Michael Kenna Donates all of his work to France

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Don Heisz

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Let's assume he didn't make the decision in the dark. He likely discussed it with his family. Perhaps his children are secure enough to not need whatever limited amount of income his work is likely to generate in the future. Unlike Vivian Maier, he is established and doesn't have an interesting story to fuel the production and purchase of 20 million coffee table books. He probably expects that being responsible for his archive would be more of a headache than it's worth. And likely his kids already have their own lives and don't need the added responsibility. You can't make money from an archive unless you actually push it.
 

Alex Benjamin

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You can be sure that if he left it to a commercial enterprise, they would follow these things and try to make money from them creating much more notoriety and distribution to the world and people who would like to have samples of his work hanging in their homes

Really? How many people do you know who buy original prints by the great photographers to hang them in their home—apart form the traditional Ansel Adams Yosemite calendar, that is? I don't know any. I don't, and I love photography. I much prefer spending on a well-done, well-printed exhibition catalog from a museum that owns the prints or negs and whose mandate is to reproduce them perfectly and faithfully. That's how museums contribute to people appreciating and enjoying photography at home.
 
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Let's assume he didn't make the decision in the dark. He likely discussed it with his family. Perhaps his children are secure enough to not need whatever limited amount of income his work is likely to generate in the future. Unlike Vivian Maier, he is established and doesn't have an interesting story to fuel the production and purchase of 20 million coffee table books. He probably expects that being responsible for his archive would be more of a headache than it's worth. And likely his kids already have their own lives and don't need the added responsibility. You can't make money from an archive unless you actually push it.

That's a good point Don. Maybe there just wasn't enough commercial interest in his work. He couldn't find anyone who felt they could make enough money to do all the associate work. Let's face it. He isn't Prince or Bruce Springsteen. So he gave it to the museum.
 
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Really? How many people do you know who buy original prints by the great photographers to hang them in their home—apart form the traditional Ansel Adams Yosemite calendar, that is? I don't know any. I don't, and I love photography. I much prefer spending on a well-done, well-printed exhibition catalog from a museum that owns the prints or negs and whose mandate is to reproduce them perfectly and faithfully. That's how museums contribute to people appreciating and enjoying photography at home.

I was at the AIPAC show a few years ago and about five dealers were selling Adams's prints for $100,000 or so. Lot's of people would like to hang his work on their walls. Ansel Adams's work is worth so much because it's been sold commercially, not through any museum I'm aware of. Aren't there many good books sold with Ansel's photos? Why do you need a museum to do that?
 

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He couldn't find anyone who felt they could make enough money to do all the associate work.

As I said, it's not about the prints, it's about the negs. Museums are already equipped to preserve them forever in perfect condition. There isn't a single commercial enterprise that is. The cost of doing so would be astronomical and cancel any profit you'd think of making with the sale of prints.

It's not that he couldn't find a commercial enterprise to make a deal with, it's that it never would have crossed his mind—him or any photographer—to do so.
 

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five dealers were selling Adams's prints for $100,000 or so. Lot's of people would like to hang his work on their walls.

At that price, very few people could. So, basically, you're leaving the enjoyment of photography to an economic elite.

Ansel Adams is the perfect example of all that wrong about this logic. At the end of his life, he became more of a business rather than a photographer. And $100,000 for a print is pretty much a scam.

Interesting passage about all this in Mary Street Alinder's biography of Adams:

"The backbone of the Ansel Adams gallery’s inventory is its special edition prints, or SEPs, a selection of Ansel’s Yosemite images printed by an assistant as a high-quality souvenir. Measuring approximately eight by ten inches, each carries a stamp on the back of the mount identifying it as a Special Edition Print. Up until 1972, Ansel signed all prints and probably made most of them himself.

He shifted to simply initialing them when an assistant began to print all of them from 1972 to 1974. In 1974 he stopped initialing them. SEPs are worth but a fraction of what prints made and signed by Ansel himself bring; when articles appear touting the prices of Ansel’s original prints, many people get excited, mistakenly thinking they own one of these very valuable photographs rather than a much more common SEP.

Each print is made from the original negative. These are not investment pieces but enjoyment photographs. Alan Ross, who served as Ansel’s photographic assistant from 1974 to 1979, has printed all of the SEPs since 1975, a total of many tens of thousands, including some five hundred each year of Moon and Half Dome. This one aspect of the business has grossed impressive amounts."

 
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As I said, it's not about the prints, it's about the negs. Museums are already equipped to preserve them forever in perfect condition. There isn't a single commercial enterprise that is. The cost of doing so would be astronomical and cancel any profit you'd think of making with the sale of prints.

