Michael Kenna is widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest and most influential living photographers. He is an artist who has remained consistent and true to his style and enquiry and has produced an extensive body of work to demonstrates this. You always know when you see a “Kenna”: typically he uses a Hasselblad camera to create exquisite black and white silver-gelatin prints, the images are moody, tranquil, enchanting, and minimalist all at the same time. His work is devoid of people, except for those of the trees, which he refers to as “portraits,” giving them equal status as people. Trees are not only his favourite subjects, they also make for good conversation partners, says Kenna, who’s connection to these enduring plants is best described as friendship, one that began from childhood and continues today. As a child he found refuge sitting in trees where his imagination could run free and he could gain perspective looking down upon the world from great heights. His sensitivity to the natural world, his gratitude for what it has to offer us, is remarkable and touching, and what makes him able to make photographs of such immense depth and clarity.
The concept of time is at the heart of Philosopher’s Tree. On the one hand there is Kenna, the Master Photographer observer with his long exposures (lasting up to several hours), traversing the globe and documenting its beauty, from China to Italy, Brazil to Norway, his photographs show us what is already there if we just open our eyes and our senses. The slow approach to his craft and his choice to make all his own prints, shows a perfectionism and skill that is dying out as we become more enveloped by all that is digital. The other half of this magical union, is of course the trees, perennial plants that are essential to our ecosystem and the survival of most organisms. Trees are the true witness of time, the quiet story tellers who have seen it all. The Hyperion tree in California is our oldest recorded tree, having lived for more than 5,000 years. It was around during the time of the Ancient Egyptians, when Vikings were building vessels to conquer new lands and the world population was estimated at only 30 million people.
Venerated since time immemorial, trees mature slowly, with their roots deepening into the earth and their branches reaching to the sky. This concept is found in many of the world's religions. A tree links the underworld and the earth, and holds up the heavens. In the Bible creation story, the tree of life and the knowledge of good and evil was planted by God in the Garden of Eden. To the ancient Celts, trees were invaluable, used to create fuel, building materials, ornamental objects and weaponry. Buddha reached his enlightened state of being after sitting for 30 days under the Bodhi tree. The Oubangui people of West Africa plant a tree when a child is born. As the tree flourishes, so does the child. But, if the tree fails to thrive, the health of the child is considered at risk. When it lowers it is time for marriage. Gifts are left at the tree periodically and when the individual dies, their spirit is believed to live on in that tree.
Michael Kenna’s Philosopher’s Tree holds deep meaning today, a complex time for our Earth’s climate and many young people growing up in cities with little contact to the natural world. These photos remind us that nothing can replace trees, these majestic plants that know no borders and that consume only what they need and give back to us in the form of clean air amongst many other wonderful gifts.
We are honoured that Kenna will be making an appearance at the exhibition to sign books and partake in a Q+A session. His first solo show in Hong Kong since 2014, this will be a unique opportunity for people to meet the world renowned artist and see a selection from his extensive body of work covering trees around the world. Philosopher’s Tree is a personal journey into Kenna’s universe, his life-long conversations with trees and his celebration of their immense beauty.
Having less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world, rather than a big encyclopaedia that holds lots of information. I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels.
Michael Kenna was born in 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, England, just 12 miles from Liverpool. At the young age of 10 he felt a calling to a more ascetic life and his parents enrolled him at nearby St Joseph’s College, Upholland. This was a junior seminary school and Michael trained to be a Catholic priest until he was 18. Spirituality and meditation were important parts of his education. Reaching puberty age, Michael realised the life of a celibate priest was not his vocation. He continued his studies at the Banbury School of Art (1972-73) and finally graduated in photography at the London College of Printing (1973-1976).
In 1976 he first experienced the art gallery scene in New York and a few years later he moved from the UK to San Francisco where, for a while, he took any job he could to survive. However, he particularly enjoyed his years assisting the famous West Coast photographer Ruth Bernhard. Kenna spent numerous hours working with her and learning from her to perfect the craft of analogue printing.
A breakthrough happened in 1981 when he received the Imogen Cunningham Award and subsequently sold out a major exhibition at The Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco. Since then, there have been close to 400 solo exhibitions of Michael Kenna’s work in galleries and museums throughout the world. Kenna has had over 50 books published on his work and has won numerous awards including the “Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of Culture, France. His limited edition fine art photographic prints are in the permanent collections of such important institutions as the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., (USA), the National Museum of Modern Art, Paris, (France), the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, (England), the Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai, (China), the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo, (Japan) and many others.
Michael Kenna currently resides with his wife and family in Seattle, Washington, USA.