Michael Kenna’s photography exhibition “Rouge”— at the Princeton University Art Museum through February 11 — fascinates for social and esthetic reasons.
Its subject is the Ford Motor Company plant in Dearborn, Michigan. It was built between 1917 and 1928 on a 2,000-acre stretch on the Rouge River, 10 miles from Detroit. The river gave it its nickname, the Rouge.
The Detroit News called the Rouge plant “the largest industrial complex in the world, as well as the most advanced, architecturally and technologically.”
In its golden days, the self-sufficient complex designed by American architect Albert Khan produced farm equipment, warships, aircraft engines, and cars — 4,000 a day. It boasted 93 structures, a 30-acre foundry, 90 miles of railroad tracks, and its own hospital, fire department, and police force.
In an era celebrating progress, the Rouge became a symbol and a tourist destination, with public relations helping to fascinate a public already dizzy with American modernity and ingenuity. That includes the N. W. Ayer & Son advertising images commissioned from precisionist artist and photographer Charles Sheeler, who also painted numerous Bucks County structures.
The images have become part of America’s art heritage, with curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art writing that Sheeler’s “commanding” images transformed a “technological utopia” into “a monument to the transcendent power of industrial production in the early modern age.”
Michael Kenna made his Rouge images between 1992 and 1995. That was the era when the American auto production industry was stalled by foreign competition and a recession. The cash-strapped “utopia” was reduced to producing just one auto model, selling divisions, and struggling for existence. (It has since become an active mill, entertaining new business endeavors and continuing tours for the public).
While Kenna’s “Rouge” was created during a time of upheaval, the British-born and raised photographer came to create art. “I often make pilgrimages to sites where other photographers have worked,” says Kenna, 64, who at the time was visiting Michigan for an exhibition of photos. He says such pilgrimages have “greatly helped to develop my own vision.”
Kenna’s absorption with Rouge began as an homage to Charles Sheeler, writes PUAM director James Steward who both curated the exhibition and wrote the introductory essay for the 196-page book version of “Rouge,” published by Prestel.
Yet, Steward continues, “Kenna’s engagement with the Rouge was entirely self-motivated: there was no commission underpinning it.”
Additionally the subject suited Kenna’s pictorialist photographer’s fascination with the visual effects of mists, smoke, and soft blurring, rather than photojournalism. The photographer often uses such devices to simplify a scene and engage the viewer.
As Kenna says about the exhibition, “The starting point of the project was a Sheeler photograph of the power plant chimneys, so I would constantly return to photograph the same chimneys.” And the 40 black-and-white images seem a variation on a theme with the stacks appearing in various levels of importance and placement, sometimes pronounced, other times nearly hidden.
And while Sheeler’s images are celebrations of progress and emphasize confident and bright arrangements to show power, Kenna’s explore uncertainty and create tension between buildings and landscapes and darks and lights to create moods — ranging from the mythical or mysterious to the startlingly stark.
Steward writes, “Kenna’s absorption with the Rouge grows out of a profound and personal relationship with industry and the industrial landscape.”
Kenna, the son of a builder, supports the claim: “I was born and brought up in what might be described as a poor, working class family in Widnes, an industrial town near Liverpool in England. Childhood experiences obviously have a great influence on one’s life and as a boy, even though I had five siblings, I was quite solitary, content for the most part with making up my own adventures and acting them out in the local parks and streets. I liked to wander in train stations and factories, on rugby grounds and canal towpaths, and in empty churches and grave yards, all locations that I would later find interesting to photograph. Even though I did not use a camera at the time, I suspect this period was ultimately more influential on my vision than the time I later spent in art and photography schools.”
In various interviews and writings, Kenna exposes himself and his approach. He says he comes from a European tradition and influenced by photographers who “were all romantics at heart, concerned with photographing a feeling as much as documenting external reality.”
He says the work of noted fin de siecle French photographer Eugene Atget “taught me that nothing is ever the same. The same subject matter can be photographed in many different ways and in different conditions.”
And British photographer and photojournalist Bill Brandt “took me back to the industrial towns in the North West of England. He showed me that beauty is very much in the mind of the beholder and I would go on to photograph power stations and factory interiors. His sense of drama, even melodrama, his use of atmosphere, his willingness to completely change reality into an abstract and graphic print, all helped my own vision. He also taught me the value of empty space in an image,” says Kenna.
Originally intending to be a Catholic priest, Kenna went to a seminary school for seven years and says he incorporated several practices into his work: “discipline, silence, meditation, and a sense that something can be unseen, yet still present.”
However, his interest turned to art. “I seemed to be good at drawing and painting, so following these interests I went on to study at the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire. I then specialized in photography at the London College of Printing where I was trained as a commercial photographer. I learnt about photojournalism, fashion photography, sports photography, still-life photography, architectural photography, all sorts of photography with many different cameras and formats. When I graduated, I was supposed to be able to survive in the competitive commercial photography world. Running parallel to this, I was also photographing the landscape, and this was very much my own passion and hobby. I had no idea that I could and would eventually make a living in this area.”
