Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why can't I quite bring myself to like... Michael Kenna?


There's no doubt about it - Michael Kenna's photography is beautiful and he's certainly prolific. Yet I can never quite convince myself that I actually like it (a good litmus test of this ambivalence for me is that I'll look up a photographer's books. See which ones look good, read up on them a bit, and I'll even put them in my Amazon shopping cart but I can never quite bring myself to click on the "Proceed To Checkout" button).

I'm also sure Kenna is a really nice guy - he looks it in his photograph (at this show of his work in Banbury). I know some of his work has been influenced by Bill Brandt whose photographs have haunted me since before I was a teenager. And I've even bought a Kenna calendar a couple of times - a new image each month, sitting there above my desk - very pleasing. And yet the photos still don't quite grab me (and yes, I know there is meant to be a meditative aspect to his work). It doesn't quite work its way under my skin the way some other photographers work does. His photographs don't catch me unawares and impose themselves on my thoughts days or months later.

Maybe it's "too" perfect - unlike say Atget or Brandt. Or perhaps in most cases only beauty isn't quite enough? In a way I also find these more clinical than Lynne Cohen's photographs that I detailed in the last post. Is it too much emotional detachment? Or just too restrained for me...?

Perhaps it is that everything is photographed in the same impeccably beautiful way - from Le Notre's gardens to Easter Island to Hokkaido to Radcliffe Power Station (another image from my childhood) to Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Maybe it's an apparent lack of affection for what's photographed (are they "just" subjects?) Or possibly not finding some kind of quality or genuine poignancy, something that moves not just the viewer, but that also moved the photographer - or at least not revealing that the photographer was moved by it.

I'd like to like it - I really would - I just can't quite bring myself to do it (and it's not as if I haven't changed my mind on a photographers work before - there are some photographers whose work I just didn't "get" until something clicked)

Either way, make your own mind up at his website - he's also featured in the January "Legends" edition of Photo District News (and maybe let me know what it is I'm missing...?)

Much of Kenna's work is published by one of the best publishers of photography books - certainly in N. America - Nazraeli Press

15 comments:

david said...

i share exactly the same point of view with you, in two words :"too much" !
Beeing so perfect, a michael kenna's photograph becomes just an image, a poster.

Paul said...

I feel pretty much the same way even though I've bought many of his books. The last one, 'Hokkaido', is, to me, no different than any of his other books. I feel there is a sameness to his work that becomes deadening after a while. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he is cranking out so many books.

I have found that I feel the same way about photographers like John Sexton as well. I recently acquired his latest book also. Perhaps it is because, from beginning to end, all the pictures look the same. There appears to be no growth or change in either the subject matter or the approach. Both Michael Kenna and John Sexton have been photographing for nigh onto 30 years. Yet, to my eyes, the early work is indistinguishable from the current.

George LeChat said...

Right on, brother. Just started drafting a potential post on "Michael Kenna and the New Pictorialists" - also prompted by his Banbury show - the thrust of which will be the aethetic (and moral) compromise inherent in insisting that everything be beautiful. All that glassy water! All that perfect sky! Brandt would turn in his grave, as would Harry Callahan, from whom some of this is surely derived.

Sebastian said...

Oh man! I'm going to have to disagree here. Let me guess, you guys like "humanity" in all your pictures? Too much humanity makes me sick. I'd like to see who you suggest as some great landscape photographers who's work you admire and that gets under your skin the way that Kenna gets under mine.

tim atherton said...

"Let me guess, you guys like "humanity" in all your pictures?"

Sebastian

Not at all (I'm rather with the architects who find all the people in their building rather annoying...) - quite the contrary.

"I'd like to see who you suggest as some great landscape photographers who's work you admire and that gets under your skin the way that Kenna gets under mine."

Some of those I've listed on here, others I haven't - Atget for one. Robert Adams for another. Also Lee Friedlanders landscapes and Geoffrey James. Elger Esser. Struths Paradise series and also Richard Misrach. Harry Callahan. Timothy O'Sullivan. Sally Mann - to name a few

tim atherton said...

oh and John Gossage of course

Sebastian said...

Tim thanks for the leads on those guys. I just chuckled out loud at your comment "I'm rather with the architects who find all the people in their building rather annoying..." Thats exactly how I feel! Let me explain a bit more rather than just sounding like a kid who's favorite rock band just got put down. :-)

I went to see a Kenna exhibition about a year ago I guess, at Jackson Fine Art and I was blown away by Kenna's craft. And there WAS, to me at least, a sense of connection that I'd not felt to 99% of other photography. "This is a man who thinks differently!" I said to myself. And for that moment of connection I'll always appreciate his work. There is also a sense that everything is not pictured and I enjoy the contemplation.

Incidentally the way you feel about Kenna is sort of the same way I feel about William Eggleston. Someone please clue me in on him.

Tim said...

So much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

"Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Willams.

It's not Yeats, but it has an important place in the list of poetry that speaks to me.

tim atherton said...

Sebastian

"Let me explain a bit more rather than just sounding like a kid who's favorite rock band just got put down. :-)"

which is why my question was a genuine one and not meant to be a put down.

btw, I once felt pretty much the same about Eggleston - now I can't quite imagine why it took me so long to "get" it...

stanco said...

Like him or not- at least his ego doesn't need wall sized prints.

Luis said...

Kenna's work is lyrically beautiful. His prints are exquisite -- and as stanco remarked, their size runs refreshingly counter to convention.

I like his work, would love to own at least one, but would not consider him a front-runner.

--- Luis

paulraphael said...

I saw a retrospective of Kenna's work at his gallery in Chelsea last year. The overriding impression is that he's been taking the same picture over and over for thirty years. I mean it. The SAME picture. The subject matter varies from one to the other ... kind of. But it's all well-worn themes of modernist landscape (read: a take on formal landscape that was exquisitely fresh seventy years ago), and it's all seen, photographed, and printed exactly the same way.

After you see a certain number of minute variations on a theme, the variations kind of blur together, and you're left with nothing but the vague, fuzzy impression of the theme itslef. I saw one giant, vague, fuzzy Kenna photograph that day. In its defense, it was very pretty, and nicely printed.

tim atherton said...

After you see a certain number of minute variations on a theme, the variations kind of blur together, and you're left with nothing but the vague, fuzzy impression of the theme itslef. I saw one giant, vague, fuzzy Kenna photograph that day.

a sort of Sugimoto Kenna...? :-)

Lance Keimig said...

What about the Spawn of Kenna: Michael Levin, David Burdeny, David Fokos, Rolfe Horn et al? Similar aesthetic, but often larger digital prints.

I have to disagree with the bulk of this thread. Having heard the man speak on multiple occasions, I would never suspect him of being detatched- emotionally or otherwise- from his subject. Quite the opposite.

Also, he is quite modest, freindly, and approachable, but he is not one to talk about craft or technique. Not becaue he guards his secrets, but because he has herad the same 10 questions over and over for the last 30 years.

Lance Keimig said...

What about the Spawn of Kenna: Michael Levin, David Burdeny, David Fokos, Rolfe Horn et al? Similar aesthetic, but often larger digital prints.

I have to disagree with the bulk of this thread. Having heard the man speak on multiple occasions, I would never suspect him of being detatched- emotionally or otherwise- from his subject. Quite the opposite.

Also, he is quite modest, freindly, and approachable, but he is not one to talk about craft or technique. Not becaue he guards his secrets, but because he has herad the same 10 questions over and over for the last 30 years.