Interview with Michael Kahn
#1 Please introduce yourself.
My name is Michael Kahn and I work in black and white photography. I have always loved nature, especially the water. I grew up, and still live, in the beautiful Chester County of Southern Pennsylvania. I spent my childhood exploring my environment: hiking, looking for streams and fish, camping outside and falling asleep under the stars. My family spent the summers in North Carolina and in Maine, where I learned to sail and fish.
#2 How did you get interested in photography?
My mother gave me a 35mm film camera when I was 13 years old. I was introduced to black and white photography and the traditional darkroom when I was in school. Directly out of high school I went to work in a commercial studio.
#3 Do you have an artistic/photographic background?
I did advertising and portrait work before I started to take freelance assignments for lifestyle magazines. In 1988, I started a two-year long project to compile a book on the Brandywine River. With an old 4×5 view camera and one German lens that I purchased at a poker game one Christmas eve, I began to record the people, architecture and landscape of this historical valley. I traced the River from its source in the Amish country of southeastern Pennsylvania to its confluence with the Delaware River in northern Delaware. The river is rich with early American history and is home to the Brandywine School of Art, predominated by the Wyeth family of painters.
I learned black and white photography as I went along. Looking back, I realize how little I knew until then.
The Brandywine book was released in 1990 and sold well and is now out of print. I started work as a freelance photographer after the book was released. And I went exploring: in 1994, I went to New Mexico and set out to photograph the landscape. I remember the air being clearer than I have ever seen. The land was foreign and foreboding. I climbed the mesas overlooking the desert and sat on the top of the ridges for hours to watch the thunderstorms march across the great land. Sheets of purple rain would pour out of the giant nimbus clouds and strands of golden light would illuminate small areas in the massive landscape. In 1995, I went to Point Lobos, California. For three days I slept on the ground near the reserve and spent all my daylight hours climbing and crawling, stepping lightly around the wild flowers to set up the tripod and record this incredible place. Later that year, I was invited to a lake in the Adirondack Mountains, New York. In the evening, the fog would settle on the water. By the time I would take my hand-made wooden rowboat out, the fog would be gently lifting. One day, in the mist of the coming morning, I came across a boat so unusual and beautiful in design that I felt compelled to photograph her (this was my image Bow of the Idem). Hours later, the serenity of the morning shot was long forgotten, but the image was still there. I came home and didn’t know what to do with the portfolio. I did some research and learned an old recipe for sepia-toning the photographs that I had taken that day. After working in the darkroom and testing the new technique, I came up with a selection that I sent to the magazine Adirondack Life. Not long after, they contacted me and ending up running a six-page spread of these images. This was the beginning of my nautical photography career.
The public response to this portfolio was tremendous, so I began looking for more wooden sailboats. I came to Maine because that was where I found them. I started shooting schooners and Friendship sloops, then dories and seascapes. I have spent a lot of time in Maine and Martha’s Vineyard, as well as photographing big sailing regattas in France, England, and Antigua. In 2004, I released a book of sailing photographs, called The Spirit of Sailing. Since then I have continued in my classical tradition of sailboats and seascapes using my 1960’s Hasselblad camera.
#4 Which artist/photographer inspired your art?
Ansel Adams for the technical aspects; Wynn Bullock for the creative aspects. And, of course, Rosenfeld for his sailing photographs. I am exploring and learning about contemporary photographers as well, and have found inspiration in many of them, including Paul Caponigro.
#5 How much preparation do you put into taking a photograph? Are you planning every step or is it always spontaneous?
The preparation depends on what I am attempting to photograph. If I am going to a large sailing regatta in St. Tropez or the Isle of Wright, for example, then a fair amount of preparation is needed, mostly logistically: plane, boat, place to stay, access to where I need to be. The rest is just fun, being on a boat chasing around the biggest and most beautiful yachts in the world. For other situations, all I have to do is be there on time, to the intersection where the photograph appears. Place is not as important as the elements, including fog, sun, time of day, time of year, what is in the surroundings naturally and what is put there by man, whether I include a person or not, whether a bird comes into the shot, and so on. Nature does the preparation for me; I am just there to record her silent mystery.
#6 What fascinates you in places that you shoot?
Without exaggerating, I have to admit that the entire planet is absolutely gorgeous. I just have to be open and listen to the situation; feel what is going on around me. It doesn’t matter where I am, what matters is that I see and then project these images to others that they may have missed. Every place is different, each place has its own energy, its own beauty.
#7 We can see your photographs only in black and white, why have you chosen to present them in this form?
My art is created using composition and tonal relationship. The strength of the image lies in these fundamental components: line and light. Shape and tone equals impact; impact equals emotion, which in turn equals art.
#8 Could you please tell us something about your technique and creating process?
I use a medium-format camera, and print traditionally in my darkroom on silver gelatin, light-sensitive paper. I work very simply. Many times I use just one camera, one lens; I don’t always have my light meter handy, and I only use a tripod when I have the time. I keep the process simple so I can respond when required and not get bogged down with thinking. I work emotionally, responding as needed.
All the preparation, the film, the camera, the location enables me to quietly witness a phenomenon as it unfolds, to simply be an observer. I make a few notes, like the name of the place and how I think I should process the film, and I work toward bringing my emotional response to the final print. I actually see the final print in my head when I am taking the photograph, I see the tonal relationships and the contrast, and all of this combines to create a certain mood. If the photograph is successful then the viewer responds emotionally the way I did when I witnessed the happening unfold.
#9 Could you tell our readers how to reach such excellent results in photography?
Knowledge of your tools.
Knowledge of yourself and of what you are responding to.
Solid knowledge of the basic techniques that are needed to produce your vision on paper.
#10 What do you do in your life besides photography?
I love nature and everything in it. I enjoy fishing, sailing, rowing, bike riding, walking, working in my garden, swimming, skiing, practicing yoga, reading. I enjoy being with my girlfriend and my three cats. I am very lucky… my life is wonderfully full.
#11 What future plans do you have? What projects would you like to accomplish?
My life is an on-going project. I am continuing to learn who I am and therefore continuing to learn how to respond to this incredible world in an artistic and ethical manner.
Michael Kahn Official Website: