Michael Kenna: The Evidence of Humanity

Homage to Michael Kenna, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy, 2007 - Steve Middlehurst

Homage to Michael Kenna, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy, 2007 – Steve Middlehurst

In her essay Something and Nothing (1) Charlotte Cotton considers a number of contemporary photographers who have investigated the evidence of humanity through uninhabited city and landscapes. This is an area of photography that is rich in examples, I have already discussed Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary (here) and Sarah Pickering’s Public Order (here) who have worked in man-made environments that mimic reality and now want to look at Michael Kenna to explore this theme in the context of fine art landscape.

Kenna has achieved significant success in the book and fine art print markets but his work is often criticised for being “overly romantic or atmospheric” (2) and for the inclusion of pictorial elements or for, what might be called, a painterly approach. This leads some critics to suggest that his typically formal minimalistic approach, which indeed has the tendency to remove detail and imperfections from the landscape, takes precedence over any socio-political meaning or conceptual challenge. These arguments have merit but whether we wish to read his landscapes as nothing more than aesthetically appealing abstractions or as a long investigation into the margins between the natural and man-made environment or even the fictionalisation of reality it is hard to be ambivalent about his carefully composed and exquisitely printed photographs.

Not for the first time I find myself in agreement with Bill Jay:

“The reason I like Michael’s photos is because they’re antithetical to the unemotional, deadpan work of his contemporaries. He’s a pictorialist, in the modern sense of someone who creates pictures with real feeling.” (5)

Fifteen Poles, Yamanaka Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2001 - Michael Kenna

Fifteen Poles, Yamanaka Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2001 – Michael Kenna

The abstraction in his work makes his interest in the traces of people less obvious than the approach of say Win Wenders whose uninhabited landscapes usually have a more direct reference to human intervention. In Kenna’s case he sees the landscape as an empty theatre:

“I prefer to photograph the stage before the characters appear, and after they leave. At those times, there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation in the air”. (3)

Although he sometimes photographs pure, natural landscapes his stage is often located where the natural world is juxtaposed with man-made structures but this regularly features an ambiguous trace of human intervention. Fifteen Poles is typical of this type of work, posts and poles in lakes or snow are repetitive motifs across his portfolio, the viewer is drawn first to the form of the black posts against the faintly sepia tinted (i) pale water that is rendered milky by long exposure but retains enough texture to suggest a natural environment. If we had only one word to describe Kenna’s work in Japan and Korea it would be “tranquil” but I suggest that his photographs are more complex than this simple description of mood and atmosphere.

Glastonbury Tor, Study 2, Somerset, England, 1990 - Michael Kenna

Glastonbury Tor, Study 2, Somerset, England, 1990 – Michael Kenna

Part of the complexity comes from his highly attuned sense of place, not just in geographical terms but in respect of culture, history and specifically photography history. For his photographs of Britain Bill Brandt is an obvious reference, there is a brooding darkness that evokes William Blake, heavy industry dominating bleak landscapes, great works of engineering spanning rivers, church spires, boarding schools, castles and prehistoric monuments that, when viewed as a collection, describe a particular perspective of Britishness within a unique landscape that many would relate to. The British landscapes are often crowded, if not with detail, with large compositional black shapes very much in the mode of Brandt. This contrasts to his work in Japan which, even when evidential architecture is absent speaks of Japanese culture. There is a repetitive theme of emptiness, of simple forms and contrasts that Kenna himself relates to haiku poetry (4), a cultural form unique to Japan where the whole idea is expressed in three highly structured lines:

“I don’t need to describe everything that is going on. I like to suggest one or two elements and use those elements as catalysts for my own imagination, and hopefully for the viewer’s imagination”

Kenna achieves this sense of place not through pre-planning and research, although he now doubt does both, but more by forming a relationship with the landscape. His Japanese agent, Naya Ishwata, says: “He’d see a place that he’d return to the next morning or late afternoon by himself, but not necessarily to take pictures. Sometimes he just wanted to say thank you to the trees.” (5) Everything about Kenna’s photographs is slow; medium format cameras, film not digital, long exposures including night shots with exposures measured in hours, hand developed and hand printed images made in his darkroom long after the photographic expeditions are finished. This pace allows him to attune to the landscape in a way the contemporary photographer rarely experiences.

