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Michael Kenna Exhibition

Exhibition/Gallery Reviews

Simply Beautiful

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David Ward

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.

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I often wonder what exhibitions I would miss without Tim to let me know what’s going on in the great wide world. Perhaps it’s a symptom of living in the wop-wops (as Kiwis call the back of beyond) in rural Herefordshire or perhaps it’s just a case of chronic laziness but for whatever reason I often hear about shows by my favourite photographers after they’ve finished! So, I am indebted to Tim for pointing out that there is a Micahael Kenna exhibition on at Chris Beetles’ gallery just off Piccadilly in London. Happily, I had to attend a business meeting near there last week and took the opportunity to view Kenna’s prints before returning to my cave in the wop-wops…



David Ward

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40 thoughts on “Michael Kenna Exhibition

  1. A very thoughtful and well-structured analysis David; I enjoyed reading this. As you say even if we don’t want to simply copy Kenna, his work does inspire and his compositional simplicity can work in limited colour palettes too. Seeing his work has been part of the reason for my own going back to b&w occasionally – and in 6×6 too – even though it will be a long time before I approach Kenna’s artistic levels if ever!
    I was especially struck with the way he deliberately (at least I hope so…) cut off the roof in Snicket. I would have included the top of the triangle because it’s the ‘right thing to do’ and so totally lost the very sharp way he forces the eye back into the composition. Masterly! Rgds., Adam

  2. Hi Adam, Thank you for the kind words. I should point out the the “Snicket” image was by Bill Brandt not Kenna. But yes, I think it works to introduce that slight sense of disquiet by truncating the gable. I’ve looked around on the net and there are various versions of this image with differing amounts truncated. Does anybody know which is closest to Brandt’s original?

  3. Really enjoyed this review having visited the exhibition myself last week. So much better to see his wonderful emotive images in the flesh so to speak, and not on a screen or even in a book, however good the print reproduction. Just superb.

  4. I have looked at the Brandt image many times myself and I think the taller version was first he also did his chimney image from the top of the cobbles
    I think kenna has done an image of the chimney from a different location near by
    For any one who might want to do there own version it still looks the same and the building is still very much in use I was part of the team that rewired it in the early 90s

    Great article and a great read!

  5. I too have visited this exhibition and revered his work.

    It leaves one with a sense of stillness and calm, which is something that landscape photography can achieve in a way that many other photographic genres cannot………. something I describe in my blog

    • Hi Caroline,

      I’m with you on the Taylor Wessing images. They don’t move me at all. Kenna on the other hand is able to imbue a simple landscape with great emotive power. Surely the sign of a true master?

      David

  6. Or possibly we are totally biased towards landscape photography because that is what floats our boats? But for sure he is a true master.

  7. Ouch! I’m uncomfortable with ‘Kennabees’. I think it is harsh to suggest that MK has the monopoly on simplified mono compositions and that those who also make strong simplified graphic mono images are imitators. Colin Homes produces sublime images of great depth and beauty; I don’t seem them as imitating anyone. As Mrs Merton used to say, ‘Let’s have a heated debate’.

  8. Good to read your thoughts on MK, David, I’ve been wanting to hear your detailed thoughts on his work for some time. I do think his compositional style has a significant amount in common with yours: beauty & simplicity are usually present in his photos, mystery perhaps less often.

    WRT his preference for B&W, this is, in an obvious sense, one way of simplifying what you’re looking at. Also, as you say, a thick layer of snow does cover up a lot of chaos and complexity, albeit at the risk of increasing contrast in some cases.

    I don’t know if you’ll have a chance of going to the Ansel Adams exhibition in London, but if you do I’d like to read your thoughts on that as well.

    • Hi Alan,

      I’m glad you liked the article and can see some parallels – albeit structural rather than superficial. I do hope to get and see the Adams exhibition early in the new year and will certainly write a review if I make it.

      David

      • I think that ‘stillness’ is one thing that both your & MK’s photos have & which for me has a very strong appeal. One example of MK’s work which affected me strongly at his Banbury exhibition was ‘Fifty Fences’ http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=22. Each fence has 5 horizontal bars, and with the verticals it looks like sheet music – literally ‘music without notes’. What a Zen-like composition (is 50 pages of blank music ‘louder’ than the sound of one hand clapping?) I’ll stop there, before I end up in Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye.

        • EDIT: Sorry, that link just goes to a gallery of shots (Hokkaido, Japan, 2004). ’50 fences’ is third row down, first photo.

