BooksFavorite BooksLinksMoon DatesFAQ

Michael Kenna's Nightwork
At Friends of Photography Gallery, San Francisco, April 4-29, 2001
From the unpublished "next" issue of PhotoMetro magazine
by Tim Baskerville

“I’m the screen, the blinding light.
I’m the screen, I work at night.”
(Daysleeper, by R.E.M., 1998)

Originally slated for the Fall of 2000, as a pre-inaugural exhibit in their new SOMA space, and delayed due to city permit approvals, the exhibit “Michael Kenna: Night Work,” opened at the Friends of Photography in April of 2001. It’s good news that the Ansel Adams Center is now open seven days a week, and that attendance and memberships are up; but it’s a pity that the Friends didn’t take the opportunity to present the Michael Kenna show as scheduled, maybe even staying open late at night - presenting the work amid the untrimmed rebar, the cold bare concrete, and the exposed shells of galleries with no walls, no power. It would seem an ideal nocturnal “urban exploration” (in vogue, lately) and would fit right in with much of Kenna’s work, and one of his stated influences - that of heavy industry. Just think, the Friends could have saved some of those all-important energy dollars (no need for hundreds of hot little gallery lights), as patrons armed with state-trooper-sized flashlights in hand, could explore the darker side of Michael Kenna’s mysterious prints, in a sympathetic environment. But then, Kenna would certainly discourage such activity, saying it’s better to experience the nocturne, first hand, than in some virtual, albeit alluring, environment. At a recent gallery talk held for a group of Night Photographers and some lucky museumgoers, Kenna further explained that: “For me, the real strength, the core of photography, is its tie to reality. Even though these [points to prints] are not really real, they’re real. You believe they’re real, still: ‘The subject was there, I was there, and I experienced it.’ Photography, for me, is not the end product, it’s the experience, and it’s being there, doing it.”

Coinciding with the release of his fourteenth book, “Night Work” (published by Nazraeli Press in association with the Friends of Photography), the exhibit (and to some extent the book, as well) must represent a kind of homecoming for the artist. For Kenna, who travels extensively (“Photography is my hobby, and traveling is my obsession.”), to have an exhibit hosted by the pre-eminent photography venue in the Bay Area, in his longtime adopted hometown, must be as calming as some of those haunting images of his. The combination of book/exhibit, can also be seen as a homecoming of sorts for the Friends of Photography, for they just opened their new digs in late January, and of course, the “Night Work” book was originally intended as a ”re-visit” to Kenna’s nocturnal imagery, featured in the first Kenna/Friends project - “Night Walk” (1987). It is Friends’ Director Deborah Klochko’s opinion in her preface to the book, though, that the new collection of work turned out to be something much more (see review of the text “Night Work” elsewhere in this issue). Also, the text you now read marks a return of the ”prodigal nocturne’ to this publication - Michael Kenna’s work graced the pages (and cover) of Issue #2 of Photo Metro in October of 1982! The book and the exhibit also represent an insightful survey of Kenna’s nocturnal work, the work for which he is most widely known, and which, during the late 90s, for many, he seemed to have “abandoned.” As he points out, he didn’t really forsake Night Photography at all - he was still photographing at night, it just didn’t fit well in the various shows and publications he was involved with at the time. At any rate, the good news is: all that time he was still a friend of the nocturne, and in the last few years a flood of dark, sharp-edged night imagery [refer here to Mont St. Michel images] has appeared, to the delight of his fans. A return to grace? Here again, Kenna might beg to differ, referring to himself as an “accidental night photographer,” as he modestly states: “I would never classify myself as a night photographer. I just happen to photograph at night - as part of being a ‘twenty-four-hours-a-day’ photographer.”

Kenna has always maintained a strong photographic “work ethic,” a remarkable industrious-ness, braving darkness, danger, and the elements, to photograph while others are comfortably asleep in their beds. That “24/7” work ethic, in regard to photography is something that’s evident in all Kenna’s work. As he pointed out in a Camera and Darkroom interview: “I came from a working class background, and I was brought up knowing that I had to survive in the world - that helped me to became a photographer. In my early years I was good in the arts, painting in particular, and that’s what I wanted to do at the time. However, after spending some time at The Banbury School of Art, I realized that there wasn’t a chance I would survive as a painter living in England. I studied photography in part because I knew I could at least attempt a living doing commercial and advertising work. The more personal work could always be done as a hobby, as it was done for many years.” Although his initial decision to take up photography seriously, was to “make a living,” his photography surely has transcended those humble beginnings - to yield something that is profoundly haunting and timeless.

