The Composition of Michael Kenna’s Photographs: Leading Lines

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 this article, I will discuss Michael Kenna’s use of leading lines. This is one of his primary compositional elements, and looking at a collection of his work, even the one in this exhibition (which contained about 40 photos), it’s clear how he uses this technique. I don’t need to go very far to find examples, and, to discuss leading lines, I’ve decided to limit myself to the photos that were in this exhibition, though there are plenty of other examples throughout his work.

Leading lines are a common element of composition. The eye is drawn by the lines which generally stretch from the foreground to the distance. These lines may be straight, crooked, or angled, and light can affect how they are perceived. There is something satisfying about leading lines, as they give the viewer a path to follow in an image. Sometimes, lines lead the viewer to a main subject; other times, which is common in Kenna’s photos, they lead into the distance, often into a vanishing point of nothingness. Leading lines don’t always have to be straight lines, and can sometimes be implied by elements of a photo.

Here’s a photo from the exhibition: Winding Wall, Mont St. Michel, France 2004.

Winding wall mont st michel france 2004

This is a very simple image, but it represents the most typical use of leading lines in Kenna’s photography. Here’s what he said to me about the above photo:

"I think with many of my images I have pathways, I have directions, I have tunnels of trees… I have boardwalks that go out because I’m creating something of a stage for the viewer to go onto and to be on their own, to be solitary. Naturally, in a black and white photograph, you go from dark to light, it’s the way we see. So you come in here [bottom right] and you wander along and you go out here [top left]. And this is the lightest part; it’s not by coincidence. Everything guides you to that corner and out, into a place […] we don’t know what’s there. And I love that, because there’s a question mark. We are naturally inquisitive animals and we want to see what’s behind there. It’s that enigma, that illusion, that use of our own creative imagination that’s very important to me."

Kenna presents these pathways, directions, and stages for viewers in many of his photos that use leading lines. Look at Taushubetsu Bridge, Nukabira, Hokkaido, Japan 2008:

Taushubetsu bridge nukabira hokkaido japan 2008

In this image, one can see the same type of big, bold line (though there are also reflections, another common element of Kenna’s compositions), that leads to the land on the other side of the bridge. There is also a light section near the center of the photo, a "question mark."

In Stark Outlook, Kucharo Lake, Hokkaido, Japan 2004, the dark and light are reversed.

Stark outlook kucharo lake hokkaido japan 2004

In the distance, there is a dark, cloudy sky that attracts the eye, but the diagonal line of the pier pulls the viewer back down toward the bottom of the photo. The eye follows this pier to its end, which leads to the dark cloud, then back to the beginning of the pier again, in an endless cycle.

Poplar Trees, Fucino, Abruzzo, Italy 2016 shows a combination of two compositional elements: leading lines and repeated elements. The leading lines of the road, and of the tree branches that become more concentrated and smaller, frame the lines of the poplar trees as they move from individual, repeated tree trunks to merge in the distance.

Poplar trees fucino abruzzo italy 2016 copy

One can see a hint of the mountain between the tree trunks, and a larger part of the mountain above the end of the road, as if this is the culmination of the road that leads to the distance.

All of the above photos have leading lines that go from the bottom right of the frame toward the top left. Pebble Beach, Ault, Picardy, France 2009 has a different perspective.

Pebble beach ault picardy france 2009

The black mass on the center-left of the frame heads toward the top right, yet stops almost dead center in the frame. (Another comment element of Kenna’s composition is centering.) The blurry white water, shot with a long exposure, adds mystery to the end of the slipway, and the viewer can see a bit of darkness near the end of the slipway where it has been wet by the water.

Here’s Stone Pine Tunnel, Pineto, Abruzzo, Italy 2016.

Stone pine tunnel pineto abruzzo italy 2016 copy

And this is Cours La Reine, Paris, France 1987.

Cours la reine paris france 1987

As Kenna said in the interview excerpt above, he likes "tunnels of trees," which lead the viewer’s eye to the distance. Neither of the two photos above are at angles as sharp as the other photos I’ve examined. In the second one, the path is pretty much straight up the center of the frame. But both lead the eye to a hazy distance.

Four Birds, St. Nazaire, France 2000 is a striking minimal photo, with three bold, dark lines arising from the bottom of the frame, leading the eye to three birds sitting at the ends of poles (dead center in the frame). As the eye perceives these birds, it then spots the fourth bird, to the left, it flight, looking almost ephemeral.

Four birds st nazaire france 2000 copy

Finally, Michael Kenna has a number of photos like Hillside Fence, Study 5, Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Japan 2004:

Hillside fence study 5 teshikaga hokkaido japan 2004

These ultra-minimal photos, of which Kenna has realized many, show little more than a fence line (often made up of posts or sticks) against the bright white of the snow. In this photo, one can see the end of the fence as it reaches the horizon, which is subtly visible due to the minimal contrast between the snow-covered hill and the cloudy sky. There is a bit of relief visible in the snow, and the way the fence turns to finish its journey as a straight, vertical line is satisfying. The viewer can then wonder where it goes, and what’s on the other side of the hill.

Using compositional elements like this is simply a matter of seeing them and recognizing them, then framing them in the appropriate manner.

In future articles, I’ll look at some of the other compositional strategies that Michael Kenna uses, such as centered objects, repetition, reflection, and more.

0 thoughts on “The Composition of Michael Kenna’s Photographs: Leading Lines

  1. Lovely article. Thanks. Much of the appeal of greyscale photography may be because seeing this way is our basic biologically evolved way of seeing.

    According to Margaret Livingstone in her classic “Vision And Art: The Biology Of Seeing”, we have two visual systems: an evolutionarily older B&W one that concentrates on edges and contrasts, the most efficient way to detect movement (Something’s moving. Can I eat that or is that going to eat me?). And an evolutionarily newer color one that cues on the meaning of a color in context defined biologically (red blood) or culturally (red light). Red is the most important color to this system.

    I’ve always seen B&W more related to structure in a photo and color as more of a singular highlight. B&W is the ice cream sundae and color is the cherry on top.

    These two systems seem to compete with each other when we look at a photo, a special case of seeing. The color jumping up and down to get noticed and obscuring the structure, which to me is the most important part of a photo. In B&W the structure jumps out instead.

    So I think a color photo works best if color is a just a highlight or if the photo is only about the color.

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