Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna (born 1953) is one of the most acclaimed landscape photographers of his generation with a truly global audience for his work. He has held over 475 solo exhibitions in 40 countries and his photographs have been the subject of over 70 monographs. To date his prints are held in the permanent collections of over 100 museums worldwide.


Kenna was born in Lancashire, England, into an Irish Catholic family. From an early age he aspired to be a priest and, aged ten, began studying at a seminary school. However, art quickly became his strongest subject and at the age of 17 he moved to Banbury, Oxfordshire and studied at the Banbury School of Art. He explored drawing, painting, print making, pottery and photography, before going on to pursue a degree at the London College of Printing. Initially Kenna concentrated on commercial photography, however, he soon turned to the landscape after seeing the work of Bill Brandt, Josef Sudek, Eugène Atget and Alfred Stieglitz, who were highly influential to him.


In 1977 Kenna moved to San Francisco and began to be represented by galleries who were willing to showcase his work. He quickly settled into life in California where he lived and worked as a photographer for over thirty years. For ten of those years he worked as the assistant and printer for the renowned photographer Ruth Bernhard. Kenna learnt a great deal from Bernhard, particularly impressive to him was the creative license she took with the negative to achieve compositional and tonal precision. Kenna still patiently makes every print himself, in his own darkroom, burning and dodging to perfect the balance of each image. Each print is more evocative than informative, interpretive rather than documentary. Later, Kenna moved north to Portland, Oregon (2004-2007) before settling in Seattle, Washington (2007-present).


Kenna is drawn to certain times of the day and night, preferring to photograph in the mist, rain and snow. Clear blue skies and sunshine do not inspire him as much. He also photographs exclusively in black and white as he believes, 'black and white is immediately more mysterious because we see in colour all the time. It is quieter than colour.'


Kenna travels around the world constantly photographing the varied landscapes of over 40 countries including China, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Egypt and the United States. However, it is England, France and Japan that he has returned to most frequently. Kenna looks for interesting compositions and arrangements within the natural landscape working in a tradition that owes more to the Romantic landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, than to more contemporary trends. Kenna's vision of the landscape sees the human dwarfed by the grandeur of the natural world. He transforms the mundane into the extraordinary by registering the presence and absence of the human in the landscape.


Kenna prefers to photograph on his own, in silence, creating a sense of calm, solitude and tranquillity in his photographs. As he stated, 'I prefer suggestion over description. The world is pretty chaotic, seemingly always speeding up and getting louder and more visually dense. I am interested in finding and creating calm shelters from the storm, places where quiet and solitude is encouraged and inner contemplation possible. I think we could all use a break from time to time.'


In many ways Kenna is an anachronistic contemporary to the Pictorialists, the pioneering pre-Modernist movement of photographers that saw the atmosphere of the photograph as central to its emotive force. Like the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, Kenna's images place an emotional hold over viewers through the atmospheric effects of photographing at night, in crepuscular light or in mist, fog and snow. Kenna does not seek to present an accurate copy of the world, but to extract something original and emotive from it.


Kenna currently lives in Seattle, with his wife and children. His photographs are held in over 110 permanent collections including the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has been exhibited globally including solo exhibitions in China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Kenna is also the recipient of numerous awards including the Imogen Cunningham Award, San Francisco, USA in 1981; he was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of of Culture in Paris, France in 2000; in 2003 he became an Honorary Master of Arts at the Brooks Institute, USA and in 2016 he was awarded the Special Photographer Award, Higashikawa, Japan.


8x10 inch silver gelatin prints of Michael Kenna's early works are available in limited editions of 45 prints. Print prices start at GBP 2000 and rise to GBP 7000 for edition number 45. Occasionally Artist Proofs are available to acquire and start at GBP 20,000. New works made from 2019 onwards are available in limited editions of 25 prints.