Huangshan by Michael Kenna
Michael Kenna is internationally known for his photographs at the water's edge. His use of ultra-long exposures has defined a genre of photography that is — if our LensWork submissions are any indication — the single most copied photographic stylization in the history of photography. Or so it seems. Lots of people do it, but no one does it better than Kenna.
And therein lies one of the problems of photography.
It is so easy for a photographer to get pigeonholed. Kenna is known for those water photographs, but his creativity extends far beyond a single kind of photographic style. Pick up most any magazine that publishes Michael Kenna's work and you are very likely to find those water's edge images. This is precisely why we were motivated to publish something else.
In fact, almost as a policy, we go out of our way to demonstrate the breadth of creativity in those who are most easily stereotyped. We first published Michael Kenna in LensWork #50 with a body of work he'd done in a shuttered Calais lace factory. In LensWork #92, we publish his work from the Huangshan mountains in China. These two portfolios demonstrate clearly that it is a terrible disservice to think of a truly creative individual in terms of their most famous work. Kenna's water work is terrific, but his talent and vision are far greater than that.
Being pigeonholed is a problem that is not limited to well-known photographers. I would bet that every one of you reading this has a number of different projects that use different styles, different formats, different visions and completion — but that to your circle of friends and extended audience you're probably best known for a single body of work. Cherie Hiser once put succinctly when she said, "Photographers make thousands of exposures, produce a few hundred prints, have a couple dozen published, a few that sell well, and are famous for one." I suppose that's true, but I find it a shame that so much work is overlooked because it doesn't fit the narrow categorical definitions we assign as the photographer's "style."
I'm often asked by naïve, young photographers how to establish a style that will help them stand out above the crowd. I try to explain to them that nothing could be worse for their career than to succeed in their search for an identifiable style. Once you are well-known for a single kind of imagery, just try to convince a gallery to let you show something else, something new, something different. Mark Twain pointed this out in a related way when he advised that banks are only willing to lend you money when you can prove you don't need it. Similarly, galleries and publishers are often most willing to give you an exhibition or publication if they can ride your coattails of success — with the style of images you are already famous for. My advice is to push hard early in one's career to be sure you develop a reputation for creative vision and excellence rather than for a specific style that will easily become an albatross you drag around for the rest of your creative life. If you're lucky and talented, perhaps that albatross will be something wonderful like Kenna's water work, but there's no guarantee.
The portfolio can be seen in its entirety in our back issues — print (while still available) and our PDFs for computer, iPad, Android, and other devices. Plus, bonus audio commentary about this image is available to members of LensWork Online.
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