Appellplatz, Mittelbau-Dora, Nordhausen, Germany, 1999 - Michael Kenna

Appellplatz, Mittelbau-Dora, Nordhausen, Germany, 1999 – Michael Kenna

There are many examples within his extensive portfolio that suggest his agenda goes beyond the purely aesthetic and occasionally moves to towards socially aware documentary but none more so that his long study of Nazi concentration camps undertaken between 1989 and 2000. This is perhaps his most varied portfolio, including nondescript landscape, Nazi architecture, memorials, evidence of torture and murder and the small items left by the victims. Collectively they form a somber series that describes the fate of the Nazi’s victims from entry to the camps to their mass graves. Every preserved building, archeological trace, found object and memorial to the dead has the emotional charge of a war grave as well as being metaphors for one of Europe’s darkest periods; photographs of the camps run the risk of becoming insensitive clichés. Kenna’s dark images convey the time he invested in making them, his slow dedicated style communicating the importance of the subject and the respect he paid it.

The way Kenna approaches industrial landscapes, places where human intervention have overwhelmed nature, leads some critics to suggest, as mentioned above, that his aesthetic concerns take precedence over any socio-political meaning. As a cynic, having seen no such criticism of Don McCullin or Bill Brandt’s northern landscapes,  I wonder whether Kenna like Salgado is a victim of his own commercial success. If we are looking for complete answers or coherent arguments in socio-political landscape the best practitioners will continually disappoint us. Kenna’s haiku approach to the abstractions of the Japanese landscape can be seen in a different form in his series on Dearborn Michigan; he shows us the industrial architecture often in silhouette, the pollution, mountains of waste or raw materials and the desolate landscapes of large industrial complexes. Even his intimate landscapes are uninhabited but there are few signs to indicate whether the factories and mills are working or redundant. He leaves the viewer to imagine the detail and to provide their own context.

In this sense his work is not directly critical, he expresses no obvious opinion of the decline of the River Rouge plants, we can interpret his pictures in any way we choose and to that extent Kenna targets multiple audiences; we can appreciate his work on purely aesthetic grounds, explore the psychological concepts behind his form of minimalist pictorialism, or engage with his studies of industrial  decline and political history.

He is especially relevant to any discussion on the absence and signs of life because it is at the heart of his practice. The empty stage relating the narrative of man’s intervention past or future and the abstract and often minimalist forms providing the space for his pictures to develop as representations of cultural, social and political movements.

And, why is this essay headed up with my photograph of Rocca Calascio, which by the way is one of the one beautiful castles in Italy? Well the answer lies below. Although I am intrigued by the two little windows that have appeared on the keep.

Castle and Sky, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy. 2016 - Michael Kenna

Castle and Sky, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy. 2016 – Michael Kenna

Notes on Text

(i) Kenna describes his darkroom process as: “All my prints are sepia toned gelatine, made by me in a traditional darkroom from negatives. My print size is always about 7 3/4 inches square.” (3)

(ii) The Ford motor plant at Rouge River Dearborn once employed 90,000 workers and sat alongside General Motors, Chrysler and all the motor industry’s associated suppliers and trades. The American motor industry has been in catastrophic decline since the 1980s and Detroit and Dearborn are now some of the poorest and most socially challenged cities in America with Detroit filing for bankruptcy in 2013.



(1) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson

(6) Kenna, Michael & Meyer-Lohr, Yvonne (2015) Forms of Japan. London: Prestel

(7) Kenna, Michael ( 2010) Images of the Seventh Day. Milano: Skira


(2) Umma (2014) Urban Landscape (accessed at the University of Michigan 28/9/16) – http://umma.umich.edu/education/university/objects/portfolio-guides/art-and-environment

(3) Pro Cameraman (2012) Michael Kenna (accessed at ProCameraman 27.9.16) – http://procameraman.jp/Interview/overseas_file08_201207.html#top

(4) Jenson, Brooks (2004) Interview with Michael Kenna (accessed at the photographer’s website 27.9.16) – http://www.michaelkenna.net/ivlens.php

(5) Sykes, Claire (2003) Michael Kenna (accessed at the photographer’s website 27.9.16) – http://www.michaelkenna.net/ivform.php

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