The 3rd-shift worker in the R.E.M. song (above) could likely relate to Kenna’s technique of working (sometimes all night long), ignoring the mainstream and their circadian rhythms, or rather, finding his own, governed only by his own “persistence of vision.” Michael Kenna is just as likely to find, some common ground with that worker, who acts as a kind of human “screen.” Kenna’s “screening process” involves sifting out the coarser elements of our quotidian existence, acting as a sieve, transforming the mundane, the every day, the commonplace into visions of beauty and mystery. So much of photography is seen in terms of things - cameras, hardware, filters, etc., and yes, even screens - to help you “see.” But, one doesn’t really need all those gadgets, all that hardware - it’s like that recent quip by a ”technological revisionist” regarding filtering content on the internet - for spam and other less-savory things - that “Your brain is the best filter you can get.” That, and the “delete” key!

The idea of a screen appeals in many ways to Michael Kenna, who as a student, was as talented in the graphic arts as he was in photography (you can see that in images like “Tilted Poles” and “Avonmouth Docks, Study 7”). He consciously uses the graininess of the film in many of his photographs as a type of screen to “ break down the power of description.” As he says: “I’m not really interested in making a Xerox copy of reality. That doesn’t do it for me; I prefer to make an interpretation. I find that utilizing grain, it often makes the three-dimensional more like two. It is almost a screen that’s superimposed over the image, so that it’s not real.” On the one hand, he’s relying on photography’s innate ability to portray what is real, while on the other, he’s tearing down that very phenomenon. It’s much like the toning that he does, as he says, for “for subjective and aesthetic purposes only” - he sepia-tones his prints ever so slightly, so “the highlights become warm, bringing them forward in space. The shadows remain cool, which pushes them back in space. Which is a paradox of how photography actually works. When you have a progression from dark to light in a print, we immediately associate the dark as being the foreground, to light being the background, and our eyes travel from the dark into the light so it becomes a kind of three-dimensional medium. I like to play the opposite of that; the space goes in, and then bounces back again.”

The new galleries at the Center - there are five, plus a spacious new bookstore (remember the old one on 4th Street?) - have an almost industrial feel. Someone should look into putting in a few cushioned benches in the center of the rooms (like the old SFMOMA), as many times, people like to spend a little time with the art. As one “takes in” the whole of the front gallery, the light falls directly on the small dark prints of Michael Kenna (grouped in small suites of 3 or 4 prints each), as certain themes become apparent: there are the more traditional landscapes, the seafront areas, the urban areas, and the images of heavy industry, such as the north of England and the Rouge (the former Ford Motor Company plant, River Rouge, near Detroit).

The big hits of the show seem to be (not surprisingly, for they are some of his strongest works, of late) the newer, harder-edged, ”spiritual/industrial” work from Mont St. Michel. Work includes various studies, from the contrasty, deep, dark shadows of “3A.M.” and “Open Door” to the softer interpretations of cloud aberrations around the monastery (“Cloud Shadows, Study 2”) and the perspective-defying images - beautiful and sinister at the same time - “Cloud Shadows, Study 3” and “Clin D’oeil a Brassai.” Recalling his work in the book “Monique’s Kindergarten,” these last two seem to revel in an almost child-like, awestruck, deep appreciation of the power of night photography and the night sky, and its ability to transform the mundane, the “every scene”, the ever-seen, as well as explore it’s unexplained mysteries.

