I’ve noted before that I’m a big fan of the contemporary photographer Michael Kenna. I’m hardly alone in this. He is one of the most renowned and widely collected photographers working today with many admirers around the world. And deservedly so. His work is just beautiful.
With so many followers, it’s perhaps no surprise that many photographers seem to be trying to (consciously or unconsciously) imitate his work. On the face of it, the look of his pictorialist, black and white landscapes would appear to be easy to imitate. And yet.
So often I look at the work of other photographers whose work is playing in Kenna’s space, and I end up having the same reaction: 1) I look at their work, and am very impressed; 2) I later look at the work of Kenna, and suddenly the imitator’s work seems shallow and pale by comparison. There are, in fact, only two photographers I can think of off the top of my head whose work I think is on par with Kenna’s in the style that Kenna pioneered (whether or not this is a good thing I don’t know, and in any case they shall here remain nameless).
What is it about Kenna’s work that stands apart and above from his crowded field of imitators? I guess I can say only that it’s “just right.” There’s something about his choice of subject matter, the equipment he uses (he’s known for Hasselblad medium format film cameras), his perspectives, compositions, and the choices he makes in his darkroom printing. If any one of these (or a multitude of other) variables is off, even just by a little bit, as I presume to be the case for the many Michael Kenna imitators out there, the result no longer is “just right.” The products of such efforts become merely, again, pale and shallow imitations of the magic of the original.
“Just right” is an interesting concept. In my own efforts, it’s the discriminator between work that passes the bar from one level to the next. In the field, I frame and re-frame compositions until it looks “just right” on the camera’s screen (thank you digital cameras!). On the computer, I edit and re-edit until it looks “just right” on the monitor. I then print, tweak, and re-print until it looks “just right” on the paper.
Of course, “just right” also is a difficult concept, in that it is completely subjective to the eye of the beholder and therefore cannot be taught to another with any objective standard. To this, I can say only that every artist being honest with himself or herself carries around their own “just right” standard with them. It’s the little voice inside one’s head whispering, even when you want your work to be perfect and finished, that it’s not. Ignore that voice at your own peril, it’s usually right.