Review: Michael Kenna @ BNF

Skyline, Study 3, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2009 Last night was the opening of the Michael Kenna retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library).  The show includes 210 prints of work spanning from the early 1980s until today, 100 of which Kenna is donating to the BNF after the exhibition. I was surprised that he has over 30 years of work behind him and curious to see what a large retrospective show such as this one would say about the development of this artist.

The first thing to mention is the printing. It is clear from the way that he signs and editions his prints that Kenna is nothing if not meticulous and his small, square format prints are quite stunning. When he moved to the US in the late 1970s, Kenna became Ruth Bernhard's assistant and printer, and clearly became very good at his job.

The exhibition is well laid out and the BNF's production values are always high. The work is grouped into a series of themes, from  'The Tree' to 'The Far East' with a healthy dose of 'Melancholy'. The show includes a large amount of work from England and the United States (his native and adopted homes), but also a significant amount of recent work shot all over the world (Dubai, New York, Hong Kong, China, and Kenna's beloved Japan).

Kenna's surgically-precise minimalist compositions, which—in his own words—are akin to haiku poems, have remained remarkably consistent over time. He is driven by a desire for pure images where not a single element is left to chance. This compositional rigour is paired with long exposures taken overnight or at dawn or dusk, playing with both texture and light in order to create a very personal dream-like vision of the world.  Kenna is masterful in his control of all of these elements and this has enabled him to develop an incredibly consistent personal vision.

However, despite all of this virtuosity, I ended up feeling frustratingly indifferent. One of the wall texts in the show claims that Kenna privileges suggestion over description, but I think he goes far beyond suggestion. His personal vision is so strong that his landscapes tend to resemble each other, whether they are taken in Bognor Regis (below) or in Hokkaido.

Pier Remains, Bodnor Regis, Sussex, England, 1990

Kenna's idealised vision of the world seems to iron out the details and imperfections which give each landscape its distinctiveness. There are moments when his eye seems to become more daring, even critical (see the above Dubai skyline), but these are few and far between. Kenna has increasingly ventured into cities with his camera with mixed results. Particularly in cities with iconic monuments or architecture, I found that his imagery comes dangerously close to upmarket postcard territory (his Brooklyn Bridge images for a good example of this).

In some ways Kenna's approach seems to be more painterly than photographic: instead of accepting the camera's all-seeing-eye that reveals everything which appears in the frame, you get the sense that Kenna uses the camera to recreate his interior vision of the world.

Finally, I think that the size of this exhibition is problematic. It is very difficult to compile 210 photographic haikus without suffocating the space that each one of these needs. Instead of the images combining into some form of symphony, I found that repetition sets in about halfway through.

In one of the final wall texts, reference is made to Barthes statement "All of a sudden, I became indifferent to the fact of not being modern."  This seems appropriate for Kenna. He is in search of a particular kind of beauty and is not concerned with the now: none of his images seem to have any link to the time in which they were made. If you can accept this about him, this exhibition has a better chance of resonating with you.

Lijiang River, Study 4, Guilin, China, 2006

Michael Kenna Bibliothèque nationale de France, Site Richelieu. 13 October 2009 - 24 January 2010.

Rating: Worth a look

Review: Photoquai 2009

Hiromi Tsuchida, Counting Grains of Sand, Tokyo, 1981 The Quai Branly Museum has just launched the second edition of Photoquai, its photography biennale of "world images". The mission of the biennale, to "highlight and make known, artists whose work is previously unexhibited or little known in Europe, and to foster exchanges and the exchanging of views on the world," sounded pretty good to me (as far as these mission things go) as this is basically what I am trying to do in photography. The fine art photography world can be very Western-centric and there is a huge amount of great work out there that does not make it onto the European or American photography circuit.

For the second edition of Photoquai, fifty photographers have been invited to show a handful of works each. The photographers are chosen by several guest curators who each select a few photographers from the region that they represent. I met with Tadashi Ono, a photographer and the guest curator responsible for Japan, Korea and South-East Asia, over the summer and got a sneak preview of his choices: I know Masato Seto and Hiromi Tsuchida's terrific work well, but all of his other selections were new to me and uniformly interesting. His selection focuses on documentary work in the loosest possible sense; most of these artists deal with the transformation of society, personal identity or of the landscape. After a couple of afternoons spent listening to his stories of research travels throughout Asia and previewing the work on his laptop, I had high hopes for Photoquai.

