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Photographer Michael Kenna Presents 'Japan / A Love Story' in Daikanyama

British landscape photographer Michael Kenna pays tribute to his long-standing relationship with Japan through an exhibition of 100 black and white photographs.

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Michael Kenna at the Daikanyama Hillside Forum (Photo by ©Paul de Vries)

Japan / A Love Story by acclaimed landscape photographer Michael Kenna is presently on display at the Daikanyama Hillside Forum in Daikanyama, Shibuya ward until May 5. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name. After finishing its run in Tokyo, the exhibition will relocate to Los Angeles (May 11–July 20), and then London (September 24–October 20).

Kenna (70) is one of the world's most preeminent landscape photographers. His work has been shown in hundreds of exhibitions in over 40 countries. A self-proclaimed "dinosaur," he maintains the analog photographic traditions of his upbringing. He works solely in black and white, spending countless hours alone in the darkroom personally developing every print. A dedicated assistant of long-standing, Mark Silva, spends an equally voluminous amount of time retouching each print by hand. 

Hyomon, Study 1, Kussharo Lake, Hokkaido 2020 (©Michael Kenna)

Analog 'Till I Die'

The analog option is an "extremely slow, patient, unpredictable, uncontrollable, process" he concludes, which is "all of the reasons why I love it." The digital option is "too fast, too easy, too intense, too saturated, too everything — for my personal, very slow taste."

His prints are predominantly 7 ¾ inches square (19.69 cm square) with some larger alternatives of 15 inches square. The small size is chosen to establish an intimacy with the viewer. The square shape of the prints is a function of his choice of camera, a prism viewfinder Hasselblad. 

Field of Sticks, Kamikawa, Hokkaido 2023 (©Michael Kenna)

Industrial Roots 

Kenna grew up in the industrial north of England within a working-class Catholic family. He attended a seminary school from the age of 10 in preparation for becoming a priest. Priorities changed at the age of 17, however, when — as stated in the press preview — he "discovered girls." Art school followed, before a relocation to California in 1977. 

His love affair with Japan began a decade later, in 1987. "On my first visit to Japan" the exhibition flyer states, "I was blown away by the aesthetics, the spiritual and religious aspects." He has been back innumerable times since. To celebrate his 50th birthday, in 2003, he completed the Shikoku pilgrimage. Japan was the last country he visited before the COVID-19 lockdown, and the first that he returned to after the lockdown was lifted. 

The Dark and Light of Black and White 

The exhibition is loosely divided into two sections. In the initial gallery, the black-and-white images are generally dark. In the following two galleries, there is an abundance of white. The latter shots were largely taken in Hokkaido during the winter months. 

"I went up to Northern Hokkaido in the middle of winter, " Kenna states. Then he adds, "And it looked to me like a stark sumi-e ink painting, a white canvas with Kanji characters marked on it." "I've been in love with the place ever since."

Dancing Trees, Kussharo Lake, Hokkaido 2020 (©Michael Kenna)

Kenna is naturally drawn to mountains, coastlines, and lakes, but maintains a fascination for how humans relate to the land and what they place upon it. Within the Japanese countryside, a distinctive feature is the torii gate, which to Kenna symbolizes "respect and reverence" for the landscape. He finds common cause with the Japanese concept of gods inhabiting every object, no matter how humble — the notion that "everything is sacred" pervades his work. He feels the need to "ask permission" from whatever he is photographing. 

Torii, Study 4, Takashima, Honshu, Japan. 2007 (©Michael Kenna)

Pathways 

The human-made structures that he prefers are those that do not dominate the landscape. Boardwalks, jetties, fences, and posts, invariable attract his attention. They represent "pathways," he states. They lead the viewer into the photographs, but their depiction within broad landscapes "leaves space for the viewer, to interpret, to imagine, to exist, to be themselves, to think." 

Fishnet Structure, Biwa Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2022 (©Michael Kenna)

The Hokkaido-based shots are typically minimalist. They can have the feel of a Japanese rock garden, with snow substituting for raked gravel. They have been described by noted art critic, Kotaro Izawa, as "pictures written in short poem form," of being "visual haiku." It is a characterization that Kenna finds appealing. 

Asparagus Sticks, Study 3, Hokkaido, Japan. 2007 (©Michael Kenna)

A Love for Japan That Is Real

There is an infectiousness about Kenna that reminds one of the English north in the days before the internet and cable television, of nights at the pub, a knees up, singalongs around the piano — of a basic sense of faith founded in community and family. In a video presentation of his Hokkaido travels that concludes the exhibition, Kenna is shown completing a commendable rendition of a Japanese tune on the karaoke machine of a local bar. He looks right at home. 

Michael Kenna's infectious smile of gratitude. (Photo by ©Paul de Vries )

Kenna is far from ungrateful for the hospitality he has received. The exhibition flyer declares a deep gratitude for "the curiosity" of the Japanese people, "their friendliness and generosity." Through this exhibition, Kenna hopes to move towards squaring the ledger — to pay some of that generosity back. In Japan, however, the act of reciprocation can be a harder task than one might think. 

Deep Gratitude

I recounted to Kenna a personal anecdote of a night out with a group of younger coworkers during my third year in Japan. Here, at last, was my opportunity to pick up the lion's share of the tab after years of having been treated by company workers of senior age — to be the host rather than guest. 

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When the young ones resisted my generosity, I became more than a little agitated. Had Kenna experienced something similar, I enquired. He had not, but with true northern English wit, he had a solution to my ongoing guestist dilemma: "You could always pay Japan back by writing nice comments about me" he joked — a task, in truth, that would be hard not to do. 

Astutely, Kenna has opted to repay the kindness he has received. Not in kind, but with what he does uniquely well — with an exhibition and book that symbolize his "immense ongoing appreciation and deep gratitude" for the "alluring and mysterious country" of Japan.  

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Author: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on JAPAN Forward.