The Composition of Michael Kenna’s Photographs: Centering

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.

Chrysler building study 3 new york new york usa 2006

This well-known building – at least to New Yorkers – was briefly the world’s tallest building, until the Empire State Building was erected 11 months after its completion. It was long the tallest building in its area of Manhattan, and still stands as one of the more recognizable landmarks. It’s impossible to get a photo just of the building itself, but Kenna here shows a unique way of examining the building. Shot from the roof of a nearby building, this photo only shows the Art Deco top section and spire, with the tip of the spire falling dead center in the photo. This photo is as much about the building as it is about this building’s place against the dramatic sky that lies behind it.

Four Birds, St. Nazaire, France 2000 uses leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye to the center of the frame where one can see three birds perched on poles, and another bird in flight, perhaps looking to land on one of the poles.

Four birds st nazaire france 2000 copy

The dead-center positioning of the three birds is satisfying, but without the flying bird, which is slightly off center, would this photo be as interesting? The weight of the flying bird counters the arc of the poles, and it’s almost as if that flying bird is held in space by the three birds at the center of the frame.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Study 6, Bordeaux, France 2012 is an interesting example of a fortuitous photo where one of the main elements is dead center. With the frame bisected evenly between the roiling sky and the vertical rows of vines, Kenna managed to catch two lightning strikes, one almost exactly at the center of the frame. This photo would still be powerful if there was simply the one lightning strike at the left, but since the eye is immediately drawn to the one in the center, it centers the narrative of the photo.

Chateau lafite rothschild study 6 bordeaux france 2012

Fontaine du Palmier, Study 2, Paris, France, 2007 is similar to the photo of the Chrysler Building. One sees the top of the pillar, with its statue, but not the base. This long exposure shows the movement of clouds, and the statue’s arms reach up to the sky at the center point of the frame.

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The minimalist Structure and Thirty Six Posts, Biwa Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2002 is another photo where a key element is dead center in the frame. Looking at a photo like this, one can only think that there is no other way to frame the subject. The lines here lead out of the frame, to the right, to the unknown.

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The same is true with Torii, Study 2, Takaishima, Biwa Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2007.

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Here’s a photo that Kenna shot with a Holga, a cheap, “toy” camera. He carries Holgas around with him, as they are small, light, and very simple to use, and has printed many of these photos (and publish a book of his Holga photographs). Because of the light and vignetting, Fallen Leaves, Beijing, China. 2008, highlights clump of leaves dead center of the frame. With a subject like this, it seems like there is no other way to compose the shot. But would it be a photo worth looking at if the clump of leaves wasn’t in the center? If it were, say, aligned, according to the dubious “rule of thirds?” Most likely not in a square frame.

Fallen Leaves Beijing China 2008

It would be too facile, when shooting exclusively in a square frame, to try to center every subject; and it would be boring, because all the photos would have the same weight. Naturally, not all subject lends itself to centering, and Michael Kenna’s limited use of this technique shows just how powerful it can be when he does use it.

Nevertheless, in many photos, there is an implied center weight, which cannot be avoided by the symmetry of the frame. When viewing a square photo, one tends to look at the central area first, as that is where we expect the focus of the image to be. If only because of the tension of the equal lengths of the sides of the image, many photos tend toward a center weighting if they are not clearly composed differently.

Look at one of Michael Kenna’s iconic images, Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 6, Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan. 2007. While the tree itself stretches out like a series of arthritic limbs, the weight of the trunk in the lower right corner is counter-balanced by the three branches stretching up toward the left. The center point of the frame falls in the small triangle formed by the trunk and the lowest branch. Accident or intention?

Kussharo Lake Tree Study 6 Kotan Hokkaido Japan 2007

Not all of the Kussharo Lake tree photos show the tree positioned around that central point, but many do.

The constraint of the square frame allows a certain amount of freedom in composition, but also adds a bias to images, which cannot avoid somehow conversing with the center point. Whether a subject is intentionally centered, or whether a subject’s weight is located near the center of the frame, the square image imposes its form on every photo in that aspect ratio.

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