A Study in Contrasts: The Black-and-White Landscapes of Bruce Barnbaum and Michael Kenna
With an inspired eye, darkroom finesse and a compelling reverence for the earth, two noted photographers skillfully create landscapes of non-reality. Both Michael Kenna and Bruce Barnbaum forge powerful visions of a black-and-white realm that our eyes never see in nature's color-saturated world. Yet, their artistry evokes depth and wonder, not illusion. Barnbaum's bold mountain scenes and Southwest canyons give viewers the sense of standing amid these magnificent landscapes, while Kenna's painterly fine-art images embrace time in a seemingly infinite moment.
Michael Kenna has photographed subjects as diverse as Waldorf School kindergarten toys, the giant heads of Easter Island and the sites of the Nazi death camps. Currently, he feels drawn to the open, snowy expanses of Hokkaido, Japan, where he vividly juxtaposes simple, human-made structures against the earth's fluid, natural lines. For example, he will isolate a lone row of trees or fencing as a graphic black pattern against white sky and hills. Originally trained in painting, he likens his Zen-like abstractions to haiku. His new book, "Hokkaido," will be published by Nazraeli Press in November; more of his work can be viewed at michaelkenna.com.
After 30 years of immersion in a black-and-white visual world, Kenna says that color photography holds little creative inspiration for him right now. "I don't like to photograph blue skies," admits the British-born Kenna, now a resident of Portland, Ore. "I prefer to go into hibernation in the darkroom."
Bruce Barnbaum, of Granite Falls, Wash., shoots mostly in black-and-white with a 4 x 5 and a Mamiya 645, and thinks that black-and-white provides greater expressive freedom than color. "Black-and-white affords much more leeway for personal interpretation," he says. "Color clamps more restrictions on you. With color, you have to have realistic skin tones, but they vary dramatically from a very white to a very dark person. If something's too magenta, it looks wrong. With color, grass and sky have to have certain color transitions. Black-and-white doesn't have those kinds of problems."Mysterious medium
In one Kenna photo, seven cooling towers rise eerily in silhouette toward a black sky, their tops obscured by ethereal white clouds. He has captured them at night, in still-life beauty, through an eight-hour time exposure. Oddly, the haunting image emits a natural, ancient aura, like ruins at Stonehenge. Yet by day, these bleak structures at Ratcliffe Power Station in Nottinghamshire, England, serve as ugly reminders of coal-fired industrial pollution.
The power of abstraction, the ability to see and create beauty beyond the mind of judgments and politics, not only informs the silent language of a gifted photographer but, in Kenna's view, contributes to the joy of creating parallel worlds in black and white. "I personally find black-and-white to be a more mysterious medium than color," Kenna says. "Black-and-white is more pliable and, therefore, for me, more interesting. It is immediately unreal. Photography does not have to be about making exact copies of the world. It can also be about the relationship/collaboration between a photographer and (the) subject."
When making images of the power station, a site that he has photographed repeatedly for almost 20 years, Kenna says that he easily could have taken a more militant, manipulative approach and made the towers look ugly. In his words, "That would have been using the already converted part of the mind. I prefer a point of view that's more neutral, objective and open to interpretation. That's part of the power of art and photography: to serve as a catalyst for one's imagination."
Photographing mostly in the winter, he relishes the drama and unpredictability of the night, when he can indulge himself in ever-changing skies, moving clouds and lightning storms. "It seems to me to be one of the most luxurious things in the world, to look at the stars and sky for a few hours," Kenna says. "Today's world is so fast-paced and chaotic, this is really a very nice pastime."
Most of his night exposures, using a 1980s-era Hasselblad medium-format "dinosaur," range from five to 30 minutes, although he has done some that last 10 to 12 hours. "I've put the camera out after sunset in winter, gone to bed, then put on the alarm to get up and release the shutter before sunrise," he says.
