Michael Kenna

Structure and Scale

The landscape in photography is a space that is at once figurative and temporal, but it is an isolated space because of the “point of view” from which it is taken. It is a piece removed, something cutout, which deactivates the other aspects and parts of the whole. The isolated image, the selected space, has a status that wavers between metonymy, example and sample. The space is nonetheless subtly linked to a whole, that of the country, or territory, and has a time—the date and season in which it was taken. A dynamic tension arises from the act of cutting out and the sense of plenitude, from the relationship between this fragment and its viewer, who is firstly its author. It is not a matter of putting this dynamic to work to interpret the photographic image like a narrative; we are aware that the photographic story can only tell us what we already know and what we put into it ourselves.

The Stimmung of the landscape

The image —rich in forms, elements, structures, signs, part of a whole becoming in its turn an independent entity— is informed by and anchored in what Simmel calls the Stimmung of the landscape, an active, unifying creative expression proper to a particular landscape; and to it alone. The Stimmung enables us to understand how the notion of a landscape, by an intellectual as well as an artistic act, is separated from that of nature, and thereby to understand that every landscape displays the plan of its designer and that of its viewer, because “beyond pleasure, diversity or charm, the style of a landscape which moves us also engages what is commonly known as a worldview.” “But for a landscape to be born, the pulse of life, in perception and feeling, must be snatched from the homogeneity of nature, and the special product thus created, once transferred into a completely new setting, must open up to universal life and embrace the unlimited within its faultless limits.” This limited material is infinite in its diversity, the points of view that rule it and the forms composed by its parts are just as numerous. Point of view. This is the fundamental process in photography, and its original name.

Changing scale and challenging symmetry

Before looking at themes, forms, elements and construction of Kenna’s images, we need to explain why his photographs make us feel uneasy. This uneasiness comes from the point of view and the scale that it generates and governs. In fact we cannot find in Kenna’s work an invariable position, an affectation, a customary angle, a topos. The photograph is from the outset a sample, a huge datum, and yet Kenna seems able to shape the landscape, details and perspective at will. He does not come from the country of Gulliver and Alice for nothing. He grows, shrinks, walks on roofs, pops out of mouse holes, floats over the water… either he dominates the panorama or he is dominated, even engulfed by it, in short, he seems to be constantly changing scale and we viewers lose sight of the scale of the real world he photographed. If we want to see more clearly, we have to cling to the format of the images. His early works were mostly in a rectangular format, more or less the space of the natural movements of the human eye, a vertical or horizontal rectangle which offered the viewer a familiar space, the area that the eye can sweep or explore within the frame. For several years now he has worked with a square format, which is more difficult for the photographer because it induces a natural symmetry, disturbs visual habits and blocks the composition on all sides. The answer to the constraint of perfect diagonals and the remedy for the pernickety ideal balance lies in challenging symmetry. The cut-off point may be abrupt, the edges uncertain of their borders (Japan series), the lines subtly off-centre, the masses tilted, horizontal surfaces set vertically, or vertical surfaces laid flat.

Perspective, despite its constitutive slavery to centrality, suffers all possible outrages in the twodimensional surface. The depth of field can even produce an astonishing optical illusionbut the constructions, in all their virtuosity, can still be analyzed and are sufficient to organizethe visual hubbub of the site of The Rouge or to enliven the blandness of the pale wastes of Hokkaido. “I have been fascinated with two-dimensional surfaces, for as long as I can remember.” Moreover, adds Kenna, “as photographers, we are working with a two-dimensional plane, reducing this amazing world with all these senses, smells, colors and textures to this little two-dimensional black-and-white rectangle.... So there needs to be a recognition of three-dimensions in the two-dimensional result. We’re working in a two-dimensional plane, but at the same time a photograph is an illusion and it reflects back to the three-dimensional reality.” Difficulty in grasping the scale also comes from the lack of human figures. Nineteenth-century photographers liked to make the real dimensions of monuments perceptible by adding a “tell-tale figure” with the thankless task of serving as a yardstick. Kenna does not use that device.
The deliberate absence of human figures is obviously not organically linked to the wish to disturb our perception of space but it contributes to it. Interested in the landscape alone, the artist “can bring the parts together in various groups, shift the accents, vary the centers and the limits.” The human figure, which does all that in itself, being “a norm which determines the quantities and proportions of what surrounds it”, as Simmel pointed out, can scarcely be included in the work on landscape such as Kenna envisages it.
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