The biennale is not in the museum itself but on the banks of the Seine directly opposite. It's set up as a photographic walk through a series of modules on which the work is exhibited. As this all takes place outdoors, the photographs are printed on weatherproof material and of course this means that allowances have to be made for the quality of the printing. They made a decent effort with the scénographie (although I spent half of my time trying to figure out whose photos were whose) and the lighting, and the location cannot be beat. However, having finally taken the time to go through all the work on show, I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed.

Gohar Dashti, Life and war today, 2008

There is a danger with a festival that is set up to show "non-Western photography" that the work will be chosen to match a Western exoticised ideal, or that it will end up being a collection of photo-journalist reportages on poverty and deprivation in the third world. In theory Photoquai's system of inviting guest curators to help source work from all of these regions should avoid this, but I felt that it fell short of the mark. I found a majority of the work here to be forgettable and a few of these photographers presented here should be tried for Photoshop crimes against photography.

I don't want to be overly negative as thankfully I also made some interesting discoveries. The Iranian Gohar Dashti's photographs of a young couple living a seemingly ordinary life (sleeping, eating, getting married) on a battlefield surrounded by tanks and soldiers, have a surrealist and poetic quality reminiscent of the films of the Palestinian director, Elia Suleiman. Chuha Chung from Korea's images of life in a Korean town adjacent to a nuclear power plant raise the question of how life goes on in the shadow of such a powerful and ominous symbol. Pablo Hare from Peru's Monuments series, is a study of the monuments, from the grand to the ridiculous, and how these affect and interact with the public spaces around them.

However, Photoquai really feels like a missed opportunity. It is not easy to get a new photography festival off the ground in these troubled times, but it is always a shame when you see an event fall far short of its commendably ambitious aims.

Pablo Hare, Monuments

Photoquai, Quai Branly Museum, Paris, 22 September - 29 November 2009

Update Further reading: Pete Brook has put together a good round-up of online opinion on Photoquai.

Review: From Back Home (book and exhibition)

Anders Petersen

"The land between Klarälven River and the chestnut tree at Ekallén is full of little hard memories of sad and lonely times, but there is also a streak of warm confidence that runs all the way up to Älgsjövallen, a place of fairy tales and inquisitive moose." Anders Petersen

From Back Home is a collaboration between two of Sweden's leading photographers, Anders Petersen (b. 1944) and JH Engström (b. 1969), focusing on the Värmland region, one of the most sparsely populated provinces in Sweden. The two photographers have a shared relationship with the landthey both come from this regionas well as a strong personal relationship. Engström worked as Petersen's assistant and the older man is a major influence for him.

The book

frombackhomecoverFrom Back Home won the Author Book Award at Arles 2009 and deservedly so. The book is split into two parts, first Petersen's images followed by Engström's. Petersen's section starts with the birth of a child suggesting that this will be a journey of intense discovery. The first few images immediately set a mystical, slightly oppressive, dark and lonely tone.

I find that Petersen's vision has become more concentrated and more potent with time. His signature high-contrast black-and-white imagery crackles with energy as we are taken from birth to death and everything in between (although love seems to have the last word). Petersen's series centres mainly on the people that cross his path, photographs of random encounters mix with those of friends, family and lovers. The series is also punctuated with little details of the surrounding landscape (an empty skatepark surrounded by forest, a tree snapped in half). Petersen has said before that he is seeking to become almost animal-like in his approach, to become a dog when he photographs, and this also comes through clearly in his raw, angular images. Animals also appear intermittently as subjects, reminding us of our mortality and of the fact that we are just another creature that will come and go.

The cover image (above), a photograph by Petersen of his mother, is one of the most haunting portraits I have come across in some time. It is full of dignity, an almost classical image, but there is a certain distance between the photographer and his subject which seems to contain all of the complexity of Petersen's relationship with 'home'.


