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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory

Michael Kenna’s subdued black-and-white imagery offers respite from the world, for photographer and viewer alike


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Skyline, Study 1, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2006)



Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2006)
When Michael Kenna was a boy growing up in the small industrial town of Widnes, England, he hid pieces of paper around his house, his neighborhood and the local park. He would write his name, the date and some observation to come back to. The idea was to see how long he could wait before going to retrieve the notes. "During the interval," recalls Kenna, "I would change a little and so would the world."

This simple appreciation for the smallest details offers a splendid filter through which to view his work. He photographs landscapes, but isn't a landscape photographer. He travels constantly, but isn't a travel photographer. He works in black-and-white, but he isn't a black-and-white photographer. He's an artist who records what he sees and, somehow, what he senses and feels as well.

Despite the digital revolution in photography, the perfect medium for Kenna's work is black-and-white film and silver-coated paper. It's the very peculiarities and imperfections in this traditional approach that he works within to make calm images imbued with an almost tangible amount of solitude.

"I'm fully conscious that a lot of what I do in the landscape and darkroom can now be more easily and quickly done on a monitor," Kenna says. "I see 'perfect' computer images, obviously enhanced and retouched, more and more frequently. But for the most part, they're so obviously unreal or surreal, they're not so interesting. All too often there's something intrinsically unauthentic and unbelievable in their distance from reality. I still prefer the limitations and imperfections of the non-digital world, but it's a very personal thing. Perhaps the underlying truth is that I'm just an old dog who stubbornly refuses to learn new tricks. Someday, perhaps, I'll be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.


Koi Pond, Jizō-ji Temple, Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, Japan (2003)
"I don't think the old way is perfect," he continues. "Quite the opposite—it's full of imperfections, which I think is far more interesting than anything that's perfect. The whole photographic process has been made much easier, faster, cleaner and more accessible to more people by digital innovations. And that's a very good thing. For most photography, a darkroom is really not necessary. But perhaps it's somewhat akin to the digital music that people can make on their computers. Whether or not somebody can actually play a musical instrument is no longer critical. I wonder if there's anything to be said for the long, hard journey of learning? I suspect the path of discovery is as important as the destination. I do enjoy the unpredictable, imperfect, slow process of analog photography.

"I have to say that I have yet to see a digital print that I love," Kenna continues. "I can often appreciate the images and the technical expertise, but in my humble opinion, at least in black-and-white, the print quality always leaves something to be desired. Yes, they can be big and dramatic, perfectly printed, completely retouched and flawless, and once they're framed and on the wall perhaps there's no discernible difference at all, but in my mind at least, there really is something different about them that I have not yet been able to fully accept."

Kenna appreciates his tried-and-true materials, but knows they may not be around forever. Still, he's not overly concerned.

 

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