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From Michael Kenna's Nightwork
In Conversation with Photographer Tim Baskerville

Michael, it's good to see that you're still a somnaubulist! You have remained dedicated to the nocturne throughout your career, working away while others sleep. What has kept you at it for so long? Do you find it difficult to maintain an enthusiasm for working at night?

"Night of the Living Somnambulist" - it has a certain ring to it! Actually, I'm still most enthusiastic about photographing during the night, for many reasons. Today, we seem to work, play and live in the fast lane, busying ourselves with a bewildering assortment of activities, rushing around from place to place, deadline to deadline. It is impossible to be a frenetic night photographer! The very nature of the process forces one to slow down. The exposures are long, so it is wise to make more considered choices than the ones we might make during the day. To make an hour exposure is to be given an opportunity to get out of our quotidian frenzy. At night it is possible to be quiet and to listen to our surroundings. We may even become aware of the movement of the earth relative to the stars. For some hours it is easy to let the cares of the day slide away and sink into the night, with all its mysteries and secrets.

We see and experience the world in the daytime far more than at night, when for the most part we are asleep. As urban dwellers, most of our waking night hours are spent in artificial light. The sun-set may just mean a flick of the light switch. We have shielded and protected ourselves from the night's possibilities - its dangers, and also its benefits. The night is traditionally a time of revitalization and regeneration. It is a cru-cially important part of the day. I suppose what has "kept me at it" is basically a continued curiosity of what things look like when the sun goes down. The environment completely changes, and there is a vast poten-tial for new creativity. I love to wander and explore and I also like to photograph, so night photography has become a natural extension to the rest of my life.

You have stated that your work is "more about suggestion than description." Could you explain how that applies specifi-cally to your night work?

Using the analogy of literature, I like to think of my photographs in terms of haiku poetry rather than literal narrative. In a few words the haiku can suggest an infinity, with the helpful reader filling in the details. In my work I try to supply a setting, an atmosphere and a few prompts. My wish would be to act as a catalyst for the viewer's own imagination to "finish" the image in their minds. That would be true interactive art. I rarely have people in my photographs - that space is reserved for the viewer. I am more interested in the relationship between land and humanity. I expect a viewer to be able to enter an image and react with the environment. I try to create "stage sets" for them to perform on. Working at night makes this easier, be-cause with urban night lighting there is always something of the theater atmosphere anyway. Strong black shadows, back and side lighting, dramatic contrasts, and emptiness, all heighten that feeling. Anticipation hangs in the air. The orchestra is tuning up. Enter stage left, an unsuspecting viewer about to relate his or her life story ...

In the past you've acknowledged Bill Brandt's influence upon your work, mostly in terms of subject matter and location. He photographed at night, as do yoga. I see his influence also in the presentation of your work - the dark printing of sonic of your images, the `grittiness, " of some of the final prints, the ambiguous nature of what time of day the photograph was created. Is this something you're very conscious of?

In terms of subject matter, composition, palette and atmosphere, Bill Brandt is definitely the single strongest influence on my work. I constantly look at his books and gain inspiration. I own one of his prints, which I treasure. I like both his day and night photographs. There is a saying, attributed to Isaac Newton, which I like to repeat: "If I have achieved anything, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." I have consistently emulated those photographers that I admire. The list is long and includes other past luminaries: Eugene Atget, BrassaI, Charles Sheeler, Alfred Stieglitz and Josef Sudek, as well as contemporaries such as Ruth Bernhard, Richard Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto. I am proud to be influenced by other photographers, and when-ever possible include their names in my titles as a way of paying respect and homage. My work would cer-tainly not be what it is without Bill Brandt's powerful influence.

Regarding your Power Station series: supposedly you're neutral in your stance on this work, yet because you chose the night as the vehicle, they are anything but. They come across as foreboding monoliths conveying danger, and they pose more questions about the actual objects and issues of power, pollution and environment than provide answers. Do you agree, and if so, how does this relate to the rest of your work?

Most of my images can be open to interpretation. The underlying subject matter is the relationship, con-frontation, and/or juxtaposition, between the landscape, in its various manifestations of earth, air, fire and water, and the human fingerprint, the traces that we leave, the structures, buildings and stories. Sometimes the emphasis in the image will be the landscape, the human influence will be slight, but it is always there. At other times, the urban scenery or industry will be more dominant and the landscape will be barely visible, shown only by a passing cloud, moving water, or a veil of mist. The human species has clearly had a dev-astating effect on the earth. Our influence has reached into every corner. If there is an undercurrent of fore-boding in my photographs, regardless of the subject matter, I think it is a reflection of our uncertain fu-ture. In my photographs, I deliberately try to take a neutral stance in order to allow the viewer to reach their own conclusions. However, photography is a highly subjective medium in which the thoughts, feel-ings and inner concerns of the photographer can always be detected by an observant viewer. Ultimately, I believe that most people see what they want to see, or what they are conditioned to see. I am content to have others interpret my photographs in their own personal ways. I will not necessarily agree with their interpretations but I'm not going to tell people what they should think - that's boring and ultimately counter-productive. I feel that to pose questions is fundamentally more puzzling and challenging than to give an-swers.

