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In Conversation… Michael Kenna

Photographer Michael Kenna talks to Graeme Green from South Korea, where he is currently working, about photographing the ‘unseen’, playing with toys and working alone at night

It is always good to be reacquainted with old friends. In Michael Kenna’s case, that means not only people, but places. Across more than 40 years as a landscape photographer, there are countries that he has revisited many times, from Japan to Italy, each time looking for (and finding) new photographic possibilities or deeper ‘conversations’. Photographing in black and white, he works mainly at night and early in the morning, from stark winter snowscapes to religious shrines, using his trusty Hasselblad cameras. But on recent expeditions, the English photographer, now based in the United States, has been carrying a few Holga low-tech toy cameras with him, the results of those experiments collected together in his most recent book, Holga.

You have been spending time in Korea, including in the DMZ (demilitarized zone). Given the current state of international relations, has that been an interesting time to be there?
A few days ago, when the temperature had gone down to minus eighteen centigrade, I was photographing beach rocks covered in ice from sea waves on the Gangwondo coast. I received an alert on my phone, some sort of emergency, but the notice was in Korean. Of course, given the recent missile launches from the North and the heightened political tensions broadcast internationally, I was a bit alarmed. But my Korean companion assured me that it was only a warning for the local people to stay indoors because the weather was extremely cold. I found it quite charming and indicative of the warm hospitality of the many wonderful people that I have met in Korea.

What took you to Korea?
I have been photographing on and off in South Korea since 2005, when I had my first exhibition in Seoul. I did try to get into North Korea a few times but was never given a visa. In retrospect, perhaps it was a good thing. With the political situation, I am not sure I would have had much freedom to photograph and I don’t suppose it would have been easy to leave the country with all the unexposed rolls of film.
I came to Korea this time for ...

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