The memories and meditations of Michael Kenna

// Tacoma Art Museum showcases artist’s first retrospective in nearly 20 years

Tacoma Art Museum has just opened a new exhibit of world renowned photographer Michael Kenna’s first United States retrospective in nearly 20 years. “Memories and Meditations” features approximately 100 of Kenna’s masterful black and white photographs taken at locations across the globe, ranging from historic places like Stonehenge and Easter Island to more simple subjects such as a lone tree on the banks of a lake in Japan. In all, Kenna takes viewers on a trip around the world to 15 countries and three American states. “I like the idea that we can take a solitary walk and allow our minds to wander,” Kenna said of his works in the collection that spans 30 years. In Kenna’s hands, the simple becomes sublime and it is his gift of communicating this through photography that has made him an internationally acclaimed artist. His works are moody, dream-like and sometimes solemn but in a way that ignites the imagination. A sense of peace seems to reach out and embrace those who pause to meditate for a moment on the image before them. Kenna’s point of view through the lens invites viewers to walk right up and become part of the picture – all of his works in this exhibit are the same size and hung at eye level to facilitate the interplay between viewer and art. An intriguing aspect of Kenna’s work is his medium of choice in which he eschews modern digital photography for traditional, handcrafted black and white prints. This allows him to play with things like shutter speed and exposure times – sometimes up to 10 hours or more – so that the end result offers an element of surprise. Another interesting fact is that the artist frequently returns to certain locales and records their natural beauty over the course of several years in order to capture the brilliance of time passing.

Kenna has an eye for moments in which “you had to be there to get the shot,” and this is evidenced clearly – an ocean wave at its peak crashing against a seawall, an untrimmed bush standing like a black sheep among its clipped and preened neighbors, or a frozen mountain of ice created by a fountain during a Detroit winter. His “Reflected Tree” on a body of water’s glassy surface captures every miniscule branch much like the capillaries of the human heart. Some of his photos explore the juxtaposition of geometric figures with landscapes. “Fifty Fences” shows rows of post-and-rail fences against a snowy Japanese hillside much like horizontal staff lines on sheet music, which makes for an interesting pairing considering the silence of a rural snowfall. In his image “Two Piers,” also taken in Japan, two wooden piers jut out onto a body of water, offering solid footing amid the liquid depths around them. Kenna was born in Widnes, Lancashire, England in 1953 to a working-class family without much money. He trained to be a Catholic priest in his youth, as he was attracted to the beauty and mystery of the church and its icons. He also recognized his own artistic talents. “I was quite good at art – painting and drawing – so I went to art school almost by default because there was no career guidance. Photography seemed to be a natural for me.” To date, his prints have been shown in more than 600 exhibitions in Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australia, and more than 500 books and catalogues have been published about his photography work.

“Memories and Meditations: A Retrospective of Michael Kenna’s Photography” is a two-part exhibit. Part one is on view until Jan. 6, then part two opens on Jan. 11 and will feature European scenes and architecture along with a series of images from his work documenting the European concentration camps of World War II. On Jan. 12 Kenna will be at Tacoma Art Museum for a reception and book signing at 2 p.m. He will give an overview of his work to date and discuss his aesthetic approach to the photographic medium. On Nov. 9 the public is invited to come and “hear” Kenna’s photography expressed in music as Tacoma’s Second City Chamber Orchestra presents “Zen Pathways” at 7:30 p.m. A private tour of the exhibit will be included. Get tickets at


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