The human presence on earth presents us with complex questions. Nobody has all the answers, but a concerned photographer can guide us to some of the relevant questions. I would feel too hypocritical say-ing my Power Station series was a political statement regarding power, pollution and/or the environment, even though if others want to see the images that way, they would have my blessing. I come from a back-ground where the chemical industry employed most of the town. Photography is now my chosen profes-sion - hardly an environmentally friendly activity. I drive a car which uses fossil fuel and I use electricity which comes from power stations. The fact is, we are all consumers and guardians of the earth's resources and need to be personally conscious of the damage we inflict. We should act responsibly and limit our ex-cesses. However, we are beings of our time and are not likely to revert to cave dwelling. I do not lecture others on their behavior, but if I plant a few seeds from time to time, well, that's a start.

You have said that you first photographed the landscape as a reaction or alternative to the environment you lived in, the industrial cities of Northern England. To some extent your move to the U.S. provided for a continued alternative vi-sion, acrd night plrotograplry is yet another alternative vision. Does any of this tic hi with the fact that you now travel a great deal to photograph? What if you lived in Europe again; would we see more of you here in California, behind the camera, roaming through the night?

I love to travel and photograph, and even when I'm not photographing I still love to travel. The question is, would I still photograph if I didn't travel? Not necessarily. The combination is quite critical. If I was to stay in one place I might paint and draw instead. Now that I live in California, I like to photograph else-where, preferably in Europe. There are logistical reasons. I am at my most productive when I can really concentrate on something. At home there are always a thousand and one distractions - some of them quite alluring! When I travel to a place, I know that I am going to be there for a certain number of days which ensures that I work hard - day and night. I can think, breathe, eat and sleep photography. It is an efficient way for me to work.

Perhaps if I lived in Europe I would photograph in the U.S. more, although I'm not so sure I would photograph in California a great deal. Realistically I find that I have more empathy with the intimate, lived-in landscapes of Europe and the East Coast than I do with the wild and grand landscapes of the Western United States. I do not make good Ansel Adams type pictures. He sees God in the landscape, I look for the human imprint. We're talking completely different scales here!

In your Rouge book you have two sequential plates, Studies 9_3 and 94. They seem to be from the same point of view. You have said that you are "an anytime, all time, every time photographer" one who moves freely between situations, time, and light constraints - as opposed to a strictly night photographer. But don't you think there's a danger there? It is like you've dc-br-urked the notion of the "Decisive Moment" - or rather expanded it to include many decisive moments. You could compile an encyclopedia (perhaps a life's work) - thousands of prints of one image or scene, one frame or tiny bits of subject matter in perpetua, all different, all unique!

The two photographs of the Rouge power plant you refer to are made from exactly the same position, one at dusk, the other about an hour later. The camera was positioned on a tripod and I made a succession of images as the light changed. I placed two of these studies in the Rouge book at the point where the images transition from day into night.

Everybody knows Monet's famous studies of Rouen Cathedral where he painted the front facade over and over in different lighting situations - fascinating work. I often like to photograph the same subject many times to see how it changes. There is a simple but profound truth "nothing is ever the same twice." This applies as much to life as it does to painting and photography. I use these words almost as a mantra, to keep me present and in the moment, both in life and in photography. The term "Decisive Moment" is a completely artificial construct, for every moment is decisive. It is up to the subjective decision making and tech-nical prowess of the photographer to decide which one, or ones, he/she wants to show to the world. Pho-tography is very much about editing. I try to create work that is somehow "timeless," i.e., the images could be created during the day or at night, today or a year ago. I enjoy the enigma. I prefer not to concentrate on the "specifics" of time and place. I find myself more interested in the time before and after the so called "Decisive Moment." Besides, at night we can stretch a "moment" into ten minutes or ten hours. My night photographs are edited capsules of passing time.

It is true that I could have made a Rouge book with fifty studies of the power plant. Although that might be personally satisfying, I am not so sure how popular it would be. As a photographer I try to takethe viewers of my work into account as well as myself. It is not reasonable to show all that we photograph. The fifty plates in the Rouge book were selected from over four thousand negatives. Sometimes I show two or three studies of the same subject, when there are sufficient differences to make them interesting. As part of my ongoing work I visit places over and over, for they are never the same. It is like a friendship. It is good to continually renew the relationship, for then it deepens and grows, and subtle changes are revealed. I don't like the "been there, done that" attitude to life.