Tag Archives: Michael Kenna


Black Trees, Series 3, No. 4.

If you are a photographer, there are of course lots of kinds of media to get your work out into the world.  Screens are the most popular these days, I assume.  I myself probably consume most of my photography viewing via the Internet, and it’s hard to argue with the convenience and sheer numbers of works available this way.

Printed publications are another mainstay.  There are some good magazines that publish contemporary photography, Lenswork probably being my personal favorite.  I also own monographs by photographers including Michael Kenna, Bruce Percy, and Chuck Kimmerle, among others.  Magazines and books are great, because they give you the tactile feel of holding work in your hands.

But my favorites probably still are good-old-fashioned prints hung on a wall.  They have the quality of omnipresence — they command your attention whether you want to look at them or not.  This is a good thing.  Screens, books, and magazines stay hidden and unused unless you have specifically chosen to make use of them, and if you are making use of them to view photography, you begin already with expectations and a mindset geared to that.  Prints on a wall are there regardless of what’s on your mind or want kind of experience you’re having.  They can catch you by surprise when you turn a corner and catch sight of them, even if they have hung in your house for years.  You don’t seek them out to view them, they demand your acknowledgement by virtue of being omnipresent on the wall.

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Just Right

Storm Over Rock Cut. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2019.

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.

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Look Longer

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 9 (Julie Penrose Fountain)

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 9 (Julie Penrose Fountain)
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

Earlier today, I found myself looking at the website of one of my favorite photographers, Michael Kenna.  Several new images had been added, and as I was flipping through them on my smartphone (I know, not the best way to look at photography, but that’s a topic for another post), it occurred to me that I didn’t used to flip through images.  I used to spend more time, stopping to linger on ones that really caught my eye, moving past the initial impressions to study details, see relationships, and gain a deeper appreciation of the work.

So, I stopped flipping, and started looking.  I studied the details, looked for the relationships, and sought out a deeper appreciation of what I was looking at.  And in doing so, that deeper appreciation really did come.  I noticed nuances that were not apparent to me at first glance.  I asked myself questions and spun answers that led me in unexpected directions.  Briefly, I inhabited the small world that each of those images created.

If you enjoy looking at photography, you’re probably guilty of flipping through images too.  Maybe it’s just a byproduct of seeing so many things on computer displays and smartphone screens these days.  My thought for the day – look longer.  Just when you’re ready to flip to the next thing, stop yourself.  Spend a little more time with an image you like, after all, if it caught your eye in the first place, it probably has something worth spending time with.

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Keeping Secrets

Triptych, Flow No. 4

Triptych, Flow No. 4

Sometimes photographer antics amuse me.  In reading the blogs of other photographers, I’ve become aware that apparently there is a practice among some photographers of keeping their locations secret, and among other photographers of sleuthing those locations in order to “out” them.  To me, this smacks of insecurity, as if the quality of an image depends on its subject, and images that otherwise are compelling somehow become lessened when their subjects are frequently photographed.

The quality of a photograph doesn’t depend on the subject, it depends on the photographer.  Consider one wonderful subject, the Eiffel Tower.  It’s been photographed to death, and the vast majority of those photographs are both incredibly banal and incredibly derivative of one another.  But then consider Michael Kenna’s images of the Eiffel Tower, which are remarkable both for their excellence and for the fact that they were executed more than 100 years after the tower was built, well into the saturation overload period of Eiffel Tower photography.

In general, I don’t keep secrets about my work.  The one “kind-of” exception I make is for abstract images like the triptych in this post, where I don’t publicly disclose the subject of the image.  I say “kind of,” because really I don’t think of it as keeping a secret.  If you want to know the subject, just email me, I’m happy to tell you (indeed, I take a bit of perverse pride in how mundane some of these subjects are).  I only don’t make it public because I assume the abstracts have an element of suspended disbelief, and that some viewers would rather not dispel the illusion by knowing what the subject is.  All photographs are basically illusions, after all, but abstracts even more so for not having a readily identifiable subject.

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Imitation Versus Inspiration

Washington Monument. Washington, D.C. 2015.

Washington Monument
Washington, D.C., 2015

Good artists copy, great artists steal.

Pablo Picasso

There’s a school of thought that says that if you are an artist, you should not look at the work of other artists.  Though stated in different ways, the basic rationale seems to be to keep the influence of other artists away from your own work, such as where looking at the work of others may create an obstacle to finding your own vision, or where you simply may end up imitating the work of others rather than developing something original to you.

Personally, I’ve always felt okay with looking at the work of other artists.  For one thing, I enjoy viewing art, and I would not want to deprive myself of this simple pleasure simply because I am a photographer.  Moreover, I think it’s okay to be inspired by what others have done, be it a certain technical approach, a choice of subject matter, or so forth.

For me, looking at the work of others is like holding a mirror up to my own likes and dislikes.  Sure, I can appreciate the work of another on its own merits, and it’s fun to discover new artists and to be exposed to different kinds of work, but it’s when I look at a particular work more deeply and analytically that I begin to see my own preferences and tastes.

In photography, for example, perhaps a given photographer may not photograph subject matter that I’m drawn to, but maybe their images have a high-key look that I like.  It may make me realize that I like the look of high-key images, and perhaps that I may want to try that approach in my own work.  Or perhaps a given photographer produces work having technical aspects I don’t like, but maybe they photograph portraits, or still life, or other kinds of subject matter that I might not otherwise connect with.  It may make me reconsider my approach to that kind of subject matter in my own work.

Inspiration is different than imitation, however.  For myself, I’ve always drawn the line at the point where viewing a particular work of someone else would want to make me go out and simply re-create that work in whole.  If I ever reach that point, then I may have to reevaluate my approach to looking at the work of others.

Which is why the image in this post gives me some pause.  I would be lying if I said I was not thinking of photographer Michael Kenna’s images of the Eiffel Tower when I photographed this view of the Washington Monument, particularly Kenna’s “Eiffel Tower, Study 10.”  There are obvious similarities – each is of an iconic tower framed by trees.  Moreover, my motivation in pursuing this image quite honestly was to frame the Washington Monument in a manner analogous to that in which Kenna used trees to frame the Eiffel Tower.

Did I cross a line with this image?  Not by any kind of objective measure, I think, in as much as I did not set out (and in fact did not) literally re-create Kenna’s image.  Subjectively, the question is a little harder and, ultimately, one that I think can only be answered by me based on my own standards of what constitutes imitation versus what constitutes inspiration.  While it’s as close as I yet have come to mere imitation, in the end, I’m reasonably satisfied that this image is innovative enough to fall within the camp of inspiration.

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