Michael Kenna

Trees and Meteors



Woods, hedges, groves, isolated trees… Kenna uses trees to point to the cosmological arrangement of the landscape and organize the spatial economy of the image.

The tree, another Being to be loved

The tree’s mediation is needed to understand the conflict or harmony between the elements and to materialize the lines of force. After all, in some cosmogonies, the fifth element is wood. Its shape, size, height, angle and tension regulate our visual music. Although it is not that of a forester or woodcutter, Kenna’s tree is recognizably a willow, oak or pine and not a stylized form. If it is photographed in isolation, it is surrounded by the dynamics of the landscape. As part of a grove, it makes a blur in shades of pearly grey or draws complex graphics with delicate transitions or plays visual games with variations in the atmosphere. It resists the wind, rendering it visible, its reflection links water to sky, its branches stand out in sharp relief against the snow, it is doubled by its shadow, it intensifies the charm of light: in short it makes the photographic space intelligible. Its presence channels and reinforces the viewer’s gaze. Describing the figure of the tree in this way seems a mean way of instrumentalising it, because “if you’re meeting a tree for the first time, as with the person, you don’t take that tree, or person, for granted. The more respect, reverence, and honor you give to whatever is in front of you, the better you will also be received.” Ontological ecstasy and fusional identification with the tree, whose verticality is held to be a metaphor for the human figure, are not in phase with Kenna’s idea because for him the tree, in its silent remoteness, is another Being to be loved.

“I like to know a tree, quite closely. I’ll often spend a long time circling the tree, getting to know it. In a sense I talk to the tree. I try to be respectful and I like to go back to that same tree two years later, five years later, or as often as I can.”  Far removed from Sartre, closer to Nietzsche, who treats the figure of the tree as a dynamic vertical axis and an independent force freed from gravity. If water and air represent a will for substance, the tree represents a will for power, an axis which brings into play the upward and downward movements which govern meteors.

Skys and waters

The sky, in Kenna’s work, is not “Ether,” crystal clarity, the pure air of mountain peaks, but an atmosphere, the sphere of breath, clouds, dim light, rain, mist, fog and smoke. It is a setting for cosmic powers, in no way a metaphor for the viewer’s mood. “If the land is wreathed in fog, it seems greater, more sublime, and it increases the power of imagination and raises expectations.... The eye and fancy feel more attracted by the misty distance than by what seems clear and close by,” wrote Caspar David Friedrich. Kenna echoes his words: “Those elements of mist and rain and water and so forth, they all act, in a sense, as veils to filter out a lot of the background clutter, noise and distraction. I like that. So I often hunt for places that have those elements which work very well with my own vision.”
In Modern Painters, Ruskin analyses in extraordinary detail the description of clouds in all shapes and forms and in all possible combinations with the landscape. Constable did numerous cloud studies. Logically enough, an iconographic system of cloudiness has developed in Kenna’s work, in which clouds play a double game. Clouds —as Bachelard discusses at length— have a physical substance, but for human beings pinned to the ground they are the stuff of imagination, a springboard for meditation, a ductile magma that lends itself to the wildest fantasies. “Our imaginary desire latches onto an imaginary form filled with an imaginary substance.” Clouds combine poetic fascination, thickness and lightness, and bring us face-to-face with constantly moving forms which drift like a dreamer’s mind. Photography is not kinetic, in principle it is unable to recreate the dynamic process of transformation which takes place over time. It combines the unity of time and unity of place and implies that the time of the photographed object would be that of the past, not of a passage.
The photograph is essentially a temporal instrument, but it is too often assimilated to a snapshot, leaving aside the question of its real temporal content. In addressing this question, we seem to be straying from the point, but the physiognomy of clouds in Kenna’s work brings us on the contrary back to the core of the problem.
How can we show the coagulation, agglomeration, gradation, fraying, spreading and budding of cloud forms, how can we show the presence of light and the movement of light sources, in short how can we show cosmic dynamics except by capturing them in the duration of a long exposure, and therefore in extended time? Kenna’s exposures range from a fraction of a second to several hours… Fleeting and lasting phenomena, speed and immobility combine in night or twilight photographs, in which the materialization of duration shows what is usually invisible; the representation of the path of meteors resuscitates the idea of the sublime. “Movement, rendered sublime by force, can be suggested only with the help of arrested movement. What is limited is sublime, not what limits.”
Photography reveals the organic link between water and sky, their common origin in the original, infinite maelstrom of the elements.

The earth

In Kenna’s images, the earth is seldom “earthy.” It is rocky —the rock which like the tree makes a vertical link between the ground and the sky— sandy, snowy, powdery, dusty, barren, stony, all facies that function as a base for the composition or a background forthe image, adding to the beauty of the print and the movement of forms, just an alibi. Kenna is the photographer of air, water and light; the earth is relegated to a secondary role, incarnated in a metonymic tree which plunges its roots into the soil and carries it skywards. Water, earth and sky reveal the forces at work within the work: mobility and immobility, dynamism and contemplation, amorphism and energy, the vertical and the horizontal, solid and void, most beautifully expressed in his photographs of Asia. The “meteorological beauty” which is fundamental to Kenna’s aesthetics links the mythological content of the elements, the sensitive surface of a photograph and light traveling from the depths of the cosmos to create a living, breathing image.
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