  9. By the way, I must say I’m quite annoyed with Josef Hoflehner, having now seen his photos taken in Japan. MK didn’t hide his tripod-holes well enough :-)

      • … which is not to say that being influenced is a bad thing, of course. While learning photography, mimicking the style of someone whose work you admire can be a useful way to learn basic compositional technique and to start developing ‘seeing’ in the field. It can also encourage you to try new subject matter which might not have occurred to you otherwise.

        I used to see this phenomenon all the time when I attended a photography club regularly. I’m just as guilty of this as the next person, as many of my early photos taken on L&L tours had a L&L ‘look’. But they got me started, got me trying things I’d not done before, and did result in some photos I’m still pleased with. I’m also the proud earner of a David Ward ‘bastard’ rating for a shot I took on Chesil Beach, which encouraged me to keep going when things get tough.

        At some point in the future I’d like to write an article on the photographic learning process, but life’s a bit too chaotic at the moment.

        I’m sorry to say it, but, at the risk of being controversial, the number of professional photographers who have ‘stolen’ ideas/locations from L&L tours, as if re-using tripod holes (or GPS locations sneakily acquired) does irritate me as well. Making a living by selling what are basically copies of Charlie’s (or David’s or Joe’s etc) photos strikes me as underhand. It certainly isn’t original.

        P.S. I still think Hoflehner should be ashamed of himself.

    • Josef Hoflehner is a very accomplished photographer but he does seem to have made decision to work in a ‘Kennaesque’ style. Many years ago I got a copy of his book Frozen History which is an exceptional book. We corresponded and ended up swapping copies of our books. I met Josef at the opening of an exhibition of his work in London and we chatted about our work. I raised the subject of his ‘style change’ and ‘wondered’ if he had seen Michael’s work. He replied ‘Ya, he is very good’. I also asked him if he liked Judas Priest and Deep Purple as a number of his pictures titles from ‘Unleashed’ seemed to be the same as song titles by those bands. His answer was ‘Ya I like heavy metal’ !

      I think working in a style similar to another photographer can lead to accusations of plagiarism. I think Josef has created a very successful career for himself and does move beyond the ‘twelve posts and a bird’ approach notably with his Jet airliner work.

      Interestingly on his website he is now showing colour works shot in the ’10×8 art photographer style’. Maybe he has gone back and reprocessed his digital files…

  10. David
    Well done on such a well written & thought provoking article. I also visited last week and thoroughly enjoyed an immersive hour or so within the gallery. Talking to the manager gave an interesting perspective on Kenna as well, in his words “of all the photographers I deal with, Michael maintains the most iron like grip over his output, every print is done by him, pricing set by him, and he NEVER sells the last 2 unsold of the edition!”

    It was the quietness that at first drew me to his work, the ability to deconstruct so far whilst maintaining something so attractive. But curiously some of the work displayed jarred with me, and the common feature was “the familiar” any image displayed which I could contextualise and place I felt detracted from this stillness. When talking to the manager he picked out “classic Kennas” and they were all images that were non locatable, excepting “Radcliffe” which still could be argued ANY power station.

    I still loved the Chrysler building, but because it seemed to defy any angle I know of to take it from, but the other known sites seemed a little lost to his style. Having said that the rendition of tonality and black detail in even these, seemed to defy my expectations or previous perception.

    There were many within the 50 that I really appreciated and kept wandering back to , and a few I struggled to move away from for more than a few minutes before returning for another “nose on glass” study… I am intrigued to ask which were your favourites?

    • Hi,

      The presence of recognisable context is almost bound to reduce the feeling of quietness as one’s mind will instantly and unavoidably be filled with all the references (both visual and literary) we have to those well-known places. I think for this reason the images of Rio and the Pyramids at Giza are amongst the least successful in the exhibition. I too find the Chrysler building shot compelling, I think because it is slightly unsettling – perhaps because of the vantage point. But as you say the prints are all still masterpieces of craft.

      Naming favourites would be tricky but the snowy Hokkaido scenes would definitely be in there as would the graphic garden images of skeletal trees (from Russia I think?). These are the images that, for me, definitely connote more than they denote.

      David

    • Hi Monty – not sure if this was a reply to something or just a statement but I’ll bite. Do you think that the quality, tonality and surface texture of a print is irrelevant for photography? i.e. Does the medium matter.. Personally having seen John Blakemore’s prints without glass in the way I admit to having something of the print sniffer about me too ;-)

      • Tim

        The technically perfect print is, of course, hugely relevant but is it the be all and end all? Would you reject Bill Brandt’s ‘Snicket in Halifax’ because of its clipped shadows? Would details in those shadows do anything to improve this? Would you reject Shomei Tomatsu’s images (Everything was Moving exhibition, Barbican) or Daido Moriyama’s pictures (Tate Modern) for the like reasons. Photography is a broad church and the High Priests should be cautious about excluding non-conformists.

