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3 Questions for Michael Kenna

The master photographer on his life's work and new projects as he approaches 50 years in photography
Grandfather Oak, Study 45, Beaverton, Oregon, USA, 2021

Much is remarkable about the iconic photography of Michael Kenna. His distinctive use of long exposure to bend time and light into serene black and white landscapes. The way he is able to create calm—or its appearance—out of wind and waves and nature in motion. His stunning square prints let us contemplate simple subjects in exquisite detail.

Not all of Kenna’s work is serene, of course, nor does he rely solely on long exposure or motion blur. But there is a particular type of image that is distinctly Kenna-esque. Square prints, rich and warm, reveal not just the natural landscape but graphic, sculptural elements in their environment, often shaped by the hand of man. 

Now, as he approaches 50 years in photography, Kenna has achieved a pair of tremendous milestones. The French Ministry of Culture has awarded him one of its highest honors, while at the same time announcing a permanent home for his photographic archive. France will house Kenna’s life’s work—thousands of negatives and prints—alongside the archives of other icons of photography. 

We caught up with Kenna to ask about these career milestones, his love for France, and the projects he is working on as he crosses the half-century mark of his career. 

Pont des Arts, Study 3, Paris, France, 1987

Q: Congratulations on your award. I’m guessing it means a lot coming from the place where you have spent so much time. Photographers don’t win Oscars, so this is about as good as it gets for one of our own. 


A: Indeed, it does feel like I have received an Oscar. If my mum and dad were still around I am sure that I would be effusively and emotionally thanking them! For the 99.9% of the planet who did not attend Paris Photo, please let me recap. On November 10, 2022 I was absolutely delighted and extremely proud to be awarded the decoration of Officier des Arts et des Lettres by Rima Abdul Malak, the Minister of Culture in France. At that time she also announced the donation of my life archive to be housed by the French state at the Mediatheque de Photographie et Patrimoine (MPP) at Fort Saint-Cyr in Montigny-le Bretonneux (Yvelines). 

The donation included 3,683 original silver gelatin prints of images made in 43 different countries, along with their accompanying negatives and scans, 175,000 other negatives accompanied by their corresponding contact sheets, 6,422 working prints from 1983 to 2000, 1,280 Polaroid prints, 87 books and monographs on my work, 200 prints of other photographers that I have purchased, traded or been gifted, and all the archives relating to my artistic activity for the past 50 years.

I have had a love affair with France since the very beginning of my career. Looking objectively, France is the country where I have photographed most, and there are more photographs from France in the donation than from any other country. Also, the 300 prints and 6,000 negatives from the Concentration Camp project made in the years 1988 to 2000 have already been donated to France over two decades ago. It was important to me that my whole archive would be situated in one place, and it is very comforting to know that my work will now rest alongside the oeuvres of photographers I love and admire—such as Jacques Henri Lartigue, Andre Kertesz, Willy Ronis and others. I should also add that my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter now have the good fortune to live in France. I am therefore enormously appreciative that the MPP accepted my work and will, I hope and trust, help to protect it against the ravages of time.


I feel immensely privileged to also have my work in well over 100 other permanent museum collections throughout the world, but only one institution could have the whole archive, and in my mind the MPP is as good as it gets. I don’t even dare to think what it means to be in such stellar company. I am very, very grateful.

It should be noted that I retain complete, full and unrestricted use of my negatives and all usage rights during my lifetime. The negatives will only be transferred on my death. In most respects nothing has changed, except that I now have great peace of mind both for myself and for my heirs that I will not be leaving behind a large and messy mountain of prints and negatives when I eventually fly with the angels. For the immediate future, I look forward to “business as usual” for Michael Kenna Photography.


Q: The fate of one’s life’s work after he is gone is certainly a pressing concern. Was this something that had weighed on you for a long time? It must feel like a triumph of sorts.

A: There is the oft repeated saying that every cloud has a silver lining, and I think about that specifically in reference to the devastating Covid pandemic. Five years ago I had a 45-year retrospective exhibition in Japan at the Tokyo Photographic Arts Museum. It occurred to me then that at some point soon I should actively consider what to do with my life archive. The two-year enforced postponement of travel and exhibitions during the pandemic was a catalyst for action as it gave me the space and time to gather, organize and accumulate my life’s work up to this point. I must admit that as I approached the 50-year mark, the inner pressure to find a good home for my archive greatly increased. Now I do feel much, much lighter!

Grandfather Oak, Study 59, Beaverton, Oregon, USA, 2021

Q: Among your most recent work is a wonderful series of photographs of the Grandfather Oak in Beaverton, Oregon. How did you find this particular subject, and what inspired you to return to it again and again?

A: I have long regarded the act of photographing to be akin to shaking hands, bowing or otherwise acknowledging that a conversation is beginning with the subject matter I am meeting. I have had delightful conversations with many trees. My attraction with these trees has been ongoing since childhood. The recent Skira – Paris book of Arbres/Trees contains images from 1973 to 2022. With all my work I enjoy revisiting whatever I have photographed in order to continue and perhaps deepen the conversation that has been started. So, when possible, I revisit trees I have photographed. In the case of the magnificent Grandfather Oak—which is situated amongst buildings on a specific campus in Beaverton, Oregon—I had the remarkable opportunity to photograph it during the waning pandemic days when nobody was around. Hence I could visit in all the seasons, day and night. So far 10 studies have been printed out of around 100 possibilities. An exhibition and book are planned for the envisaged final selection of 40 to 60 prints.

To learn more about Michael Kenna and his beautiful black and white photography, visit his website.
To purchase prints, visit Jackson Fine Art.
And for a glimpse at his new book, Arbres/Trees, visit publisher Skira’s website.
All photographs © Michael Kenna.


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