France’s Geometry Revealed in Michael Kenna’s Photographs

Documentary photographer Michael Kenna has traveled the world for several decades, shooting stunning and evocative landscapes; his latest series homes in on his vast and varied experiences in France. Kenna depicts the country’s richness and variety—from detail shots of sprawling cities and manicured landscapes to manmade objects in factories—in a selection of images that date from the 1980s into the present. A new show of these works is on view now at London’s Beetles + Huxley and coincides with the release of a complementary monograph.

Kenna is obsessive about the craft of his photography, carefully controlling all the aspects of his practice. He works in black and white and prefers grainy film. “Grain is a facet of the photographic process that I like to use,” he explains. “It’s akin to seeing the brushstrokes in a painting.” In his pictures of Paris, such as PASSY METRO, PARIS, 1991 (1991) and PONT DES ARTS, STUDY 3, PARIS, FRANCE, 1987 (1987), the perceptible grain of the photograph enhances the rich texture of the storied city. The foggy ambiance of the scenes enlivens the city, despite the pains Kenna goes to in order to minimize the passersby in his pictures, preferring to focus on the space rather than its pedestrians.

Atmosphere is important to Kenna, who uses long shots, often shooting at night, as in FULL MOONRISE, CHAUSEY ISLANDS, FRANCE, 2007 (2007). The development of that nighttime sky, with arcs of rising celestial bodies, takes a long time. Nonetheless, as Kenna explains, he is open to inspiration striking suddenly: “Sometimes I specifically set out to go to a place or a particular subject and photograph there. Sometimes I stumble upon places. At times I’ve used other photographers to inspire me, like Bill BrandtJosef SudekEugène Atget.” Such spontaneity can be seen in works like INVITATION TO PRAYER, MONT ST. MICHEL, FRANCE, 1994 (1994), which features the sudden appearance of a dove fluttering over a small cobblestone alley. And while he is admiring of the long exposure work of artists such as Ansel Adams, he is equally indebted to the interest in fleeting moments seen in the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One of the artist’s most beloved subjects is naturally occurring symmetry. In SHELLFISH WALLS, CHAUSEY ISLANDS, FRANCE, 2007 (2007) and JARDIN DES PLANTES, STUDY 1, PARIS, FRANCE, 1988 (1988), the corridor-like landscape of trees and paths leads the viewer’s eye through the image and into its background, travelling as one’s body might move through such spaces. The effect is both elusive and inviting, a call to explore a beautiful land.

Stephen Dillon

Michael Kenna: France” is on view at Beetles + Huxley, London Jan. 28–Feb. 21, 2015.

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