Photographer Michael Kenna Chases Time Away in Asia

Photographer Michael Kenna

Photographer Michael Kenna speaks at an Asia Society Southern California event at Peter Fetterman Gallery on June 5, 2018. At right, Peter Fetterman.

Michael Kenna grew up in an industrial town in England and was influenced by European photographers. Then, in 1987, he visited Japan. "My work changed because of Asia," he told an Asia Society Southern California audience on June 5 at Peter Fetterman Gallery. From Tokyo’s frenetic street life to the peacefulness of Nara and Kyoto, Kenna found a new continent to explore – and return to over and over for more than 30 years. Though he continues to photograph a variety of subjects, Kenna discovered his love for landscapes in Asia and has become one of the world’s most admired and prolific landscape photographers.

His Asian landscapes rarely, if ever, include people, but as he told us, he considers his photos portraits, so he asks his subject’s permission rather than snapping shots like a paparazzi. Consider Kenna’s famous images of a Japanese Oak known as the Kussharo Lake Tree. "The first time I met this tree was in 2002," he said, noting how he came across it one morning, felt an affinity and began a conversation with it. Kenna photographed the tree and returned two years later. "It had aged, as had I." He returned annually for the next six years to commune with and photograph the oak, which was cut down in 2009. It became the subject of one his many books.

Michael Kenna, Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 15
Michael Kenna, Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 15, Kotan, Hokkaido, 2009. © Michael Kenna. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica

The Kussharo Lake Tree encapsulates Kenna’s sensibility and method. He shoots film and only black and white – and he takes his time. "I love the slowness of the process," he said. Unlike the instant gratification of digital photography, months can pass between the time Kenna takes a photograph and sees the image in his darkroom. That distance "means I can be objective," and the darkroom "allows us to be alone and calm. There is a sense of equilibrium that’s very important to me," he said.

Kenna's Asian landscapes exude serenity and timelessness. Some are the result of 10- to 12-hour exposures. "I like the enigma of time; I don't want people to know when the photograph was taken," he explained. Never one to hurry, Kenna spent six months roaming Korea's Shinan Islands with his Hasselblad. One interviewer referred to him as the "man who chased time." As his photos demonstrate beautifully, Kenna in fact chases time away.

For the Asia Society Southern California program, Kenna signed several of his books, including Holga, which includes many photos from Asia taken with the disposable Holga camera, which was invented in Hong Kong. The signed books and Kenna's photographs are available for purchase at Peter Fetterman Gallery. A portion of sales proceeds will be donated to Asia Society Southern California to support our cultural programs.