troubles if not carefully used. That’s Infra-Red.
The American photographer Beth Moon started taking pictures of some of the ancient trees we have in the UK and often used a Pentax 6×7 camera loaded with Infra-Red film.
Her images are extremely powerful, like the wonderful oak ‘Majesty’ at Nonington in Kent above. She went on to record some of the ancient trees in the US National Parks and in Africa, like these Baobab’s.
In the oak image, the Infra-Red has rendered the green leaves as white. That’s what happens when you use IR to capture leaves full of chlorophyll, as they will be on a bright sunny summer day. The Baobab’s however don’t have that bright green chlorophyll soaked foliage and it is rendered somewhat more realistically. The give away is the sky, that the IR has rendered as black.
I’ve tried using an IR converted digital camera to capture trees and to make them ‘stand out’ in monochrome, but I’ve done it in the winter. No green leaves to turn white, just some grass and ivy on the trunk to render lighter…just as Sarah did in her oak drawing.
The IR camera turned the sky really dark….and I love dark and stormy skies and this is about a close as I’ve been able to come to matching the ‘intensity’ that an artist like Sarah Woolfenden can produce with her meticulous ‘pen man ship’.
Here’s a few more stunning tree images from Beth Moon:
Less obviously an Infra-Red image, but the yew isn’t ‘big on chlorophyll’ , but the softness of the image says IR I’m sure. Here’s another:
Normal film I’d say, however it’s best if IR doesn’t show it’s self too heavily I believe.
I’d say that was also on normal film, and here’s one by Michael Kenna that certainly is:
That’s a really great image and he’s managed to get the trees ‘upright’ without leaning. I can’t work out how long a lens as there’s still lots of ‘perspective’ there so possibly he used a ‘FlexBody’ tilt-shift adapter on his Hasselbald.
Here’s another one from Kenna that I haven’t managed to work out how he got that ‘inner glow’ as trees that are densely growing don’t let much light past their crowns do they:
From the same Abuzzo set of images and I think the magical light is just glorious.
NB: See note below for reply from Michael Kenna about this:
Mist is good to isolate trees of course, and here’s another attempt of mine:
A silver birch ‘quivering’ in the breeze that was present, along with the mist.
Sarah Moon’s tree images were printed in ‘Ancient Trees-Portraits Of Time’ published by Abbeville Press.
Michael Kenn’s Kussharo Lake Tree was published in a book of that name, along with many others of the same tree taken over a number of years but it is old out. It was also included in ‘Forms Of Japan’ published by Prestel. Now that’s a book that every landscape photographer should own.
His 2016 Abuzzo pictures are in the book ‘Abruzzo’ published by Nazraeli Press.
He is represented in the UK by the gallery Huxley-Parlour and there is shortly to be an exhibition ‘A 45 year Odyssey Retrospective’ at the small Bosham Gallery on the Sussex coast, who I believe are now representing him as well. I wish I had the money for a few of Mr Kenna’s Limited Edition prints!
Michael sent me the following note regarding my queries about his two Abruzzo tree images:
Hi David, Poplar Trees was probably made with the 250m lens. I don’t keep notes and freely move between lenses so I’m not 100% sure. Stone Pine Tunnel – again probably 250m. Yes, the light at the top was being blocked by the tree canopy.
We all have influences and it’s only fair to recognise them, but hopefully move on to produce your own work and certainly not copy others.
However sometimes it’s thrilling to get as close to those ‘influencers’ as possible and one way a photographer can do this is by standing in the same spot and seeing…and hopefully feeling…something akin to that felt by your hero sometime before.
One of my great influences is Michael Kenna and in 1986, Kenna was in Halifax and took a photo reproducing a well known image of Bill Brandt’s,’ A snicket in Halifax’ taken by Brandt in 1937.
Here’s Brandt’s image, taken from his book ‘Shadow Of Light’ (Gordon Fraser):
Bill Brandt: ‘A snicket in Halifax-1937.
Like all of the images in the book, it is printed extremely contrasty. Brandt certainly printed in a variety of ways in his life and certainly went for the ‘soot and whitewash’ look later on.
I like powerful dark images and Michael Kenna certainly does too. His version is different though and was obviously taken at night with street lamp illumination. Well I say obviously, but knowing Kenna that could be moonlight. With reflection I think it’s good that Kenna’s image doesn’t exactly mimic Brandt’s.
Michael Kenna: ‘Bill Brandt’s Snicket, Halifax, Yorkshire, England. 1986’
As you can see from the credit, this is taken by Kenna back in 1986 and appears in his book ‘ A 20 year Retrospective’ (Ambient Foto 2).
Like Michael I guess, I turned up in Halifax and thought I’d go looking for the ‘Snicket’. I found it at Dean Clough, where there are still many mills, now finding different uses.
I was thrilled to see that the cobbled pathway was still surviving and later when reviewing these images, to even see the same cobbles stones identifiable in both the 1937 and 1986 pictures…and there they were in my 2015 version. The handrail seems the same even. That mill though has had a good cleaning.
David Taylor: ‘Homage to Brandt, Halifax 2015’
I was lucky to get a rainy day, just like Brandt and could image him standing there, looking at a much more grimey mill building, with probably a Rollieflex in his hand. I don’t think Kenna had yet got around to using his Hasselblads, so perhaps a Nikon 35mm. My picture was on a Leica Monochrom. Wonderful camera…alas I couldn’t keep it!
Michael Kenna has been good at crediting his influences over the years, such as homages to Atget and Cartier Bresson and others. He learned from these guys and went on to forge a remarkable style of his own. Alas I see work from so many photographers that is influenced by him, but without any credit being given. Michael we do owe you so much.
In the early summer of 2015 I took my dear little Toyota campervan to France.
I headed to Mont St. Michel on the Normandy coast and found a quiet parking spot on the west side, that looked out across the marshes to the Abbey of Mont St.Michel.
A heavy rain cloud produced this image.
Dawn and nightfall are as useful for monochrome photographers as for colour photographers and as night was falling I got this with some mist lying along the shore line and just after the Abbey illuminations came on.
On another day out on the marshes I walked past a young couple, who sat down and started kissing.
Well we all are envious of French lovers so I had to capture them.
I photographed from various locations for about 3 days before settling at another spot on the eastern side.
As the afternoon past I sneaked a picture of what looked to me like a French farmer, who chatted on his mobile phone with the Abbey in the background.
I was photographing with a Leica Monochrom camera at the time and having been taking landscapes on a tripod, the camera had a strong red filter on it. In a hurry to capture a picture, I left the filter on and quickly took another stop off the exposure, as the camera meter misread the red filter.
Not sure which image I prefer…but the red filter turned the red trousers and shirt that this guy wearing…into a much more interesting (for black and white)… white! Alas I wasn’t clever enough to realise that until I’d got the picture on the computer!
Knowing that evening was a good time and liking this spot I headed off along the track shown above. A pretty long walk but eventually, when it was now really dark I was able to get the image I guess that I had been waiting for. You usually know when a picture is worthwhile as you press the button.
It is obviously made by the ‘searchlight effect’ from the lights. I love it’s simplicity and think that even my hero Michael Kenna, who famously photographed Mont St Michel back in the ’90s, would have been pleased with getting it.
I felt able to drive away from this location…well until the next time I’m in France when I’ll try for another good image of it.