It's not that he couldn't find a commercial enterprise to make a deal with, it's that it never would have crossed his mind—him or any photographer—to do so.
Magnum represents photographers in life and afterward. I assume there are arrangements made that profits of some amount goes to their estate. Do you think the museum has a greater interest in distribution than Magnum? I'm sure there are others like them. Not every photographer can get into Magnum.

Also, Magnum has, in Paris of all places, The Magnum Photos Fonds de Dotation in Paris which focuses on the conservation and preservation of the Magnum archives and also has independent management and governance.

I guess without knowing all the details of Kenna's arrangement with the Museum, there's no way to know any way how all these things are being handled. I wish hi luck and success and a long life.
 
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At that price, very few people could. So, basically, you're leaving the enjoyment of photography to an economic elite.

Ansel Adams is the perfect example of all that wrong about this logic. At the end of his life, he became more of a business rather than a photographer. And $100,000 for a print is pretty much a scam.


Interesting passage about all this in Mary Street Alinder's biography of Adams:

"The backbone of the Ansel Adams gallery’s inventory is its special edition prints, or SEPs, a selection of Ansel’s Yosemite images printed by an assistant as a high-quality souvenir. Measuring approximately eight by ten inches, each carries a stamp on the back of the mount identifying it as a Special Edition Print. Up until 1972, Ansel signed all prints and probably made most of them himself.

He shifted to simply initialing them when an assistant began to print all of them from 1972 to 1974. In 1974 he stopped initialing them. SEPs are worth but a fraction of what prints made and signed by Ansel himself bring; when articles appear touting the prices of Ansel’s original prints, many people get excited, mistakenly thinking they own one of these very valuable photographs rather than a much more common SEP.

Each print is made from the original negative. These are not investment pieces but enjoyment photographs. Alan Ross, who served as Ansel’s photographic assistant from 1974 to 1979, has printed all of the SEPs since 1975, a total of many tens of thousands, including some five hundred each year of Moon and Half Dome. This one aspect of the business has grossed impressive amounts."

Alex, you ignored the fact that Ansel's pictures can be bought in books for a lot less. So can inferior copies, calendars, posters, etc. And today, they're all over the net.

Arguing that somehow photographers don't want to be tainted by profits like painters is not realistic. Ask their children. A John's painting just went for millions. (He's still alive.) Picasso, Rembrandts and others should just be passed around without cost? I don't understand your point. Photography is a business. Photographers of all groups shouldn't complain about profits. It's hard enough for them to make good money in life. Why would you deny their families after their death?
 

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Why would you deny their families after their death?

Why do you assume that Kenna's family has been denied anything? Where do you get that info?

And again, I'll repeat myself: there is no commercial business that has the means to store and preserve a lifetime of negatives. The cost of setting this up would be astronomical. Ansel Adams is an exception, essentially because the business side of it was set up long before he died.
 
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I’m glad to see the discussion here, I feel like this news has broad potential to impact the collection of his and other works.

My hunch is that work in current circulation is going to potentially skyrocket in price which is a pain because getting a Kenna original has been high on my list for some time.
 
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Why do you assume that Kenna's family has been denied anything? Where do you get that info?

And again, I'll repeat myself: there is no commercial business that has the means to store and preserve a lifetime of negatives. The cost of setting this up would be astronomical. Ansel Adams is an exception, essentially because the business side of it was set up long before he died.

It's an ego trip preserving all that Kenna stuff like 150,000 negatives. There are probably no more than 50 pictures that anyone else would want to see mounted on their walls. Probably a lot less. Who's going to even try to look at the other pictures much less print them for sale or for other reasons? Even Adams's pictures of value are limited. It's always the same Moonrise, Half Dome and a few others that people want to see.
 

TheFlyingCamera

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Really? How many people do you know who buy original prints by the great photographers to hang them in their home—apart form the traditional Ansel Adams Yosemite calendar, that is? I don't know any. I don't, and I love photography. I much prefer spending on a well-done, well-printed exhibition catalog from a museum that owns the prints or negs and whose mandate is to reproduce them perfectly and faithfully. That's how museums contribute to people appreciating and enjoying photography at home.

I have four prints by George Platt Lynes up on my wall... and a Karl Moon (you've probably never heard of him, but he photographed Native Americans at about the same time as Edward Curtis was working). I also have a Pirie Macdonald portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, and some other prints by more or less famous photographers. I couldn't care less about Ansel Adams prints or calendars. Yes, he was highly technically competent, and his works did carry an emotional resonance, but they don't interest me. I'd probably like him better if he were less famous. I'd much rather have a copy of Edward Weston's Pepper #30 (although an original is completely out of my budget these days). But yes, I do collect vintage prints by known photographers (and modern prints by living photographers too), and they get hung on the wall to display them.
 