The second half of the book is devoted to Engström's work. As opposed to Petersen, Engström hasn't adopted and honed a signature style, instead mixing lo-fi, washed out colour images, with cheap flash portraits or high-contrast black and white landscapes. He focuses mainly on life at night, from the drunken fumblings of teenagers in the forest to old couples pressed together at a dance. His photographs seem instinctive (in his introduction he writes "I've returned to something that my body and emotions recognize"), and he succeeds in creating a sense of openness and immediacy. There are also a number of photographs of collages of several polaroids or small prints: a device that seems to be a way for Engström to revisit his memories, heightening the sense of return rather than of discovery.

Unfortunately, I found that his work suffered a little when juxtaposed with Petersen's. The power and refinement of the older photographer's images slightly overpower Engström's looser and more diffuse approach. I also found some of the juxtapositions of images bizarre, with a result that seemed to add up to less than the sum of its parts.

Despite this minor reservation, this is a very successful book and the relationships between these two photographers and this remote region is undeniably powerful and complex. The printing of the book is beautiful and I found that the black-and-white work was particularly well reproduced.

From Back Home (Stockholm: Bokförlaget Max Ström, 320 pages, hardcover, 2009).

Rating: Highly recommended

The exhibition

The From Back Home project has also led to an exhibition, which is currently on show at Galerie VU in Paris. In addition to the prints from the From Back Home series, the exhibition also includes an additional series of vintage works by both photographers.

For Petersen's From Back Home work, it was interesting to see the prints hung in a floor-to-ceiling grid three prints high. The prints are not quite as good as the reproductions in the book and many of them were buckling slightly as they did not seem to have been dry-mounted (I heard Petersen pointing this out to the gallery so this may end up getting fixed), but the full wall of images works well for this work. The vintage work that is shown alongside these is Gröna Lund, a series of images taken at an amusement park in Sweden in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found it fascinating to see the evolution in Petersen's approach. His photographs have gained a heightened intensity and visceral energy, making his earlier work seem almost restrained. His latest work feels a lot closer to Moriyama's sensibility, darker and more animalistic.

In Engström's case the second series of work on show are unseen 'vintage' (it always strikes me as strange to call something that is only a few years old 'vintage') prints from his Trying to Dance series. Although I'm not sure that the 'vintageness' is so important to his work, this is one of his strongest series in my view and an interesting precursor to From Back Home. Overall I found that this latter work came through better in the exhibition than in the book. The intentionally haphazard framing and hanging of his prints worked well for me and gave the impression of being invited into Engström's living room. I was particularly struck by a group of six highly grainy and contrasty aerial photographs of the Värmland landscape which are hung separately to the rest of the prints, a step back from those moments of intimacy that lends a darker edge to the series.

I would recommend the book over the exhibition, as I think From Back Home is probably better-suited to the book format, but the show is definitely worth a visit.

From Back Home. Anders Petersen and JH Engström. Galerie VU, 11 September - 31 October 2009.

Rating: Recommended

Update: This review has also been published on Lensculture along with a few other photobook reviews that I have been contributing to Jim's excellent webzine.

Review: Naoya Hatakeyama @ Rencontres d'Arles

Naoya Hatakeyama As I mentioned in my last post, one of my highlights of this year's Rencontres d'Arles is Naoya Hatakeyama's exhibition at Arles' cloître Saint-Trophime. The exhibition includes two series: Scales, a recent commission for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and Maquettes / Light, a series of images taken ten years ago but which Hatakeyama has only recently found a satisfactory way to exhibit. The first room presents the more recent Scales work which is made up of three parts: a series of five large panels showing a composite aerial view of Tokyo centred on the Mori Art Building, and then two groups of smaller prints of  different scale models of the city of New York: Tobu World Square in Tochigi, Japan and Window of the World in Shenzhen, China.

Hatakeyama, a long-time photographer of architecture, seems to have been drawn towards scale models as they are disappearing from architectural practice. Nowadays the architectural process begins and ends on a computer screen, with photographs of scale models being replaced by print-outs of their computerised cousins. With this in mind, Scales explores the significance of these models just as they are becoming obsolete.

