Paul Kenn y
Kenny’s beautiful abstract still-life images are created using found objects and a digital scanner. It’s important to develop new ways of making images, he tells David Clark
Abstract photographer Paul’s photography has evolved to include different techniques and objects over the years – he tells us how
What first sparked your interest in artistic expression? My father was an engineer and worked in a factory, but he was always doodling. His big ambition was for me to become a draughtsman: from his position that was the height of sophistication, so he encouraged me to do a lot of technical drawing. It went on from there. I’m probably the last person left on Earth who’s got an A-level in Geometric and Engineering Drawing.
You studied Fine Art at Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic – was
that where you got interested in photography?
It was probably the year before, when I did my foundation course at Salford Technical College. You do everything during that year, including etching, sculpture and photography. I went through my Fine Art course as a sort of sculptor. I also did some photography on the course. Fantastic magazines like
Creative Camera used to arrive every month, and I started getting interested in photography.
When did you start working in the landscape?
As I was brought up on a council estate in Salford, the landscape didn’t exist as far as I was concerned. But I met Margaret, who later became my wife, and she was a ruralist painter from Kent. She began to influence me, and we started to travel to places on the north-east coast, such as Bamburgh and Alnmouth.
Then around 1972, we visited the Isle of Skye. I didn’t know that such vast mountains and beautiful lochs
existed in our country. That one trip to Scotland really changed the focus of what I was trying to do with my work. What subjects did you photograph? In 1973, I visited a wall at Lonbain on the Applecross Peninsula in the north-west of Scotland. It was probably around 450 years old, and was made of beautiful round stones. They looked like planets to me, and I started to photograph them as if they were planetary objects – a complex circle in a black square. I photographed that wall for 23 years, and that motif, a circle in a black square, still recurs in my most recent work.
“One day, on a beach on the west coast of Ireland, I found a 7-Up bottle that had a message in it…I realised it was like a sort of diary, and every scratch was a record of something”
How did you get established as an artist?
After I finished my degree, I had a strong feeling you didn’t need to be an artist full-time, so I trained as a social worker and took a job near Preston. I ended up working in local government for 20 years. I really only took photographs during annual trips to Scotland, then would spend the rest of the year processing and printing those rolls of film during evenings and weekends.
After a while, I started to get some quite big exhibitions and people began writing about my work. In the end, I thought it might be possible to make a living out of it, and left my job.
What equipment did you use in those early years?
I started off with a Rolleiflex twinlens reflex, then got a Bronica 2 1/4 square camera, then later I moved to an MPP 5x4. I’ve always shot some pictures on location and others at my house, but never used hi-tech equipment. For example, in the mid-1990s I did a series on fallen leaves, which I called Leaving. I shot the leaves on a sheet of black velvet, using natural light from patio doors. I also used a couple of spotlights from Ikea for about £3.50 each.
In your ongoing Seaworks series, how do you choose which objects to photograph?
I started by bringing back the most beautiful pebbles or shells and photographing them. Later, I brought back more apparently insignificant and unprepossessing material. I’d walk along a beach, and at the end I’d just put two or three handfuls of what was at my feet in a carrier bag and try to make something out of it.
What was the most interesting thing you found?
One day, on a beach on the west coast of Ireland, I found a 7-Up bottle that had a message in it. It came from a school project from an island off Newfoundland, and had been in the sea for seven years. The bottle itself was amazing, covered with thousands and thousands of scratches. I realised it was like a sort of diary, and every scratch was a record of something – rubbing against a rock or barnacle or whatever. I held it up to the light, and wondered what would happen if I put part of it in an enlarger and made a print. My work until then had been
about man’s effect on the landscape, but this was the landscape’s effect on something man-made.
How did you start incorporating seawater into your images?
I started bringing back bottles of seawater back to wet things before I photographed them. Later I started to put it on my negatives and allowed it to dry so that crystals formed. I moved on to make constructions out of seaweed and dried seawater, and eventually plastic and other things I found on the beach. I put these constructions on a negative in the enlarger, shone a light through them and made prints.
What made you start making images with a digital scanner?
I did a year as an artist-in-residence at Lancaster University, and a scientist there said I’d get a better result if I scanned the objects. I had always been suspicious of digital. Everything I’d seen at that point was a bit disposable, and I wanted my prints to be precious and beautiful.
The film and developer I liked were discontinued and high-quality digital scanning came along, so I decided to abandon analogue photography and use a scanner.
How do you use your scanner?
I have an Epson V700, which has a light in the lid so you can scan as a negative or a positive and make
a digital file. I can control quite a lot to do with the look of the subject, using the Epson software, and programme that in before the scan takes place. I use the scanner in a very creative way. I might light an object from the top as well as underneath, or light things in a raking way with torches lying on their side. I also sometimes make a reservoir on the scanner with bath sealant, fill it with seawater, then scan objects in the water. I treat the scanners really badly and put huge stone or metal objects on them. I’ve been through four of them.
How do you select the objects you use in your images?
My favourite thing is to walk along the high tide line on the beach, which has all sorts of things in it: seaweed, old fisherman’s rope, bits of plastic and metal. I walk along and some things stand out more than others. I have boxes of things I’ve picked up. Later, I might combine them in an image or add sea water to change their colour or texture. Some pictures can take months to make and sometimes things just don’t work.
Have you done any recent work not connected with the sea?
In 2010, I went to Japan and saw the cherry blossom festival called O Hanami. The poetic translation of that term is ‘the celebration of transient beauty’. When I got back, I did a series titled O Hanami, celebrating things that are beautiful for a few moments or days like hawthorns, snake’s head fritillaries and foxgloves. I used the same techniques as my other stuff. I did it for a year and it was great. I still make them sometimes.
Is it important for you to keep doing new things in your work?
In the photography world, there’s a tendency for people to achieve something and then carry on making the same image. I think of my work as a kind of rope. In the early days the threads were thin and fibrous, and I had some ideas about landscape and beauty and nature.
Over the years other ideas have been added, so the rope has become quite thick, but you can still trace the threads of early photographs in my new work. I’ve prided myself on moving on and developing different ways of making images.
“I have boxes of things I’ve picked up. Later, I might combine them in an image or add sea water to change their colour or texture”
Opposite Iona Sun, 2010 Paul created this image using a jar lid and seawater collected on a beach on the Isle of Iona, Scotland.
Opposite Belderg Beach No. 7, Mayo, 2002 Made with seawater crystallised on a glass plate.
Above Harvest Moon Over Mayo, 2008 One of Paul’s earlier experiments in digital printing.
Left Mapping the Strandline, Sea, Metal, Plastic, 2016 From Paul’s Sea Works 5 series.
Top left Lonbain Wall 4, 1994 Paul returned to photograph the round stones in this ancient wall over a 23-year period.
Left 7-Up No 2, Mayo, 2007 Paul created this image using a soft drink bottle that had been in the sea for seven years.
Above In a Silent Way No.3, Elgol, Isle of Skye, 1998 From the series Water, Stone and Light.
Right Silver Leaf, After the Snow No 1, 2011 An image from Paul’s series O Hanami, inspired by the Japanese cherry blossom festival.