Kenneth Tanaka: The Architecture Of A Photograph

Kenneth Tanaka is a U.S. based photographer with a background in architecture. His work has been in numerous publications and exhibitions. He uses his photography to discover all the ambiguities, beauty, humor and discontinuities in the everyday world. Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe  conducted this interview.

Q: Hello, Kenneth! In the notes you sent me before this interview, I’ve read that you became drawn into photography mainly through your collegiate study of architecture. Do you think this still influences your photography?

A: Yes, I am certain that my architectural studies influence my photography in two ways. First, it certainly nominates some of the subjects that attract my eye and lens. As a student I recall finding it absurd that most fine architectural photography excluded people. So today I find myself attracted to scenes that place people within or against the context of interesting architectural form. Second, my training generally compels me to correct perspective distortions in my images.

Q: Sometimes the essence of your images is focused on graphism. Am I wrong?

A: I do often use graphical elements — windows, posts, shadow lines, etc. — as structural or organizational devices to compose frames. If I find opportunities to also use such elements for symbolic language value all the better, although that level of sophistication is not common for me to accomplish.

Q: And often I see you use minimalism. Is it part of your photographic language?

A: I greatly admire the work of photographers who can compose powerful images with just a few elements positioned and proportioned masterfully. The works of Ray K. Metzker and Harry Callahan, as examples of such skills, have long been important guiding standards for me. So yes, whenever I spot an opportunity to create a stronger image through reduction I enthusiastically explore it.

But unlike written language fewer elements are not always, or even usually, better for much imagery. For work such as my “Metropolitan” project I find that visually dense and complex images can be as delightfully efficient at conveying messages as a good collage. Such images can also reward deep and repeated viewing with new discoveries.

Consequently I find either extreme of composition, when well executed, to be equally impactful and delightful to view: the minimalist frame or the dense frame.

The feeling is that of a composition never random, with a calculated and careful research of the arrangement of the elements in the frame…how important it is for you the formal rigor?

As the photographer Jay Maisel is fond of exclaiming, the more you shoot the luckier you get. I’ve done much of my work in my home town of Chicago and in areas where I have photographed for years. So if some of my frames appear to be carefully calculated compositions I must confess that they each represent countless poor and incoherent frames from the same locations. Patience and familiarity is generally eventually rewarded. But, of course, the fresh eye is of great value, too. Two of the images accompanying this interview are from cities and/or locations that I encountering for the fist time. New eyes often note things that old eyes may ignore.

Formality of 2-dimentional composition is important to me insofar as I can use it as a framework for expression. Rigidly applied compositional formulae can easily become an image’s first, and an unwanted, message. Photography, even more than painting or drawing, is like cooking; you must decide what ingredients to include and to what proportions. Following that concept for me will generally drive my lens selections and the final compositions generally fall into place (or fall apart) almost by themselves.


Q: Why Leica Camera?

A: I’m a relative newcomer to Leica. I bought my first Leica, an M7, in 2004 on a bit of a whim to experience the Leica rangefinder gestalt, having never touched a 35mm rangefinder. The clarity and definition I saw on the -first roll- of film literally made me gasp. (Two frames from that first roll now hang in a local company’s lobby as part of their collection.) So I was hooked for life.

I use many different cameras for my work but my Leica M cameras and lenses remain special instruments to me because they are largely hand-crafted and because they require practice to use skillfully. The answer to “why” is more emotional than technical. Why do so many commercial pilots enjoy flying vintage planes on their off-days? The adventure of the journey can be as delightful and rewarding an experience as the destination. I find the Leica M journey delightful.

Q: What Leica camera are you using currently? And what lenses?

A: The M9 is the Leica I use most often. Although I still enjoy using my MP, I just don’t shoot much film any more.

For candid public shooting, I generally want my camera to be as small and light as possible. Towards that end, my most frequently used lenses are the Leica Summicron-M 35mm f/2 ASPH, the Leica Summarit-M 50mm f/2.5 and the Leica Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 ASPH for well-lit conditions. For indoor or dim conditions I will use the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH, the Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH (my first and favorite M lens) and my Leica Summilux-M 24mm f/1.4 ASPH.

Q: You are quite actively involved with the Art Institute of Chicago. Can you explain what work you do for them?

A: As a native Chicagoan, the Art Institute of Chicago has been part of my life since I was a boy in the 1960s. Today I am most actively involved with the Department of Photography and am a member of the Museum’s advisory committee on photography.

Q: Your project “Metropolitan” is devoted to capturing the impression of today’s contemporary downtown urban environment. At first sight, someone could define it as street photography. I am a street photographer and I don’t see your work near to the genre. Ok, the images are taken in the street, but your focus with the project is another.

A: Indeed, much of the photography for my “Metropolitan” project is done in urban streets but I do not pursue it as classic street photography. The goal of “street photography” is commonly to capture human moments in the streets. For “Metropolitan” the contexts of the scenes, with or without people, on streets or off, are my objective. The window washer shown here, for example, has long been a common urban sight around the world. The woman having an apparently contemplative moment while waiting for an elevated train at day’s end presents a personal perspective of relief amidst the context of a relentlessly dense urban setting. The scene from a downtown street in San Francisco anchored by a crane operator suggests the relentless visual noise of advertising and its never-ending succession of replacement and displacement in cities.

My concept with this project is not dissimilar to the manner in which a painter might use pointillism to create a deep and rich scene with single dots of paint. My images are my dots. Some are relatively simple, such as the window washer. Some, when seen in isolation from the project, certainly appear to be standard street images or even architectural. Still others are complex images dense with elements of declaration and inference. My objective is to use these dots to build a mosaic that portrays a rich time capsule of today’s metropolitan environment from facets ranging from factual documentation to emotional impressions.

Q: You have a new project devoted towards extending the concepts of the classic mid-century abstract expressionists (ex: Pollock, de Kooning, Mitchell, photographically by capturing natural and ad hoc scenes in visual congruence with the work of these painters. A project you said where Leica equipment seems especially well suited.

A: The magic of the mid-century abstract expressionist works is that they delivery art in a “U-Haul” manner. Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)”, for example, demands that the viewers provide their own sensory recollections to make the painting personally meaningful (i.e. to lend the painting a purpose and destination – U-Haul). Otherwise it’s just a mess. I find this endlessly fascinating.

For the past few years I’ve tried to capture natural (i.e. not constructed) scenes that offer viewers the opportunity to build personal meaning by bringing their own sensory memories and impressionistic seasonings to the image. The winter-dirty inverted car doors, for example, suggest a hazy winter forest to many viewers. I admit to the winter plants being a bit of a spoof of many ab-ex paintings.

Of course nearly any camera can capture such images adequately. But because Leica lenses can see with such tremendous resolution and tonal fidelity I find them especially well-suited for capturing as much information as possible in such scenes. This enables me to investigate many interpretive alternatives to create the final image.

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Kenneth’s website to see more of his work.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.