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Michael Kenna
(Widnes, Lancashire, England, 1953 - )

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Michael Kenna’s photographs explore the myriad ways in which human interaction affects and transforms the natural world. Mysteriously devoid of human presence, his photographs are pregnant with its suggestion, and the details of his subjects are often obscured to the point of abstraction by evocative atmospheric light and nebulous presentation. His images, stunning in their technical precision and elegant romanticism, lyrically transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Kenna grew up in northern England in the small industrial town of Widnes, Lancashire. The youngest of six, he was the only child who did not leave school to help support the family. Instead, he expressed interest in the priesthood and chose to attend the junior seminary. By the time he was 18, Kenna had lost interest in a religious vocation and enrolled at the London College of Printing. He abandoned his first love, painting, because he felt that photography had more practical applications. At London College, where little emphasis was placed on fine art photography, Kenna trained as a commercial photographer, studying advertising, photojournalism, and fashion. In 1976, following his graduation, Kenna became an assistant to a London-based photographer, where he worked with color film, and continued to explore black-and-white photography in his spare time. He traveled to the United States on several occasions and was continually impressed by the extent of American interest in and support for photography. In 1979, Kenna relocated to San Francisco and was introduced to respected photographer Ruth Bernhard through the Stephen White Gallery in Los Angeles. Kenna seized the opportunity to work with Bernhard and to help her develop photographic prints for the gallery. Though Kenna acknowledges Bernhard as a powerful influence on his work, his subjects are markedly different from those captured by the older artist, whose interests included fashion and portraiture rather than environmental landscapes.

Kenna’s photographs reveal his fascination with landscape and industry, subjects that captured his interest as a child in northern England. Though his work rarely includes figures, the suggestion of human presence always lingers. His striking photographs of vast landscapes inhabited only by manmade structures emphasize the manner in which human interaction disrupts the natural environment. In On the Edge, Belle Island, Detroit, Michigan (1995) Kenna creates an intriguing dichotomy between the “natural” and the “unnatural” worlds—the artist emphasizes the magnitude of nature rather than elements of constructed environments. Located centrally in the image, a single iron post towers along the icy coastline of the Detroit River as if marking the border of civilization. Behind the solitary beam stretches the frozen surface of the water. The Detroit skyline stands unremarkably on the opposite shore. Through his placement of these compositional elements, Kenna powerfully emphasizes the immensity of the space. The resulting effect is that of abstraction—the objects themselves seem to blend into their environment. The elusiveness of the image is further enhanced by the artist’s poetic evocation of mood, always gentle but containing a deeply engaging quality of mystery. The very stillness of Kenna’s photographs suggests that there is more than meets the eye, as if an event or story has yet to unfold.

In Kenna’s work the theme of presence and absence often takes center stage. By omitting human figures from his photographs, Kenna creates what he calls an “atmosphere of anticipation.”1 His suggestive photographs build a drama in which viewers are invited to participate and complete the story according to their own desires. —L.W.

1. Michael Kenna, quoted in Tim Baskerville, “Michael Kenna,” Camera & Darkroom, July 1995, 46.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

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