        Monty

        • Hi Monty,

          I can’t speak for Tim but I certainly wouldn’t reject the images you mention because they weren’t “technically perfect”. What matters most is whether the image moves you or not. Of course I would also argue that as far as Brandt, for one, was concerned the finished print of “Snicket” was technically perfect because – blocked shadows included – it fulfilled his artistic aims. I was never a fan of the ideal of printing every available tone simply because you can – as Adams aspired to in his early work. MK’s prints don’t show every tone. They very deliberately darken the lowlights and brighten the highlights whilst just holding enough detail. That’s what makes them great prints.

          David

        • I think we have to separate ‘print-sniffers’ – a slightly derogatory term for people who are determined to find the minutest of faults in a photograph – from people who simply enjoy taking a closer look at certain elements of an image.

          As with paintings, I will always try to get as close as I can to a photograph as well as taking in the overall effect from a distance. I do this because I am often curious about points of technique or to fully appreciate a detail that is indistinct from futher away.

          • So Tim you categorise yourself as a print sniffer!!! He he, as long as you keep your wandering nose away from my work I’ll be satisfied!
            Monty, “Photography is a broad church and the High Priests should be cautious about excluding non-conformists.” Good point well said, and it ‘appears’ that Tim, David and Julian agree with you. That said I obviously can’t speak for others…
            Anyway, it’s my view that when the print sniffing becomes too technically centric and misses the point, “What matters most is whether the image moves you or not” (spoken with wonderful simplicity David), then we have a problem that says more about the observer than the photographer.
            On a separate point about Kenna, his choices to reduce elements down do indeed enable a concentration on composition, but they also highlight much about his personal psychology, (which may or may not be intentional as a comical fine ‘artist’). I do personally wonder if he ever feels trapped by the limited self-imposed choices and has a secret persona that shoots different styles.

  11. That was brave of you David – I was going to let Tim jump in first! But since you started this ball rolling, I would add that blocked-out shadows can be an anchor in b&w photos and really add to both composition and ambiance. Whether back in the 70s (and earlier, but I don’t admit to that …) and now in the 20-teens it’s a great technique when used with moderation.
    In any case, what is a perfect print? This is a relative concept and to my mind defies definition as one man’s detail can be another man’s distraction. The debate goes on… Oh and thanks David for correcting my mistook about who made Snicket!

  12. As somebody who still principally works with medium format B&W (a Kennabee perhaps) I find the craft of his work superb. MK describes a certain boredom of the technical details of photography in his interviews, the means of getting there being a pure inconvenience to the print which he has in mind. In fact I think this approach he has is really different to modern digital photography… He goes there with the print in mind, and not “I can fix that later” in mind. But he is also not a luddite about it and accepts that there are many advantages to the new ways of working.

    I also like the fact that he travels around the world seeking new subjects, and doesn’t just shoot new views of Brimham rocks :-)

    • What’s wrong with shooting one location? It’s a lot ‘easer’ to travel around the world bagging compositions than working a location, getting under its skin and presenting a unique view of a popular location. Much more skilful if you ask me!

  13. Interesting discussions, especially (again) the questions about originality, value, meaning in work.

    For one reason or another I’ve been reading a great deal of opinions, theories, philosophical musings on such matters and pondering what it all means to me, of late.

    My tentative conclusion is that much of the discussion about “art” – whether shallow or thoughtful – concludes very little. I have a theory about this. To my mind, the key is “confabulation”.

    Most of us respond to art at a gut instinct level – if something appeals (for some unknown reason), we get a little flash of dopamine as a reward. There need not be any identifiable reason for this, it just happens.

    However, for some reason this doesn’t seem to be enough. Some part of us feels a subconscious need to justify this feeling and produce a satisfying explanation in words. Hence post hoc confabulation (the invention of a plausible sounding reason for our feelings).

    On a trivial level, I recently watched the movie Prometheus, twice in fact. I really liked the first two films in the “Aliens” franchise and I was hoping the reboot would add something. I read a lot about the film before watching and the hints of a new direction seemed promising (I’m a SF novel fan, and mostly dislike Hollywood’s concept of science fiction). Sadly, the film was a let down for me.