Kenna says he learned his art while working as a black-and-white printer for an advertising photographer and in color labs at Sotheby’s Auction House.
In search of more professional opportunities he came to San Francisco in 1979 and began to print for master art photographer Ruth Bernhard. He calls the experience “an eye opener. I had never before witnessed such a radical subjective transition from negative to final print. Ruth gave me the freedom to think of the negative as a starting point with immense potential for further creativity. She also showed me how much persistence is needed to realize a finished print from a raw negative.
“She took creative license with a negative more than anyone else I’d ever seen, cropping, elongating, retouching, and playing with contrast. She opened my eyes to the possibilities of the printing process, and I went back and printed earlier negatives of mine, now that I could interpret them in a way I’d never thought of before.”
He adds that she also influenced him spiritually “with her attitude about the world and life in general, and her openness and connectedness, her ability to say yes to everything.”
Since then Kenna has launched scores of critically acclaimed artistic projects, including images of Nazi concentration camps, church confessionals, Easter Island statues, and structures and landscapes in Thailand, England, Poland, Ukraine, the United States, and more. He has exhibited internationally in multiple solo shows every year since 1979 (with an average of about 10 per year), participated in hundreds of group shows, and has work in major public and private collections. One reviewer called him “one of the most influential landscape photographers of his generation” and “one of the masters of black and white photography, especially of places, landscapes, buildings, and moods.”
The “Rouge” exhibition reflects several key aspects of Kenna’s approach. One is his interest in exhibiting small images, 8 by 10 inches, saying they “have a greater feeling of intimacy — one looks into the print. Large prints are more awesome — they are something a viewer looks out at. I believe in fitting the print size to one’s particular vision and prefer the more intimate engagement of the smaller image.”
Another involves using long exposures at night. “There are many characteristics associated with night photography that make it fascinating. We are used to working with a single light source, the sun, so multiple lights that come from an assortment of directions can be quite surreal and theatrical. Drama is usually increased with the resulting deep shadows from artificial lights. These shadows can invite us to imagine what is hidden. I particularly like what happens with long exposures. For example, moving clouds produce unique areas of interesting density in the sky, stars and planes produce white lines, rough water transforms into ice or mist, etc. Film can accumulate light and record events that our eyes are incapable of seeing.”
And while he chooses not to include the human figure in his works, the human element is an important part of his work. “I choose to photograph the absence of people, the memory of their presence, the traces of what’s left behind. I often use the analogy of a theater stage. I prefer to photograph the stage before the characters appear and after they leave. At those times there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation in the air. We can live in our imagination and our own stories on the empty stage.”
Those stories, he says in other interviews, involve structures, like Rouge, where “lots of people suffered and they worked extremely long hours for a pittance. Basically, the people were abused. At the same time, the people that worked all their lives in these lace factories were sad and demoralized when they were laid off because the industry was declining. They were devastated when the factories were shut down, when the buildings were demolished. It was their very existence. Suddenly, when all the buildings were quiet and still, their history and existence had been ripped away, too.”
Breaking his work down, Kenna says, “I’m very aware of two-dimensional patterns, abstractions, and compositions. I seek out what is interesting for me, out there in the three dimensional world, and translate (or) interpret so that it becomes visually pleasing in a two-dimensional photographic print. It’s hard to define exactly what I photograph (because) subject matter constantly changes. Power stations, trees, seafronts, industry, bridges, etc., all feature prominently, but the essence of the image often involves the basic juxtaposition of our human-made structures with the more fluid and organic elements of the landscape.”
“Rouge” is not a casual exhibition. The PUAM owns the complete set of Kenna’s Rouge. A communication from the museum notes, “The original body of work was gifted to the museum by the Ford Motor Company in 1997, thanks in large measure to the leadership of longtime curator of photography Peter Bunnell and the gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, that then represented the artist, the Halsted Gallery. The museum acquired the photographs that Kenna recently added to the series (also made during the same years in the 1990s) in order to continue to have the complete set.” The book notes 140 Rouge studies.
Steward’s involvement in the recent publication — actually a reworking of a 1996 volume — grew from the publisher’s knowledge of the PUAM’s relationship to the work and because Steward “had worked on the Rouge — and Kenna’s photographs of it — during his time as director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. At one point, for example, UMMA mounted an exhibition about the architect of the Rouge, Albert Kahn, and the photographs figured in that project.”
Steward’s final comment in the publication is also apt for the current PUAM exhibition: “What emerges is a complex vision of our industrial past and present, an ambivalent look at the great American icon that is the Rouge, which invites us toward our own meaning making.”
Rouge, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, February 11. Free. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Artist talk by Michael Kenna, McCosh Hall, Room 10. Saturday, December 2, 2 p.m. Free.
The “Rouge” collection can be viewed online at artmuseum.princeton.edu/object-package/michael-kenna-rouge-dearborn-michigan/120010. The images along with Steward’s essay can be found in “Rouge,” Prestel Press, www.prestel.com
For more information on the Princeton University Art Museum: 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.