“With the eyes of a child
You must come out and see
That your world’s spinning round
And thru life you will be
A small part of a hope of a love that exists
In the eyes of a child you will see.
(Eyes of a child by Moody Blues, 1969)

Visually “warming up” the back wall of the gallery are some images from one of Kenna’s most famous series, the power stations, specifically, Ratcliffe Power Station. A recent review in one of the ‘dailies’ acknowledged their beauty, but asked the question “Is beauty enough?” It’s a bit like the musical question: “Is that all there is?” - one which Kenna has been asked over and over again, and for which he makes no apologies. It is usually asked in reference to his work in the grand gardens of France, or the foggy urban scenes, or the more romantic images taken along quiet seashores. But the power plants - that is another matter. To say that they possess an uneasy beauty is to not go deep enough into the print, into the shadows. Images are made up of darkness and light; so are things (or perceptions) of beauty. Beauty is just the first step really, just the entryway: it’s just enough to get you in the door, into the image - then you need to contribute, react, respond, interact, reciprocate, question in some way, for the experience to be complete. As Kenna says: “With night photography, there are a lot of dark shadow areas, which for me, leave many question marks. In a sense we’re left with an area in the print where we can rest and where we can imagine. Perhaps we can finish the story. What I try to do, is present . . . well, they’re almost like haiku poems, catalysts for my/our imaginations, stage sets, in a way. I like to present photographs that give the opportunity for a viewer, and myself, to go up onto that stage and create the story, to utilize our own imagination and our own intelligence. I don’t like to present photographs to dazzle people and then have them walk away impressed. I prefer to engage the viewer in a more intimate manner.”

The images of the power plants - yes, they’re beautiful, but there’s a powerful, dark “presence” there, as well. Upon a closer look, like the prints of Mont St. Michel - and may the monks forgive him - there’s something a bit evil, or sinister about these images. Which is really what photography is all about: the darkness and the light; white light and shadows.

The rest of the show is divided into various sections, each representing the different periods of Kenna’s career and his return to those themes from time to time - the lonely seashores, the vacant countrysides, the romantic urban city lights, the heavy industry. A number of the prints in the exhibit date as far back as 1983/84 - work that is well recognized by those familiar with the nocturnal wanderings of the artist. Other old favorites - “Bill Brandt’s Snicket” and “Tow Path, Blackburn, Lancashire” - done in the nearly deserted, melancholic, industrial north of England reflect the artist’s influences, most notably fellow Briton Bill Brandt. The oldest image in the ”Night Work” book is from 1977, “Swings, Catskill Mountains.”

“I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire.
And though the holes were rather small,
They had to count them all,
Now they know how many holes it take to fill the Albert Hall.”
(A Day in the Life by The Beatles, 1967)

Finally, in what (for the true night photography fan) can only be described as an artistic “two-fer,” the show “Stieglitz and his Circle: The Art of Photogravure” provided an extra bonus and some important historical perspective to the Kenna exhibit. Stieglitz, said to be “the father of photography in this country,” in the last century, was no stranger to the magic of the night. Occupying Galleries #2 and #3, the show presents a number of historically important prints (photogravures, from Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work) - “The Glow of Night, New York, 1897,” ”Reflections: Night, New York, 1897,” and “An Icy Night, 1901.” In addition, several images by Edward Steichen, from the sequence of Rodin’s “Balzac” figure (done at midnight, in 1908) were also included in this show - a perfect compliment to some of Michael Kenna’s more romantic, fog-bound nocturnes. Stieglitz and his circle (Steichen, Struss, etc) laid the groundwork for giants like Brassai and Brandt - artists who in turn had a huge influence on Michael Kenna.

All this and “Moonrise over Hernandez,” too! (Ansel Adams, in the permanent Gallery)

Night photography remains as mysterious today, as it was in Stieglitz’s day, as Michael Kenna readily admits. Like an Isaac Newton (who was as interested in alchemy and the occult, as he was in science) for the post-modern age, Kenna reminds us: “It is important to understand that Night Photography is really not an exact science. It is a highly subjective area of study, and there is tremendous potential for added creativity. It has such an unpredictable character - our eyes cannot see cumulatively, like film. So what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see. Certainly it’s a good antidote for pre-visualization.” Many times, it’s more like an act of faith.

Michael Kenna might not consider himself a night photographer, but clearly there are those who do, and they value his contributions to the genre. As Deborah Klochko points out: “Kenna has more than mastered the technical aspects of Night Photography.” In doing so. he also, more than any other living photographer, has advanced Night Photography, its aesthetic qualities and concerns by a wide margin, and raised the public’s perception of this mysterious, extremely fulfilling area of study done under the cloak of darkness.