Kenna's black-and-white photography allows him to enhance visual polarities even further through high-contrast printing. He calls a negative "a starting point with immense potential for further creativity" and likens darkroom work to musical improvisation. "The more you play an instrument, the more you have control over it, and can go out on tangents and improvise," he says. "In photographic printing, you can experiment with light and dark, contrast, composition, cropping and much more. It is possible to go beyond the obvious first interpretation and find hidden subtleties. The negative is always open to personal interpretation. I find the printmaking aspect to be a very important continuation of the creative process."
When prompted to address the differences between photographing landscapes in color and black-and-white, Kenna offers no tips. Similarly, he shows little interest in discussing the technicalities of the craft or his camera equipment. "It's like asking a musician what guitar strings he uses." He adds, as if to underscore his point, "Most photography magazines take you in completely the wrong direction. They make it all about what camera you buy, what chemicals you use. For the most part, it really doesn't matter."
For Kenna, it's all about process: flow, not force. He refuses to pre-visualize any landscape and instead remains open to what it might share, seeking silent permission with a deep sense of connectedness. "The landscape does tend to unfold and come toward you in collaboration and relationship," he says. "We are all part of one large organism, so it makes complete rational and logical sense. It's an exchange of energy." In his view, many photographers take a paparazzi approach to natural subjects, applying a sense of control and pursuit rather than humility.
Beauty of the unreal
Like Kenna, Barnbaum has a heartfelt love and respect for the natural environment. Its "unspeakable beauty, sheer power and sublime tranquility" motivated him to become a photographer 30 years ago, as he explains on his website, barnbaum.com.
From his 20-acre home at the foot of the Cascade Range, Barnbaum travels to record scenic riches around the world, from Utah's Escalante Canyons and the American Southwest to Tuscany and Canada's east coast. Regardless of location, he has conveyed nature in engaging black-and-white complexity: Darkness and light dance on canyon walls that swirl and curve like liquid fingers; intricate, patterned lines of sand sweep across a dune; striped ridges of rock twist and bend like streams. "I like the image itself to have a sense of beauty," he says.
He uses Ansel Adams' famous print "Moonrise over Hernandez" as an example of how black-and-white photography can abstract an image into non-reality, creating a rich parallel world that our eyes never see. "That sky could not translate that way into a color photo," he says. "The white skies, even on the image, seem to be completely real, but it's absolutely abstract. This is an example of how far from reality you can go. Ansel intensified the bottom half of the photo and used reversed tonalities. In the final version, the sky is black and the ground is quite light. That scene never existed, yet it's taken as life and reality. You can't do that with color."
How does Barnbaum decide whether to shoot a landscape in color or black and white? "I always consider whether the color in any scene adds, subtracts or is neutral to the meaning of the image," he says. "If it subtracts or is neutral, I shoot in black and white. If the color adds — for example, if leaving it out would reduce the impact or value of the image — then I shoot in color."
Since he favors black-and-white, he admits that he probably does not adequately consider, at times, the value of color to a scene. He adds: "It's also likely that I don't actively seek color images as much as I should, or would, if my chief goal was finding color images."
In today's digital color world, manipulating an image has grown commonplace. Thanks to Photoshop, shooters can eliminate unwanted telephone poles or background debris or even add extra animals to herds, if desired. Not surprisingly, Barnbaum decries what he calls "digital abuse" by photographers who are careless with composition. "After a while, they stop seeing a lot of problems and think they can deal with that later."
As a medium, digital imaging also encourages people to approach photography from an attitude of convenience rather than dedicated or driven self-expression, Barnbaum says. "Digital is not my cup of tea," he says, although he admits that it has its place. Still, he refuses to take a polarized stance of traditionalist versus digital. In fact, he regularly co-hosts photography workshops with digital instructors.
Where does Kenna stand on the current digital phenomenon? "You can't stop technology," he says, "but it does, finally, sever photography's ties to reality. That inherent connection to reality was part of its power."
