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.
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."