    What’s this go to do with confabulation and art appreciation? Well, following the unsatisfying viewing experience, I did some googling for intelligent criticism of the film. And I found plenty of it. There are explanations out there that make Prometheus sound superior to all the works of the Bard himself combined. And this made me think a bit about the difference between what the artist/author puts in to art and what the viewer pulls out of it. It seems to me that the artist often gets the credit for something the consumer actually invents…

    With visual art, I believe there is always a strong sensual element; it is not purely an intellectual exercise. That flash of dopamine is generated by our emotional self and judging by the follow up discussions, it’s my opinion that the dopamine is under-appreciated and the intellectual over-appreciated. The brilliantly imaginative, symbolic and sophisticated critiques and writings that follow are not a true reflection of the artist’s intention but attempts by viewers to justify that dopamine response to themselves.

    I didn’t get an emotional charge from the film and no matter how clever the post hoc intellectual confabulation, nothing can change the fact that (for me) the film itself is boring, shambolic, incoherent, inconsistent, pretentious cr*p.

    I suspect confabulation is just as alive in the photographic stills world. I’m guilty myself…

    • How interesting this takes me back to the early 90’s whilst trying to define “Informatics” I came across Marshall McClure and a statement saying “The medium is the message”. I struggled with this and eventually realised that at least from my interpretation this is only partly true. All meaning is created within the complex system (aka Brain) that is interpreting the “message”. I ended up gaining some insight from literary criticism – if you wish to try to understand meaning then you need to know the historical and social context from which the “message” originates, there is probably some professional or institutional sanction and in general genres “direct”. The important issue is the “distance” of the recipient from “sender/author/photographer” … this is what builds your confabulation.

      Is this important in photography? Well frameworks help in communication to ensure the intended meaning is at least got a chance of being received.

      Some interesting issues for me …

      How often do we want to redefine genre or sub-classify it? [Draft note: this is of course done in a community … which we are in … and currently “negotiating”]

      When I am taking photographs what meaning am I looking to “transfer”? Two weeks ago I was in Deadlvei (see Simon Harrison in issue 44) … its 0500, I’m in the desert, its dark but there is light over that dune, its cold and lonely, WOW look at the sun catch that red dune, it cannot be that red/orange, how about that mosaic and those trees which have been dead 900 years, Christ the sun comes up fast, got run to that tree I noted over there … and there … change the Zeiss 21 to a 70-200 to change the compression … blimey it’s done … ah here come the people that didn’t stay at Sossus Dune Lodge … interested?

      • I often wonder about these people whose stated aim is ‘to convey what I felt at the time the picture was taken’. If the example you quote is anything to go by, that serene sunrise should be conveying a sense of frantic activity if not downright panic! ;)

  14. A wonderful review of Michael Kenna’s photographs.

    If anyone hasn’t yet made it to the exhibition, the gallery is full of light – the entire street side wall is glass which compliments the white-washed walls and light wooden floor. Although Swallow Street is relatively narrow, daylight floods the exhibition space.

    The photographs are all printed relatively small (compared to say the monographs), are mounted in uniform black frames and are set out on two opposing walls. I wasn’t sure if they were set out in a particular order – by time, or by subject for example.

    I also saw Michael Kenna’s exhibition in Banbury in 2007. Perhaps it’s a testament to the sublime printing of the Nazraeli Press books, as although the prints are jewel like, I felt a whisper (only a slight one mind) of disappointment about the size of the prints. It might be partially down to knowing the images so well from the books as I would love to be able to see the photographs larger than their reproductions.

    As an aside, my favourite photograph in the gallery wasn’t one of Michael Kenna’s – it was Paul Kenny’s rather wonderful and sublime Forget-me-not Summer, 2011 from his O Hanami series.

    David

  15. I just thought I’d mention that while I was in the gallery a woman came in to collect her purchases. The gallery manager/owner? took two framed prints off the wall, valued at over £4000, wrapped them in bubble wrap, and put them in a plastic carrier bag. He then brought two more out of the back room, and put them in another plastic bag. The woman left with the two plastic carrier bags, one in each hand, total content valued at what – perhaps £8000?. Elton John’s assistant, perhaps?

      • I’m having a stressful day today – catching up with stuff after a few very difficult weeks only to find the drum scanner has stopped working with urgent backlog building and the hard drives on my mac failing (fortunately only the ssd scratch) so you’ll be glad to know your email made me laugh and hence feel a lot better. Thanks!!

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