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It's an ego trip preserving all that Kenna stuff like 150,000 negatives. There are probably no more than 50 pictures that anyone else would want to see mounted on their walls.

So, essentially, you'd prefer having a for-profit company chose the "50 best Kenna pictures", put them for sale cheap so people could hang them on their wall, and just burn the other 149,950 negatives because preserving them is "an ego trip" ?

You say you have the interest of his family in mind. How about asking them which of the two they would prefer? I'm betting the current museum option would smash the other one pretty handily.
 

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Michael Kenna is free to act as he wants and he certainly made a sound decision. Stating the opposite is quite insulting.
 

Alex Benjamin

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I couldn't care less about Ansel Adams prints or calendars.

Neither do I. And I'd love to have more original prints by photographers I love. I just decided to invest—a little too heavily, I must admit—in photo books, as I've always been inclined to collect rare books in general.
 

Don Heisz

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I'm amassing a collection of prints by Photrio photographers, by way of the exchanges. Does the person have to be famous for the photo to be worth having?
 
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Museums don't always provide the proper conditions for storage and archiving either. They let things slip as well.

I did some temperature control work many years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. When I got there to do the work, I noticed all sorts of famous paintings in "storage" just left around crated in the hallways in the basement with contractors, vehicles, and people going to and fro. No proper temperature and humidity control either. A minimum wage guard was watching that no one walked out with any of them.

Then I was hired to do a temperature and humidity control system for a new Art Storage Wing at the Brooklyn Museum which was second in NYC for Egyptian Antiquities after the Met. Unfortunately, they decided to reuse the existing external structure to save construction money. It didn't have a vapor barrier so humidity would go up and down. The archivists wanted to keep the interior at a constant 72F degrees and 50%RH relative humidity. It was impossible to do without a vapor barrier. So I wrote a program that allowed the temperature to fluctuate by up to 5 degrees above and below 72 degrees which would allow the humidity to stay constant at around 50%RH. They claimed humidity was more important. But the point is the environmental conditions were really not at optimal condition for archiving. Museums, like other places, have financing and staff problems that often are not optimum.
 

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Master Photographers on Their Art.​


Shellfish Walls, Chausey Islands, France, 2007.
Plane and Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2006.
Single Boat, Backwaters, Kerala, India, 2008.

I was the youngest of six children in a working-class Catholic family. There was no tradition of art among my family. I think I took pictures in my mind from when I was a child, but my first serious efforts weren’t made until much, much later. I initially chose photography for survival reasons. I wanted to be an artist but knew the possibilities in England at the time were very limited. Photography could be a means of expression as well as a way to make a living. It was a good choice for me. I have been able to survive since then doing what I love to do.

It is vitally important that I print my work. The darkroom has vast potential for creativity. There are so many technical and aesthetic decisions that need to be made when making a print, and I don’t want to delegate them. I know that if somebody made my prints they might be technically good, even better than my own, and perhaps more creatively interesting, but they wouldn’t be my interpretation. I find the time in the darkroom to be fascinating and inspirational. It informs and enriches the way that I see and therefore photograph.

I have experimented with formats and I used 35 mm pretty much exclusively for over ten years. The 120 square format seems perfect for me now. Technically, it gives me a good- sized negative that I can crop if needed, either horizontally or vertically. The grain is not too pronounced, so I can enlarge and print only a portion of the negative if I decide. Aesthetically, it is perhaps less obviously dynamic than other formats. It has a certain calmness that fits my current work quite well.

I spent seven years in a Catholic seminary boarding school. There was a lot of ritual and discipline, and something called magnum silentium, which is Latin for “great silence”. Each day there were extended periods when nobody talked. In retrospect, I was quite comfortable with that. In long distance running, which I enjoy, there is also discipline and long periods of solitary silence. And so, too, in photography.

I like to work with no time limits, nobody watching or asking questions, no phones or other interruption. When I go to a location, I don’t know if I will be there for five minutes or five days. Inspiration depends on the light, the atmos- phere, and what I react to. Being creative often means following a lead, working on half chances, half-thoughts, coming up to dead ends and re-tracking. Being creative for me often means photographing things in ways that might seem completely ordinary at the time but which may turn out to be extraordinary later. The inverse also happens. Creativity means being open, listening to what comes from within and without, which is very hard to do when you are looking at your watch, or having a conversation. It is important to be focused and concentrated, which for me usually means being solitary, quiet, and away from distractions.

