PHO703: Michael Kenna

In trying to educate myself a bit more about black and white photography, I have been much enjoying the work of the photographer Michael Kenna, a real find (Kenna 2020). Kenna seems best known as a landscape photographer but that is not what interests me about his practice – and besides, long-exposure minimalist images of trees and snowfields, for example, which are something of a Kenna speciality, have long become an internet meme and therefore a cliché.

What I like about Kenna’s practice are these:

First, I think his series called the Rouge, after the old Ford car plant of the same name in Michigan, is quite amazing (Kenna 1995). Kenna has some equally impressive sequences of other big industrial sites like power stations. This is the modern sublime, the expression of the huge, transcendent power of the machine and the modern world but taken at the exact moment these old industries were changing, so imbued with time and history. Kenna’s understanding of scale (these sites are enormous), composition, contrast and tonality (and how to use tonality to create depth-of-field effects) strike me as masterful. I took one look and thought: I really would like to be able to do that.

Michael Kenna 1995. The Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 1: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 2: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 2: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.

Second, I like Kenna’s emphasis on the power of suggestion:

‘I try to photograph what’s both visible and also invisible but sensed, memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what’s actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn’t sad to me; it’s a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It’s a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging’ (Sawalich 2011).

Kenna elaborates elsewhere on the play between the visible and invisible, presence and absence. In fact, these are rather a trope in night photography and much used by, for example, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg.

‘I do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come out. There is anticipation … The actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens in that interval of time that interests me’ (Baskerville 1995).

This articulates what I have been trying to do. There is little more dull than being buttonholed by something, even if a photograph. Like all art, photographs work, I think, by giving the viewer the space to create their own stories out of what they see and experience. Looking is active, not passive. This is why shadows and the dark are so important in night photography. It is not just to create an air of noir spookiness. It is to create space for the viewer’s imagination to come into play.

Third, Kenna has some helpful ideas about both black and white and night photography. He considers black and white ‘immediately more mysterious than colour because we see In colour all the time. It is quieter than colour’ (McElhearn 2019). And the loss of colour means ‘less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world’ (Light & Land 2019).

‘I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels’ (Light & Land 2019).

Finally, Kenna is refreshingly frank about night photography:

‘It is important to understand that night photography is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there are strong shadows; with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes merges night into day – certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!’ (Baskerville 1995).

This is potent: an inexact, unpredictable and subjective pursuit, one with great potential for creativity but photographically one which also requires very careful handling (because it is in black and white) and attention to composition and tonality. And it can only work effectively by suggestion and allusion. Try to be insistent and you will ruin the atmosphere. Cumulatively, these ideas can be seen in Kenna’s many images from France – urban photography not dissimilar from some of my own territory here in Oxford.

Fig. 3: Michael Kenna 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France.
Fig. 3: Michael Kenna 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France.
Fig. 4: Michael Kenna n.d. France.
Fig. 4: Michael Kenna 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France.

I am so glad to have found Michael Kenna’s practice. It is not mine, and there is no point in simply emulating another’s work. I like rougher, sharper social edges, for example. But as a set of ideas to work towards, this is a real challenge and I hope to take it up.

References

BASKERVILLE, Tim. 1995. ‘Interview with Michael Kenna’. The Nocturnes [online]. Available at: http://www.thenocturnes.com/resources/kenna.html [accessed 28 Jul 2020]

KENNA, Michael. 2020. ‘Michael Kenna’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/index2.php [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

KENNA, Michael. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.

LIGHT & LAND. 2019. ‘Michael Kenna Interview: Curiosity Is Important’. Light & Land [online]. Available at: https://www.lightandland.co.uk/blog/view/michael-kenna-interview [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

McELHEARN, Kirk. 2019. ‘The Semiotics of Black and White Photographs’. Kirkville [online]. Available at: https://kirkville.com/the-semiotics-of-black-and-white-photographs/ [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

SAWALICH, William. 2011. ‘Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory’. Digital Photo Pro [online]. Available at: https://www.digitalphotopro.com/profiles/michael-kenna-the-photograph-as-sense-memory/ [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]

Figures

Figure 1. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 2. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 3. Michael KENNA. 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Mont St Michel’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=9 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Figure 4. Michael KENNA. 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Le Notre’s Gardens’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=31 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]