Meeting Michael Kenna
Recently, one of my favorite artists in photography, Michael Kenna, was in Tokyo for a book signing to wrap up an ongoing exhibition around the world, and quite literally, around the world! For about two hours, there was a Q&A in Shibuya and afterward a book signing of his book FRANCE. This was really exciting as he’s one of the artists I most admire in photography yet this was pretty much the first time I’ve ever had the chance to listen to one of them speak about their work in person. So on Sunday, I took my husband along and recall warning him before leaving, “prepare – you’re about to meet a real photographic artist.”
What I love about Michael Kenna’s work, aside from his incredible images, is that he has this sort “decisive moment” or “zen-like” approach to his landscape photography, yet his photographs capture something deeper, a deeper current resonating in life unfolding as if only exposing itself to the chosen person.
It seems that France and Japan are the two places that Michael enjoys photographing the most, and I can certainly understand why. His minimalist approach to his photography is a commonality shared with Japanese culture. Simply listening to him talk, it’s clear he has a “zen” approach to both his life and his work. Quietness, solitude, and stillness are essential, as it’s in these quiet moments that nature reveals itself. He always manages to see something a little deeper, more surreal, underneath it all.
Upon showing up, the room was overfilled with admirers of his work; those who all sat or stood there for almost two hours hanging on every word. When asked about his spiritual views on God, etc, he likened his beliefs to an example he told about how there’s always something lying beneath the surface. He recalls instances in landscape photography when the picture unfolded in an instant to reveal the most beautiful underlying scene, a scene always lingering beneath the surface. And he likens this to spirituality, as there’s always something deeper than we see.
Common to a lot of photographers, he talked about the transitivity of life. Interestingly, he said he was always fond of studying mathematics growing up but it was his dual mental abilities to possess both analytical qualities and imagination which seems to have not only helped him succeed but has made photography intellectually fulfilling in many aspects. I particularly found this interesting. And when asked the question of “do you like to share your work,” his answer was really straightforward and blunt. He said as a photographer and as an artist, and as someone with a special given talent, keeping his work hidden would not be right. There’s an obligation as an artist to share it with the world.
Before the exhibition, I suggested to my husband that I may want to buy his book FRANCE. “How much is it?” he asked. “About one hundred and thirty dollars,” I said. “Just for a book?” he asked a bit surprised. I explained that for a fine art photography book of work, that’s really not that bad. But needless to say, after two hours of listening to Michael talk and browsing the exhibition, my husband was in line, eagerly signing up to buy one.