© Naoya Hatakeyama

When I first saw the images of Tobu World Square's miniature New York, I was puzzled. These are classic b&w New York cityscapes, so classic that they feel familiar. Most people will have seen photographs of Manhattan's dense, towering architecture that look exactly like these: they have become an almost universal visual vocabulary. It wasn't until I reached an image of a giant man, towering over the tenth story of one of these skyscrapers, that it became clear: this is not New York but a hyperrealistic scale model of the city. The precision of the Japanese model is extraordinary (the website boasts that there are as many as 145,000 "people of 1/25 size" who "live in the park", and no two people are alike) and Hatakeyama's placement of the camera at ground-level and clever use of natural lighting plays off the ubiquity of this type of imagery of New York architecture, making the illusion of a 'real' cityscape complete.

© Naoya Hatakeyama

In the second section of the series, Hatakeyama travelled to China, to Shenzhen's Window of the World theme park. Whereas the Japanese created a precise replica of New York based on multiple visits to the city and the use of precise architectural measurements, China's model was based purely on postcards and other images of New York cityscapes. It is essentially a composite representation made up from multiple photographs of the city, and as such it has a strange, removed relationship to New York itself. Hatakeyama chose to shoot these images in color, and the flattened perspective and muted colours of these rickety skyscrapers give the images a painterly quality (he was reminded of Paul Klee's palette when shooting these images). The model is in poor shape and the buildings sit at odd angles to each other, which gives these images a desolate, post-apocalyptic feeling.

The second part of the exhibition is the earlier series of Maquettes / Light. The presentation of these is brilliant: Hatakeyama has found a way of making apparently 'normal' black and white silver-gelatin prints of Tokyo by night emit light (which your computer screen is not going to replicate: see them in person). The brilliant whites and deep blacks of these photographs give the scenes an ultra-vividness. They are no longer photographs of the city, but of light itself. Juxtaposing these with Scales gives the work an added dimension: we are made to question whether we are looking at a real cityscape, or another maquette. However, where the images of Tobu World Square give off a sense of dread at the thought of our world being trapped in a single moment of miniaturised time and space, these Tokyo nightscapes seem to be living fragments of the flow of light and time.

In a year when much of the work on show at Arles felt like a punch in the gut, Hatakeyama's exhibition is a refreshingly seductive, gently provocative invitation to start a conversation. A conversation about the nature of the modern city and the ways in which we attempt to make sense of this reality.

© Naoya Hatakeyama

Scales. Maquettes / Light: Tautology of the Image Cloître Saint-Trophime, Arles. 7 July - 13 September 2009.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Further reading: Kultureflash

Arles 2009: 40 years and Nan Goldin

© Nan Goldin I have finally managed to sit down and collect my thoughts about this year's Rencontres d’Arles festival. For Arles’ 40th anniversary, I decided to try and cover the festival in some detail. In this post I will be giving my overall impressions and in the next few days I will follow up with reviews of the exhibitions that I considered to be highlights.

DelpireWhen it comes to festivals, I have always found that birthdays tend to be mixed affairs (in fairness 40th birthdays have never been easy for anyone). Paying tribute to 40 years of photography while still looking to the future (or at least to the ‘now’) is no small task. Given the mandatory set of exhibitions celebrating Arles glorious past (a tender look at the extraordinarily prolific career of the French publisher and curator, Robert Delpire; an exhibition of new work by Lucien Clergue, an Arlésien photographer and one of the founders of the Rencontres; a Duane Michals retrospective, including a lot of work which has been exhibited before at Arles; and a ‘photo-album’ show allowing the audience to take a nostalgic stroll through 40 years of the festival’s history), the choice of the guest curator was always going to have a big impact, perhaps even more so than in a ‘normal’ year.

