Michael Kenna is one of the most important living black and white landscape photographers. With a career stretching more than 45 years, his work has been exposed in hundreds of exhibitions, and, to his count, he has published 72 books, with more in the works.
I recently had an opportunity to meet Michael Kenna and interview him for the PhotoActive podcast, just before the opening of a 45-Year Retrospective Exhibition at Bosham Gallery, on the southern coast of England. One thing I took away from our discussion – both during the interview and afterwards – was the carefully refined composition of his photos. Thinking about this, and looking over his work in the dozen books I own, I’ve isolated a number of types of composition in Kenna’s photos.
In my first article, I looked at leading lines and how they draw the viewer’s eye into a photo and lead it to a point, often in the distance. In this article, I’m going to look at centering, the way Kenna sometimes places objects dead center in his frame. Since all his photos – at least since the mid-1980s – are square, centering has an important role is his composition.
When Michael Kenna started shooting with Hasselblad cameras, he appreciated the square format because “There’s a predictability about the 35mm format,” Kenna told me. “You had to make choices right from the beginning. Should it be vertical, should it be horizontal? Things seemed to be squashed in somehow. The 2 1/4 – I got it first of all with a waist-level viewfinder so everything was back to front – it was a completely different format for me, and it made me look more abstractedly at the landscape. It just becomes forms, lines, shapes, and densities…”
The square format lends itself to centering subjects, but photos would be boring if all subjects were centered. Kenna uses this technique sparingly, but when he does use it, the effect can be quite arresting.
Take, for example, this photo Chrysler Building, Study 3, New York, New York, USA 2006.