Michael Kahn Photography: Connecting with an Inner Passion

A Conversation with the Photographer & Sailboat Enthusiast

Three Dories, Photography by Michael Kahn

If ‘thought is the wind, knowledge the sail, and mankind the vessel’ Michael Kahn has surely caught the wind and set forth his sail to explore, dream and discover the ebb and flows of life. The protagonists of his play reveal their characters in the contrast of light and darkness.

Through his black and white photography the boats, the marine scenery soaking in the light and sometimes the dearth of it, all become unified in a grand scheme of things. And the masterful story-teller from Southern Pennsylvania continues on his journey for the next sparkle on the wave, however far from shore may it be.

Armed with your 1950’s camera and darkroom techniques, you successfully traverse the rough waters of nautical photography capturing the subtleties of fine art and nature photography. Why this conscious choice of hearkening back to an era in the long past in terms of equipment and how does it complement your artistic milieu?

After completing high school in 1978, I went to work at a photographic portrait studio. The cameras we used were basic mechanical Hasselblads; solid, rugged Swiss cameras with superb German lenses. They had no electrical components and used a square 6×6 cm film format. Occasionally we used smaller cameras, but I immediately recognized them as producing a lower quality image when it came to enlargement.

We also used larger cameras, 4×5˝ and 8×10˝, but while these large format cameras produced superior images, they were awkward and slow to use in the field. Several years after I began my apprenticeship at the portrait studio, the owner decided to change his business model and become a commercial/advertising photographer.

I learned how to shoot for advertising clients by doing product stills of food, automobiles and jewellery along with location work for annual reports. During this transformation, we continued to use the same larger cameras, with the addition of more powerful lighting. We switched to colour transparency film for the reproduction process.

Being from before the digital age, we used Polaroids to fine tune the composition and lighting. The colour ‘slide’ film was very narrow in its exposure range, so we had to be extremely technical in our lighting and contrast control. Through all of this training, I became extremely confident and comfortable using these mechanical cameras, to the point that their use became second nature to me.

I no longer had to think about the camera and this allowed me to use them quickly and fluidly. Naturally, I stayed with the Hasselblads when I began filming sailing. I remember the first time I appeared at a world class sailing regatta (Antigua Classics, 1998).

All of the professional photographers were using high-speed, motor driven, auto-focus, auto-exposure, 35 mm film cameras. Around that time, they were just beginning to experiment with digital cameras. They smiled at me and my gear, and I instantly felt out of place.

Not long after that, they all switched to digital cameras. And at the same time, my photographs from that regatta and further years quickly gave me a foothold in the marine photography marketplace.

While I was using different equipment from them, I came to the market with a strong knowledge of sailing and knew when the boats looked their best. I had the finest training in film handling and printing in black and white. Years before, I published a book on my black and white landscape photography.

American Beauty, Photography by Michael Kahn
American Beauty

The choice of shooting in black and white, was for me, no choice at all. Color photography was ‘too real’ and did not offer me the creative expression I needed to produce a truly powerful image. Some of the boats I capture were built or designed over 100 years ago, and so I decided to imitate the style from that same period.

Using a medium format camera for my seascapes allows me good resolution while being able to work quickly with the ever-changing natural lighting. Again, the simplicity of the equipment allows me to respond intuitively and emotionally to the scene. The square format allows me multiple options for composition as there is no decision making needed here: I balance the scene within the square and shoot.

What kindled your passion for photographing seascapes and sailing vessels? Within the vastness of the ocean and its awe-inspiring beauty what enthrals you most?

I never made a conscious decision to become a sailing photographer. It happened serendipitously. I was vacationing on a lake in the Adirondack Region of New York state and came across a small fleet of unusual, antique sailboats. Over the next week, I photographed them sailing and resting on their moorings. The boats were over 100 years old, so I created an antique look to the black and white prints in my darkroom. I sent the portfolio to a regional magazine, and they published six pages of the images. One of the photographs was eventually published by the largest poster publisher in the world and soon after became their best seller. After that, I began to actively search out historic sailboats and continued creating images in this style.

I have sailed since childhood and still consider sailing a favourite pastime.

Family, Photography by Michael Kahn

The seascapes were a natural extension of the portfolio. I love the ocean. As a child, I grew up spending summer vacations by the sea and have been drawn to ocean and boats ever since. There is such a duality to the sea. One day it is calm, colourful and inviting. The next day, it is dark, grey, and stormy.

