I was born and brought up in Widnes, England. It was a poor, working class, Catholic family. I was the youngest of five children and we all slept and basically lived in one little room. I spent a lot of time in the local parks, in the train station ... I lived a lot in my own imagination. I was fascinated with the Catholic Church. I became an altar boy, so I was around for some of the great rituals of life – baptisms, weddings, funerals – very early on. After the ceremonies, I could still smell the incense, and there was always this light on the altar, depicting an unseen god.
When I was 10, I decided I wanted to be a priest. I went to a Catholic seminary school for seven years. I learned about silence, discipline, meditation, and it broadened my perspective a lot. Of course, I reached puberty and realised girls existed: I wasn’t sure that celibacy was my thing. I was pretty good at doodling, drawing, so I went to art school. They didn’t have career guidance then: you were a Catholic priest, or you were not. There, I came across photography – it seemed an ideal medium, I could be a professional and earn some money. So I studied photography for three years at London College of Printing.
MY DIANA The first time I picked up a camera, I was about 13. It was a Diana. I still work with a Holga sometimes – a wonderful, cheap little plastic camera, made in Hong Kong. Most of the time I use Hasselblad cameras on tripods, but these Holga cameras have a certain whimsical quality, which I love.
After art school I went to a commercial photography school and studied all the technical aspects of photography. Meanwhile, I kept my passion – being out alone in the landscape, looking and photographing – to myself. I worked as an advertising assistant, then at the John Hillelson photographic agency, on Fleet Street. It was a Magnum, Sygma, Gamma agency and my job was to sell photographic news to the newspapers.
My first exhibition was in a group show in New York, but it was colour work. Eventually I began to take the black and white work into galleries and I took all the colour work out. I remember when I had to give my first lecture, I was so terrified I just sat in the audience and mumbled to myself. I’ve been photographing now for well over 40 years, so I have stories I can tell. But when you’re just starting, what do you talk about? You’re still finding out yourself. It’s very hard to exhibit your work and take it seriously, or you take it too seriously.
FINE PRINTS In my early 20s I moved to San Francisco. I got employment with Ruth Bernhard, who was a photographer on the West Coast. She didn’t have a lot of money so, at the beginning, we just worked on trade. I’d work in a framing store during the day, then run up the hill to visit her and work as a printer in her studio till 1am, 2am. In return, I’d receive her prints.
I worked with her for about 10 years. She showed me the ropes; how galleries work, how museums are. She had such a creative way of printing – I realised that there was this whole other side to it.
I still insist upon printing everything myself. I don’t use any digital work, I work with contact sheets and proofs and I insist upon going into the dark room, going through the whole process. It’s very time consuming, it’s quite expensive and I often have failures. But I love being involved in every stage, even the retouching of the print. You get these fine hairlines, dots and scratches and things and you go in with ink and retouch them. It’s a very fine process.
EVERYONE’S A PHOTOGRAPHER Photography has been made much easier than it used to be. Everybody can do it, we all have phones now. Cameras will automatically expose; they will tell you everything so you don’t have to think about it. In a sense you can’t daydream, because a machine is telling you, “This is not normal. Make it normal.” I love that slow, unpredictable journey of working with film. I feel monochrome is more mysterious. And I really like grain. I like that it’s not a copy of what we see in the world, that there’s an interpretation, an individual conversation you’re having. I’m sure (American photographer) Ansel Adams, if he was alive, would be fully digital: because it has everything, all the details. But it’s not for me. I’m not interested in making an exact replica of what we see. I’m still interested in that light on the altar. What’s hiding behind? What is suggested?
ALL NIGHT LONG I really got into night photography and long exposures, because at night planes go by, clouds move ... things change. It might start raining, a sprinkler could come on. And I love not being in control. I think when we control everything we live within our own confines. We have to push those boundaries by losing control a little bit. I’m often asked, what do you do during those six-hour, eight-hour exposures? Sometimes I go to sleep, but sometimes I don’t do anything. It’s not necessary to occupy the space in our heads – or our photographs – all the time. The more electronics we have, the more we are constantly fiddling, chattering in a sense. And it’s nice to turn everything off, and be in the moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about “the decisive moment”: I talk about the decisive 12 hours.
CHINA FOCUS China is a place I’m going to more and more. My wife, Mamta, used to live in Hong Kong, so I know it well – it has all these exquisite little corners. First I do the obvious, I shoot the buildings, the view from The Peak. Then I look beyond that.
Setting goals can be good. But it can also be extremely restrictive. I have a habit of getting lost. Everywhere, all the time. It’s a critical part of being a creative being that you allow yourself to go off on tangents and see where they lead. Sometimes they don’t go anywhere; most times they don’t. But you don’t know until you explore.
Michael Kenna (www.michaelkenna.com), who is represented in Hong Kong by Blue Lotus Gallery, was in town for “Visual Meditation: 40 years of Photography”, a Monogramasia event in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society.