The places I photograph are like friends. Currently, I am consistently photographing in China, France, India, Italy, Japan and Korea. Projects just seem to appear in my life. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about them. Sometimes I find it difficult to juggle and prioritize all the aspects of a life well lived. There are not enough minutes in a day or years in a lifetime to do everything that one would like to do. The possibilities are really endless. There is usually some sort of “critical-mass” event, a book publication or exhibition, which marks a certain point in the project. But I never like to think of them as being finished.I prefer to retain the option to return and re-photograph. I like what time does to subject matter.

The whole artistic process is satisfying. I love being out at odd times of day and night, experiencing the world in fascinating places, where I would want to be even if I wasn’t making photographs. I love travelling and all that comes with it. I intensely dislike processing film – and fortunately there are still excellent labs around. Seeing the first proofs is always exciting; editing, making work prints, then the challenge of making final prints, even retouching the first print, all these stages are enjoyable and immensely satisfying. Then there is the exhibiting, getting reactions from others, making books, et cetera. Photography is immensely challenging, with a good deal of work, but I am thrilled to be a part of it.

Imagine being out at night, alone, under starry skies, listening to silence, watching the world slowly move, all senses alive, thinking, imagining, dreaming. The camera records, creates, documents, sees what the eye cannot see – cumulative time. Imagine the sensation of being in the middle of a large field, as the snow falls on a single, exquisite tree – white all around, silent except for the soft sound of falling snow. Or, the crashing of angry waves, before dawn, against white sand, clouds in the sky, a glow on the horizon from the slowly wakening sun. Then call that “work”.

There are moments when things come together: conditions, place, subject matter, inner connections; moments that are sing- ular and special. It is a privilege to be present at such times and to have the possibility to integrate into the scene and subjectively interpret. It is an experience that defies description, at least from me. I think it is a wonderful way to go through life, and I am a very lucky person to have found this path.
 

MattKing

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I guess Alan doesn't have any of the coffee table books that Michael Kenna has already published. 😉
I'm particularly fond of his book of Holga images.:whistling:
Commercial entities sell prints - almost always from the photographer's "top ten" list.
Museums give the public and academics access to the life work of the photographer, and sometimes publish books and sell prints as well. They also show original work, which gives thousands the chance to see that work - often well displayed, with contextual information and other work. And they cooperate with other museums and galleries, to create and show travelling shows. As an example, in the last couple of years I got to see an excellent Cindy Sherman show that the Vancouver Art Gallery brought in - the curation was excellent, and it gave me a much greater appreciation for her work that I had never gotten from the books and internet examples I had seen previously.
And more and more, museums give people internet access to the work in their collection - thus expanding the public's opportunity to experience it (at least a bit).
 

jtk

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Note that Kenna knows why he does his "work."

It has nothing to do with archives.

Why do some of us insist on reducing it to finances? They believe money equals value.

Visiting New Mexico Archaeology Department I spent two hours last night with several Pueblo Indians (scholars, artists, leaders) ... they were talking/exploring the potential role of museums in their world. There's an old hostility to museums due to the rape museums/archaeologists/collectors et al have performed on them, but now they're tentatively on a new path in which the collections of those museums may offer their people to re-energize their tribal and personal lives. They're not entirely sure about this, but they taste a glimmer of something potentially important.
 

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Cool. There is no long-term guarentees, but if Kenna's work is to survive as long as our society does, then this is the best of news.

I have a decent chance of ending up with a print or two in someone's or some institution's collection. I'll most likely be dead, so won't sweat it. I'll give my boys a couple portfolios each and will probably toss the negatives in with the prints. Let them worry about it.
 

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To reinforce Matt's point, museums often can stage large retrospective shows of a photographer's work, culling not only from their own collections, but obtaining additional work from collectors and other museums. And often those shows will travel to other museums around the world, giving many more people the opportunity to see original work. A gallery cannot do that, and as a gallery is a business everything must be for sale. Just this last year, I went to the Robert Adams retrospective in Washington, D.C. Mr Adams has donated his archives to Yale University, yet there were many prints from his own personal collection, other museums and private collectors. I have been to wonderful, fairly comprehensive shows of Walker Evans work, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethrope, Sally Mann, etc.--all mounted by museums. A private foundation trying to make money from print sales might not put on such a show, since the average museum-goer does not have the money to purchase originals. Catalogs and monographs are fine, but once again you don't need a foundation to produce them. Diane Arbus' work was fiercely controlled by her daughter Doon, who was loathe to allow reproduction rights. It has since (in 2007) been donated to--you guessed it--a museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And you can still buy original prints from Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco.
 
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