The Fussy Eye: Small Worlds

Michael Kenna travels to Tacoma.

There’s a rigorous, not to say slavish, formalism to the work of Michael Kenna, an English-born photographer now living in Seattle. Every image in Memories and Meditations is printed in the same small, square size. All are black-and-white, and most are self-conscious “travel” photos of places far from home. So we see Easter Island moai, the pyramids, Stonehenge, China’s famous Huangshan Mountains, Russia’s Hermitage, etc. Then there are the snowy landscape studies—exercises in composition, quite elegant, also requiring a passport stamp. (Kenna must have had extra pages added to his.) In a career extending back to the ’70s, Kenna adheres to traditional rules and formats, shooting on film through a Hasselblad, printing his own stuff. He’s a model of refinement and consistency, which oddly works against him when these 96 shots are presented en masse. (Kenna will rotate in another 96 in January.) One is overwhelmed by the sameness, the lack of people or context, the reduction of so many varied sights and locations by Kenna’s formidable technique. Absent is the surprise of travel, any sense of accidental discovery—not the same thing as a mistake. “I want people to be quiet, to calm down,” said Kenna during a preview talk, and his work has a strongly contemplative, Zen vibe to it. One image is calming to study. One hundred has you looking for the exit.