Minimalist clicks

Minimalist clicks

Minimalist clicks

In his work, Michael Kenna is more concerned with an interpretation of reality rather than a reflection of it, notes Giridhar Khasnis, about the artist’s photography

British-born photographer Michael Kenna uses the analogy of a theatre stage to explain his approach to image-making. “I prefer to photograph the stage before the characters appear, and after they leave,” he says. “At those times, there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation in the air. We can live in our imagination and in our own stories on an empty stage, but as soon as the characters arrive, we begin to be caught up in their stories. It is a different experience.”

Kenna is often hailed as the most influential landscape photographer of his generation. In a long and illustrious career, he has followed a strikingly minimalist tradition and produced deeply meditative, quiet and haunting images. He has captured the essence of many mysterious landscapes through a uniquely evolved methodology. Critics have come to recognise how his intimate, enigmatic and exquisitely hand-crafted monochrome prints reflect a sense of refinement, respect for history, and thorough originality.

Kenna’s pictures have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums throughout the world. The 60-year-old artist who was decorated with the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government in 2000 has had a life-long allegiance to his Hasselblad camera and the black-and-white medium. “I find B&W to be more malleable and mysterious than colour; it is more an interpretation of reality than a reflection of reality,” says the renowned artist who prints the negatives himself in a traditional darkroom.

Kenna says he uses photography as a vessel for visual material to flow through, to encourage conversation with the viewer; and to invite viewers to tell their own stories. He is attracted to places that contain memories, history, atmospheres and stories. He is interested in locales where people have lived, worked and played. “I choose to photograph the absence of people, the memory of their presence, the traces of what’s left behind.”

While striving for a collaboration with the subject matter, he is not concerned with describing and copying what he sees. “I often think of my work as visual haiku. It is an attempt to evoke and suggest through as few elements as possible rather than to describe with tremendous detail.” Kenna also feels that photography is a continual journey, and a beautiful, elegant process. “It is not my primary goal to create the perfect masterpiece that somebody can put over the sofa. I much prefer this ongoing relationship.”

Focus on relationship

It is not the human portraiture but natural landscape that has remained the medium of Kenna’s reference and reverence. He is unperturbed by nature’s whims and varying moods; and he even sees the unexpected and unpredictable as a driving force to look and comprehend nature. “The first thing I do in landscape photography is go out there and talk to the land — form a relationship, ask permission, it’s not about going out there like some paparazzi with a Leica and snapping a few pictures, before running off to print them.”

Particularly known for his evocative night pictures, some of his haunting night shots have required opening shutter for more than 10 hours at a stretch! “Night photography, for me, enhances the situation because the light is like stage lighting. It can be dramatic; there are often strong, dark shadows, the light is usually coming from below or laterally rather than from above, as in daylight; and there is a sense of theatre and a sense of something about to happen.”

Early influences

Interestingly, Kenna, who was born in 1953 in Widnes, Lancashire, England to a poor, working-class Irish-Catholic family, initially trained himself to become a priest but changed track to attend art schools in the 1970s. He excelled in painting, but went on to study photography at the London College of Printing, where he graduated with distinction in 1976. He moved to San Francisco, USA in 1977 and is presently settled in Seattle.

His meeting with the legendary photographer Ruth Bernhard (1905–2006) and subsequent assistantship left a deep impression on Kenna. “She had a wonderful understanding of light. She had complete technical skill, but it was her total disregard for accepted norms of printing that opened my eyes. She used the negative as absolute raw material and would do anything she wanted with it. That gave me, in turn, both the technical skills and the freedom and artistic license to print my own work.”

Kenna has travelled widely to capture landscapes in different continents including Asia. He first visited Japan in 1987 and has returned to the country again and again. His photographic itinerary has also included visits to China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and India.

A Journey Through Asia, organised by Tasveer, in collaboration with arttd’inox, presents a cross-section of Kenna’s masterly works. It forms part of Tasveer’s 8th season of exhibitions, in partnership with Vacheron Constantin. The 50-odd pictures — all meticulously printed in his trade mark miniature format of about 8x8 inch — are some of the most beautiful landmarks and natural locales of Asia.

The Huangshan mountain range, China’s major tourist destination, and a frequent subject of traditional Chinese paintings and literature, comes alive in these frames. If in Study 42, the photographer grasps the vast and undulating mountain range in all its varying moods, the Study 25 seems to pay obeisance to the majestic and sturdy rocky terrain and uniquely-shaped granite peaks. Study 1 is where the fiercely passing mist playfully reveals and conceals the magnificent views of the mountain. Kenna’s pictures become visual haikus in works titled Bamboo and Tree; Seaweed Farms, Study 3; Lake Bridge, Hongkun and Yauanyang, Study 1, Yunnan, China.

Equally mesmerising are his Japanese pictures where the isolated beauty of Torii Island, Taushubetsu Bridge and the upstanding Torii Gate at Shosanbetsu stand out. Kenna’s camera does not fail to comprehend the sheer poetry in the surreal, snow-filled landscapes. Unfortunately, his pictures shot in India do not seem to carry the enigmatic moods of mystery and puzzlement seen elsewhere.

Well-known curator of photography, Anne Wilkes Tucker, attributes Kenna’s inspiration to “thoughtful curiosity, a restless pleasure in travel, a need for solitude, a delight in visualising his own imagination... a broad love of nature, and, most of all, a confidence in his own aesthetic values.”

Tasveer’s exhibition of Kenna’s photographs bear witness to Tucker’s apt observation. The show is on at Sua House, Kasturba Cross Road, Bangalore, till 30th October.

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