Nan Goldin seemed like an interesting choice: despite her rise to fame she remains a prickly, startingly honest, both brutal and fragile creature who will charge straight at anything resembling ‘the establishment’. Having heard her speak several times during the festival (despite lots of official events, she did her rebellious image justice, showing up drunk or very late more than once), she knows her mind and speaks it. Goldin also knows what she likes when it comes to photography. Her 13 guests show her strong leaning towards what could be called a ‘photography of the intimate’: J.H. Engström, Leigh Ledare, Antoine d’Agata, Jim Goldberg, Jean-Christian Bourcart, Annelies Strba. This collection of exhibitions, Ça me touche (It touches me), bears its name well: it came through clearly that this was all work that touched Goldin “in some profound way.” This need to be touched seems to go beyond the work, as Goldin is very close to several of her guests (she referred to Engström and Bourcart’s families as her muses). With two projections of her own work (Sisters, Saints and Sybils and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) and an exhibition of her personal collection, Goldin’s footprint was stamped forcefully on Arles 2009.

Leigh Ledare

Despite the honesty of her approach and choices, overall I was disappointed. I think Goldin has a real eye for the sincere and much of the work has an undeniable, visceral, emotional power. But, with 13 exhibitions in one massive warehouse space: massive prints of J.H. Engström’s newborn twins and their mother’s bloody placenta; Leigh Ledare’s mother fucking, fellating and stripping for her son’s camera; Antoine d’Agata caught in a 20-year Baconian cycle of drug and sex-addled self-destruction; Jean-Christian Bourcart’s distressing document of the lives of the inhabitants of the US’s poorest city (Camden, NJ); ending with Jim Goldberg’s experimentation with young runaways in San Francisco; can we really be expected to have any emotion left at all? Not all of the work explores the same difficult emotional terrain, but this difference gets diluted by the ‘full frontalness’ of these artists.

David Armstrong

There were a few misses (David Armstrong’s beautifully installed and completely forgettable images of young, pretty boys, Christine Fenzl’s worthy but incredibly bland documentation of street football, and Jack Pierson’s large folded photos of stuff that he walked past one day—incidentally Pierson’s ‘statement’ is a must-read), but individually most of the work on show here is interesting (in terms of its approach rather than photographically). Unfortunately, the impact of this work was diluted by the sheer quantity of it. Three exhibitions stood out for me: Anders Petersen’s dark, primitive, but dignified gaze at life on society’s edges, Marina Berio’s beautiful blow-up charcoal drawings of negative images and Lisa Ross’s exploration of the physical manifestations of faith in China’s Xinyiang province.

Marina Berio

Towards the end of the festival, I heard Goldin reveal some of her thinking on photography. She explained that for her, photography has almost entirely lost its integrity, that it is difficult to believe images anymore. Of those very few photographers that she still admires, most are dead, and the others she keeps close to her. And as for her own work, she says she no longer has any interest in still photographic images. She only exhibits in the form of projections and she is currently exploring new ideas which move even further away from still photograph. This could be interpreted as pushing the boundaries of photography, but in her case it feels more like she is turning her back on it. I think Goldin remains an interesting artist whose struggle with life continues to provoke her to make challenging and powerful work, but as the guest curator of a major photography festival like Arles, her vision felt too narrow.

Naoya Hatakeyama

My highlights of Arles 2009 (which I will come back to in more detail in further posts) tended to go against the Goldin grain: Naoya Hatakeyama’s Scales and Maquettes/Light, Magda Stanova’s intelligent commentary, Without Sanctuary’s harrowing exploration of the darkest side of ‘vernacular photography’ (if postcards of lynchings can still bear that label), and an event which wasn’t even on the official festival programme, Chambres d’échos, an exhibition of the Musée Reattu’s photography collection which succeeds in creating fascinating resonances from confronting different kinds of work in exhibition rooms set up as echo chambers.

You will probably remember that there was quite a lot of criticism in the blogosphere of this year’s NYPH (somebody still has to explain that ridiculous acronym to me) and I think it is worth remembering that these events are pretty difficult to pull off and the fact that they manage to happen at all is worth applauding. Even if I felt disappointment at some of the choices this year, Arles still manages to be a huge injection of photographic adrenaline in a way that feels festive and celebratory. On it’s 40th birthday Arles felt very much like it was in the middle of a mid-life crisis, but one with glimpses of a promising future.

Update: Further reading Jeffrey Ladd on Nan Goldin Evan Mirapaul on Arles '09