Kenna compares the digital revolution in photography to the current pop music scene. "Everybody seems to be digitally corrected, so there are perfect voices, always in tune," he says. "Underneath it all, I have a lurking feeling that it's not real. With older music, particularly in a live performance, there's a certain edge, precisely because of the mistakes and the imperfections. Obviously, the digital age also has ushered in a whole new area for creativity, for which we should all be very excited. I'll only complain if it makes all silver materials obsolete."
Of math and music
Analogies between music and photography enter conversation several times with both Kenna and Barnbaum. For instance, when explaining why he prints almost exclusively in 16 x 20 format, Barnbaum draws a musical parallel: "Some pieces are written for a string quartet and some for orchestra. When you go away from that scale, it just doesn't work."
A classical music enthusiast, Barnbaum almost always listens to music while in the darkroom. "Sometimes I listen to every note, sometimes I float in and out. Music has had a very important influence on me."
Kenna, in contrast, prefers 8 x 8 prints, which invite more intimacy from the viewer. He also prefers rock 'n' roll, or books on tape, for his darkroom concentration. Barnbaum has combined 90 of his photos with the music of classical pianist Judith Cohen to produce "Tone Poems, Book 1," published by Photographic Arts Editions. It's the first book in a series of, as Barnbaum puts it, "nine photographic opuses." His latest in the series, "Tone Poems, Book 2," which will be published this August, will contain a compact disc of Cohen's music. The series will continue in the future with "Book 3,"which will include two sections, "Worlds Within Reach" and "Power and Poetry of the Planet," and then "Book 4, The Hand of Man."
An affinity for mathematics also has shaped the photographic eye of both. Barnbaum holds a master's degree in mathematics from UCLA, while math and arts held Kenna's strongest interests as a boy.
"My mathematical mind was always there," Barnbaum says. "I saw the canyons in Arizona as force fields, in terms of mathematics and physics, as subatomic and cosmological, the smallest and largest elements of the universe. That continues to be of great interest to me. I find it fascinating." Math has given him a practical side, too. "It was a great help in understanding the Zone System," he adds.
"When photographing, I try to see my subject matter as an abstract arrangement of shapes," Kenna says. "Structure, composition, horizons and verticals all play very important roles in my work."
A fine-art photographer who exhibits globally, Kenna chooses to take on only two or three commercial jobs a year to boost his income. He says of his commercial work, "I don't have any pretensions that I'm producing highly creative artwork. I'm a hired gun, being commissioned for my particular way of seeing, and for my experience."
In the fine-art realm, he has gallery representation in Australia, England, France, Japan and Korea, plus 10 locations in the United States, including Boston, New York City, Seattle and San Francisco. This year, he has 15 one-person exhibitions scheduled, in such cities as London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Seoul. His work also will be included in 10 group shows.
Barnbaum, meanwhile, defines himself as an environmentalist and motivator, as well as a photographer. He finds himself drawn to speak out against George W. Bush's "dangerous" regime and logging companies that threaten the destruction of forests. He has used a stark photograph of a 14-foot cedar stump surrounded by skinny hemlocks to spur questions and dialogue among his photography students.
Despite having photographed clearcut land, Barnbaum says that he does not use his images for activism. He saves his pen for that, writing angry letters to the editor and a critical paper on U.S. forestry practices. "I think that human beings have the knowledge to do the right thing, but not the wisdom to do it," he says, adding that, lately, his photographic quest has grown more pessimistic, touching on the uglier "shadow side" of reality.
Yet both Barnbaum and Kenna still celebrate the process of their craft.
"The activity of photography is so wonderful and fascinating that the end result is not always important," Kenna says. "It's living a life, wandering around in the middle of the night, in lightning storms or clear skies, experiencing natural phenomena in all their complexity and magnificence. It's the ‘being there' that is so amazing."
"Photography and the amazing beauty of this planet," Barnbaum adds, "are what keep me reasonably sane and happy."