I find all the moods and changes are very stimulating, and yet at the same time, the openness and the views are relaxing. Ever since I can remember, I have been infatuated with the sea. I swam, sailed, fished and collected shells and sharks teeth that had washed up on the sand. I hid in the dunes and marvelled at the treasures the water and wind revealed, then covered again.

It is this constant evolution, this perpetual change that draws me to the water again and again. Heraclitus said ‘you can never step into the same river twice’. This is true for the shore: it is always in a state of flux. In this energy, I realize that I am one and the same with the ocean: calm when she is calm, exhilarated when she is exhilarated.

Classic Regatta, Photography by Michael KahnMariette, Photography by Michael Kahn

The sailing vessel is shaped of wood, to float on water, with sails of canvas to catch the wind, ropes of hemp and spars of spruce ballasted with stones, iron or lead, with fastenings forged of bronze. They are made from nature to work with nature.

The sailing vessel is man’s answer to the sea. In his longing to traverse and transport, to expand himself, he needed a boat that could carry him across the ocean to new lands. To find out if the world was flat. The boats were primitive at first, but eventually, the designs evolved to work well with nature.

The designs matured to withstand the ever-moving ocean, and to harness the powers of wind, to move quickly and efficiently across vast distances. The very nature of this task inevitably led to some of the most beautiful and artistic designs that man has ever created.

In order to work well in nature, and to use the power of nature, the designs were inherently beautiful. Robert N. Rose wrote, ‘Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made.’

Not only are these ships lovely to behold, they are wonderful to be aboard; whether ghosting along on mirror-like water with just a cat’s-paw of wind or charging over large trade wind swells in sapphire blue, bottomless water, sailing stirs my soul and I will never grow tired of its enchantment.

Photography is as much about ‘forethought’ as it is about ‘afterthought’ if not more. How much of this is true in your photographic pursuits?

Forethought is everything: from deciding what to photograph, to place yourself in the right position. Nothing replaces the basic fact that you have to be there, projecting yourself into the future to be ready for the now.

Spinnaker Wild Horses, Photography by Michael KahnThe Bowman, Photography by Michael Kahn

Your photography focuses on the core elements of line, form, tonal composition and relationship. In your eyes how do these come together to successfully transfer the ‘moment’ to a photographic plate?

Photographs themselves being what they are: a moment in time, frozen, one five-hundredth of a second, a simple fraction of what we consider ‘time’ is a fascinating concept. A concept that, for me, means I must respond instinctively, I must feel when the moment is right. I cannot stare at the LCD screen on the back of a camera, wondering if I got the shot. I have to know inside myself that this is right. Light, form, line, composition are all part of this knowledge.

‘Balance’ is an important concept in photography and especially in yours. In the two decades or so that you have been associated with it how has the ‘balance’ shifted?

Balance in a photograph is hugely important to me. Light and darkness, contrast and composition all equate to balance. Balance, or lack of balance, creates the mood, in turn inciting the emotional response of the viewer. Over the years, I have become more aware of balance and how important it is to the success of a photograph. Early on, I used instinct with a bit of luck, but luck will only carry you so far. You have to refine your sense of balance and listen to yourself. You have to know when it is there or not there; no amount of effort can make a balance. Balance just is.

Bow of the Idem, Photography by Michael Kahn
Bow of the Idem

Of all your projects thus far do you have any personal favourite? If you were asked to share any advice for those daring to pursue their dreams what would it be?

My favourite project so far was my first boat portfolio that I mentioned above. I enjoyed the serendipitous collision of two passions, sailing and photography. Coming from a deep place inside of me, I meshed together camera and subject and made lasting art.

If you sit still often enough, and long enough, to hear what is deep inside of you (not what is happening around you) you can focus on what you truly love. Good things will come from there. Try to find your Dharma, ‘that which upholds you’.

Do the work: Sharpen your skills, both externally at your craft, and internally at listening to yourself. When you are ready, you will discover how to focus your skills, connect with your inner passion and from there art can be created.

Portrait of Michael Kahn

Michael Kahn enjoys…

As a child Michael loved being outdoors, hiking, looking for streams and fish, camping outside and falling asleep under the stars. The little child inside the grown up that he is today, Michael yearns for rowing, fishing, sailing, biking and his passion for photography lets him do all of these and more.

Find more of his work at his webiste.

Image Courtesy: Michael Kahn