Michael Kenna – Beyond Architecture

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Review by Wayne Swanson

Imagine having the chance to lose yourself in the archives of a master photographer, to wander among the images with no set expectations or goals. What would strike your fancy?

Author and designer Yvonne Meyer-Lohr was given that chance. She roamed through nearly a half-century’s worth of Michael Kenna’s photography “like a flâneur,” open to anything. What caught her eye was “a cornucopia of forms.” The visual and conceptual bond that emerged from her research was imagery related to architecture — from the capital-A Architecture of famous buildings to the small-a architecture of lines, shapes, and volumes, both built and natural.

The result is Beyond Architecture, a massive compendium of 300 duotone images spread over 384 pages, 9 x 11.4 inches in size. Kenna may be better known for his ethereal landscapes, but his mastery of line and form, light and shadow, deep deep blacks and long long exposures lends itself equally well to the built world.

To organize the broad range of imagery she selected, Meyer-Lohr divides the book into seven sections that emphasize specific elements of Kenna’s oeuvre: Source, Absence & Appearance, Space & Infinity, Form & Character, Structure & Rhythm, Extract & Abstraction, and Inspiration.

In each section she draws from images made throughout his career and from around the world. Recurring muses include cooling towers, the Eiffel Tower, The Flatiron and Empire State buildings, the Ford River Rouge industrial complex, and assorted bridges and power lines. There are also nods to conical hedges, forms lined up in a row, and other familiar Kenna motifs.

The images are nicely sequenced, allowing similar elements to play off each other, even if the subject matter may differ — the slender lines of an electricity pylon echo those of a factory chimney; the balustrade of a royal balcony in Peterhof, Russia neatly matches the rhythm of Stonehenge. She also breaks up the flow with some unexpected juxtapositions — the Matterhorn is paired with the spire of Freedom Tower in New York; the serenity of a mountain-top view in China provides a counterpoint to the bustle of Fifth Avenue in New York. The page layouts are varied as well, since not all of the images are square like Kenna’s present work.

Throughout, there are familiar images and surprises. But there sure is a lot of everything. Meyer-Lohr’s structure provides a useful framework for riffing on Kenna’s themes, but as you wander farther into the book, it starts to feel repetitive. The work of a minimalist like Kenna might have benefited from the advice of another minimalist, Mies van der Rohe (whose architecture does not make an appearance here) — less is more.

But true Kenna aficionados can enjoy losing themselves as they wander, like flâneurs, through the rich black-and-white world built by Meyer-Lohr from the works of Michael Kenna.

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Beyond Architecture, Michael Kenna

Photographer: Michael Kenna, born Widnes, England, resides Seattle, USA

Publisher: Prestel Verlag (Munich, Germany, copyright 2019)

Author: Yvonne Meyer-Lohr

Text: English

Hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, duo-tone lithography, list of plates, printed in Italy

Photobook designer: Yvonne Meyer-Lohr

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