Kenna, who is now in his fifth decade of photographing, works on multiple long-term projects simultaneously. Although the prints on display are all recent, this exhibition acts as a cross section of his work as the negatives span various decades. As a result, HOLGA and Recent Prints offers a fascinating look at Kenna’s methods and subjects over time, both of which have proved remarkably consistent despite changes in technology and shifting aesthetic trends. Kenna travels extensively (locations in China, France, Italy, Washington, and California, to name a few, are represented in this show) and has kept his gaze steadfastly fixed on the world around him, translating and interpreting what he sees while keeping his images minimal. “I imagine what could be, rather than what we actually see,” he explains. “I enjoy places that have mystery and atmosphere, perhaps a patina of age, a suggestion rather than a description, a question or two.” He concurrently endeavors to “escape previsualization,” or “the predictability of knowing how something will appear when photographed.” The resulting compositions are peaceful and contemplative, and foreground graphic forms and abstraction — elements that are heightened by his analog process and a creative approach that involves the making of silver black-and-white prints in a traditional darkroom.
The images each present a different subject, and yet they coalesce around similar visual and narrative through-lines. Often, human interventions are expertly juxtaposed with the natural world, such as in Lake Path, Shexian, Anhui, China (2007), which features an unfolding path, echoing the unfolding of nature via the seasons and progression of time. Ironically, the path does not disturb the water, save for an invisible displacement, but the air does by creating gentle ripples across its surface. The photograph embodies a harmony and a mirroring of manmade and organic forces that is evident throughout Kenna’s work. Many of the photographs also highlight the lyricism and energy of nature’s sublime power. This is apparent in Avenue of the Giants, California, USA (1998), the protagonists of which are the mighty redwoods of Northern California, backlit here to form majestic silhouettes that underscore their colossal stature. Rays of light radiate out from behind their branches, according them an air of the sacred, as if saints in a religious painting.
This exhibition also includes photographs that Kenna made using a Holga camera, which he frequently takes with him on his travels. Created in China in the early 1980s, the Holga is an inexpensive, lightweight toy camera with a plastic lens and fixed shutter speed that has garnered a cult following over the years due to its unusual effects. Photographs made with Holgas often exhibit a softened focus, a sense of diffusion and blurring, an abbreviated depth of field, errant markings and light leaks, and vignetting. There is a mystery about them that dovetails with Kenna’s effort to move beyond the veil to apprehend that which is present but not necessarily visible. He has mastered the Holga, capitalizing on its technical limitations to prioritize spontaneity and preserve a sense of vision. In works such as Graveside Statue (2008), taken at Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale, and Saint Aubert Chapel, Mont St. Michel (2004), Kenna has ingeniously used the Holga to create breathtaking scenes of a statue coming to life and a church erupting from a rugged, seemingly hallowed, outcropping.
Michael Kenna was born in 1953 in Lancashire, England. He attended Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire before enrolling at the London College of Printing, now known as the London College of Communication, where he studied photography for three years. He has exhibited in galleries and museums across the world, and his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
HOLGA and Recent Prints
January 26 – March 2, 2019
Dolby Chadwick Gallery
210 Post Street, Suite 205
San Francisco, CA 94108