Michael Kenna

From nature to landscape

“The Land.” Not “The Landscape,” or “The Country.” The 1976 exhibition which inspired Michael Kenna to become a landscape photographer was admittedly subtitled “Twentieth-century landscape photographs selected by Bill Brandt,” introducing a slight ambiguity. Landscape photographs and not photographs of the land: a subtle difference. A surreptitious shift from the land to the landscape. Not so much a trick of semantics, but a little map of the field we are given to think about, the essence of the landscape as well as landscape photography. Bill Brandt had made a highly personal choice, unfortunately not fully represented in the catalogue; the free choice of an experienced eye. A choice full of strident contrasts that ranged over the entire genre. The great classics, Eugène Atget, Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Bill Brandt were there, of course. Young artists such as Mario Giacomelli, Gianni Berengo Gardin and Emmet Gowin represented the new brigade. But what was truly remarkable and innovative was the inclusion of anonymous works and strikingly modern images of geological surveys. All the photographs were chosen for their artistic quality. But by this very diversity, Bill Brandt extended the scope of the exhibition to set pure research alongside unprocessed documents and leave room for serious thought on the lineaments of photography applied to the landscape. Michael Kenna was a young art student at the time and he saw the exhibition as the point of view, thinking and choices of a great artist, applied to a field which Kenna has been exploring tirelessly ever since:
“In 1976 I saw an exhibition called ‘The Land,’ organized by Bill Brandt, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I am ashamed to admit that at the time I had never even heard of Bill Brandt! He was to become the strongest influence on my work.”
The ambiguities in the title of this legendary exhibition bring a few questions to mind. Is the concept of landscape less obvious than it seems at first glance? Is it not slowly peeled off the concept of nature? Should we not look at its constituent parts, the way they exist in the real world and in photography, and the influence they have on our perception? At what cost did the representation of the landscape in drawing and painting prepare and permit the advent of photography? If it is plausible for a representation to end up modifying reality, the viewer is perhaps, ultimately, inhabited and constructed by the world he wants to see…

Does landscape exist?

The short definition given by a dictionary is often enlightening, sometimes disconcerting. “Landscape: part of the countryside that nature presents to the observer.” So we have access only to a presentation, in other words, we do not have access to nature itself, but to what nature shows us, or at least does not hide. We then seek to understand the various parts of the definition. “Nature: all the things perceived, visible, as the environment in which man lives,” or again “The physical world in which man lives.” At the risk of seeing tautology race up and speed past syllogism, we look up the word “countryside” and discover the concepts of territory, locality, nation, geographical region… The terms are different and complementary, forming the layers and facets of a single entity. We calm down and come back to the first definition. We must then consider nature’s curious position as a personified agent performing a voluntary, lucid act, aware of the offer she is making and knowing about the gap implied by observation. Does that mean that there is no landscape without observation and attentiveness, in short, without will?  

The notion of frame

The notion of landscape seems inseparable from that of “frame,” the frame used in painting and photography and firstly the frame of our gaze which, quite naturally, cuts out and selects. It is tempting to imagine the augurs of Roman religion as the first landscapists, using their sacred staffs to frame the fragment of sky in which every event —the flight of an eagle or a falling feather— would become significant. Nature, in their eyes, is an emanation of divine power, a code to be cracked. The templum, the place of interpretation and meditation and the page on which the messages of destiny are fleetingly written, prefigures the frame of a picture or photograph, a frame from which all meaning seems to have evaporated, leaving the representation of a desacralised, aesthetic nature, reduced to the status of a mere phenomenon.
Before the eighteenth century, even the word “landscape” seldom appeared, except in the work of a few minor English poets, meaning a geographical entity of particular merit. Until the early nineteenth century, few people attached aesthetic value to mountains and volcanoes, with the notable exception of Petrarch. Beaches or ocean wastes were reduced to their utilitarian functions as fishing grounds or paths of communication and they seemed ugly.

The relation to nature was located on another level, that of fear, conquest and domestication. Man was too busy clearing the land and exploiting natural resources and too anxious to position himself philosophically and technically as “the lord and master of nature” to think of contemplating it and see it as an object of delight rather than science. The important thing was to survive in a hostile or threatening environment, not to appreciate its lines and harmony.
The gap between the concepts of nature and landscape proves to be highly modern and follows the development of painting. Natural elements appeared in mediaeval miniatures as a backdrop on a stage, providing a stereotyped, synthetic setting for religious or historic scenes which themselves belong to a standard repertoire.

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