Michael Kenna

The Breathing of the Landscape

“As soon as I saw them, even before—scarcely had I seen these landscapes, than I felt them attract me like something hiding...” The interval between the appearance and the disappearance of the landscape, its reserve and its capacity for transformation are more easily expressed in figurative language then by painting or photography. Proust’s description of the steeples of Martinville as he is driving along puts the Narrator on the edge of the cliff and the resulting vertigo triggers his literary vocation. How can we make palpable our relationship to the indistinct, transitory appearance of things when their disintegrating presence escapes our faculty of perception? What is this possibility that the pincers of imitation cannot hold? Proust, Cézanne and Braque opened the narrow door to this grasp of the world, which is all the more tentative in that it is detached from the certainties of magic or realism: it cannot be named except by the alternative there is/there is not, in the correlation and alternation between the visible and the invisible, staying on the borderline between them and hovering on the fringe of the visible. “Night photography is really not an exact science. It has such an unpredictable character —our eyes cannot see cumulatively like film....
So what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see.” Photography usually gives us clearly separate states, related to the speed of the exposure and the irreversibility of the print. Kenna, as we have seen, operates in another field, of things that are impossible to see and the duration of the apparition, quite the opposite of the “decisive instant.” Looking at Kenna’s images we have to ask ourselves what reversal of perception is taking place. The sketch proposed by Husserl is obviously not the photographic product; sketches are still in the field of the perceiving subject: we do not leave the world of will and representation.


A gradual unveiling

In Kenna’s photographs the landscape is not so much the product of an individual’s perception as a gradual unveiling, the motif is not imposed but unfolds by itself in the emptiness of the light-sensitive surface. Cosmic impulses—wind, moving clouds, changing light, the movements of the stars—hold together in the duration of his catches. Kenna, as we have seen, never uses the word “catch”: his attitude is the very opposite of that of a butterfly catcher. In Kenna, the photographic equipment, far from greedily grabbing the individual anecdote and accident, waits patiently to absorb transition, change, dilution, consistency, in short, compossibility. The evanescent side of his images is in no way a Pictorialist affectation, but the fruit of a contemplative idea of the world and of photography, in which presence and absence are no longer envisaged in terms of conflict and dialectics. Kenna’s photography is not a matter of “that which has been” but “that which happens.”

From one of his earliest photographs until his work in Japan there is a measurable development, but the underlying thinking remains unchanged. Perhaps it has merely deepened. The snowy fields of Hokkaido open like a white page on which lines and masses turn into calligraphic signs. The Chinese landscape which carries its own mode of apparition, mountain, mists, running water, uses a painter’s vocabulary but Kenna imagines it through the photographic medium of black and white, subtle tones and gradations and the infinite modulation of the prints. Closer to the spirit of haiku than long prose… In revealing that, Kenna claims that his way is that of a sketched likeness and not an imitation, that the representation of the landscape is far from a harmonic vibration between what we see of it and what it shows only after a long, patient wait.

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