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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Photography of Michael Kenna at Tacoma Art Museum is Andidote to Hectic Holiday Season

The photo of two piers extending onto a calm lake was small, less than eight inches on a side. I needed to slow down and move up close to see it and contemplate what I saw. And when I did, the print became the portal to another world, one of silence and stillness, a world where I forgot my own, and at the same time, remembered what it is to simply observe, be present, and breathe.

Michael Kenna, Two Piers, Imazu, Honshu, Japan, 2001 Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 7 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle.

Part I of an exceptional exhibit called Memories and Meditations: A Retrospective of Michael Kenna's Photography is at the Tacoma Art Museum, until January 6, 2013. If you haven't already seen it, please take the time in the next week to do so, as a gift to yourself this season. Kenna is a highly renowned photographer whose work has been collected by numerous museums worldwide, and this is his first U.S. retrospective in nearly two decades.
Michael Kenna, Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 1, Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan, 2002. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 5/8  x 7 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle. 

Just before the exhibit opened on October 6, 2012, I had the opportunity to see a preview and the privilege of meeting and speaking with Michael Kenna. Both experiences left me with my own memories and meditations, from which I drew moments of serenity to keep me going through the three months of busy days since.

Michael Kenna Frozen Fountain, Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., 1994. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 8 inches. Courtest of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle.

"My work is about the relationship between the structures that humans leave behind and the sheer beauty of this world of ours," Kenna said that day. He spoke of being "struck by the simplicity" and the "profound, beautiful mysteriousness of this world." I never thought I would see beauty in eerie images of a nuclear power plant in England, or a factory in France, but I did. In his work, the viewer sees the mark of mankind but never mankind itself.

Michael Kenna, Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 40, Nottinghamshire, England, 2003. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and G.Gibson Gallery, Seattle.

Kenna has lived in the United States for decades but was born in England. He and his wife now reside in Seattle. Since the 1970s, he has photographed subjects in places ranging from urban to remote, as far away as Asia, Egypt, Mexico, Easter Island, and Russia, and as close as Portland, Oregon, often returning to the same locales year after year. His photos interpret and share the simplicity in which he finds beauty. They reflect his own spirituality and his patience. Instead of digital images, Kenna still makes sepia-toned gelatin silver prints. And he make them small. On purpose.

Michael Kenna, Lace Factories, Study 21, Calais, France, 1998. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print 7 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Courtesty of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle

"I want people to be engaged with the image," he said. "I want people to go quite close to the image to become part of a conversation with the image. In fact, I almost want people to wander into the image to become part of that single world." Kenna likes the element of surprise involved with his process. He photographs at odd times of day or sometimes makes exposures as long as ten hours, through weather changes and whatever happens. "Things move. Things change, and they're recording on the film. I'm not in control, and that's good," he said.

"So when I see the contacts, I see the world again. I have the new world in front of me. It's a very similar experience to going out into the landscape in the first place." He then creates a little album and lives with the images for a while until he decides which are the strong ones. "This is a new experience now, between me and this image. And then, I'll go in the darkroom and print." He does every bit of the printing himself, and calls it "an essential part of the creative process."

Rock Hushka, the museum's director of curatorial administration and curator of contemporary and Northwest art, brought up the quirky coincidence that Michael's first exhibition in the United States (1978) was in a Seattle gallery owned by Chase Rynd, who became the director of the Tacoma Art Museum a few years later. By now, Kenna's work has been in 600 exhibitions around the world and more than 50 books have been published about his art. "So to have such a treasure here in the Northwest," Hushka said, "that was one of the reasons for us to do the show, to make sure that we honor such a distinguished artist in our midst."

Rock Hushka, Director of Curatorial Administration and Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Artat the Tacoma Art Museum (left) and Michael Kenna (right) posed for a photo at the preview. Photo by Candace Brown.
While images of Asia, many of which are winter scenes, seem to dominate the current exhibit, Part 2 of the retrospective will be entirely different and will include more representation of the United States and Europe, as well as haunting images of World War II concentration camps. Those, too, will draw viewers into a different world. But until January 6, 2013 you can experience what I experienced last fall: serenity. Maybe that is just what you need right now.

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