Two Photography Exhibits Approach Human Environments with Wildly Different Perspectives

Saturday evening, PDNB hosted the opening reception for France, its fourth solo exhibition for Michael Kenna, a master of modern landscape photography. Following the release of his latest book of the same name, the exhibit showcases work from the past four decades representing several different projects.

Kenna now operates on a global scale and has produced very different photographs from Japan, Detroit and Nazi concentration camps. However, France finds this celebrated — and often imitated — photographer refocusing on the country that inspired the black and white minimalist work that first brought him attention in the 1980s.

Looking back is not new to Kenna; his projects are regularly long term. He spends days at a particular location, photographing it from every conceivable angle. He also enjoys returning to these locations months, or even years later, to see what has changed. Perhaps a few branches have fallen from a skeletal tree that drew his attention, the tree is leaning more than it once was, or maybe he just sees it differently than he did before.

Born in a small northwest England industrial town, Kenna has always been a loner who enjoys contemplative walks. Before settling on photography, he originally planned to be a priest, then a painter. These old ambitions are still very much a part of his work, which is undeniably spiritual, but also pictorial; his photographs are painted or drawn with light.

A master of minimalist composition techniques, Kenna’s large-scale location works are the polar opposite of split-second paparazzi photographs. These carefully crafted horizon lines and organic textures certainly weren’t rushed. More than anything, this work conveys patience and intimacy. Not only does Kenna find interesting landscapes, but also places where he can relax in isolation, get comfortable and wait for just the right light. It is unlikely that he would struggle with tea meditation.

A quick glance at Kenna’s work isn’t enough. These images will stay with you, compositions you will want to look at and think about over an extended period of time. They are wonderfully abstract, as if Kenna is looking for design or perhaps handwriting in his surroundings. He has a proclivity for capturing water, sky, snowfall — any type of movement — with long exposures, sometimes going overboard, until the image is shrouded in mist or even fog. It’s also very clear that Kenna spends lots of time in the darkroom; he definitely hasn’t switched to digital photography and probably never will.

In this collection, "Windy Trees" is definitely the black sheep. From 1984, it has a surrealist quality, with what appears to be a long rectangular tree somehow propped up with one trunk on its left side. The leaves are dense and either blurred or pushed in different directions by wind. Like some of Kenna’s more enigmatic photographs, this one is incomplete.

Friday night, Zhulong Gallery premiered my shoes, my stove, my life, a much different photography exhibition by Luke Dowd. Kenna was born in England and now works out of the United States, while Dowd was born in New York City and now operates out of London. Kenna’s photographs were taken with a traditional camera, carefully printed, matted and framed. But Dowd’s work is digital on canvas. Kenna may prefer to struggle with nature, but Dowd worked indoors for this exhibit.

There are indeed pictures of Dowd’s stove and his shoes, as referenced in the title. But there are also photos of pots, pans, glasses, plates and drawings. Other works in the exhibit focus solely on colors and geometric shapes. All of the images are carefully arranged and displayed from above. The images look scanned, putting focus on the technology used to obtain them.

Bars, circles, and scribbles of light run across Dowd’s photographs. Throughout the exhibit, tone imagery creates a sense of continuity and at-homeness. Within these works, art and everyday life are combined. But the focus on technology also reminds us that technology often keeps us at work, blurring the line between being on and off the job.

To put it simply, the environments we build around us explain who we are. Our everyday lives reveal more about us than our art. At first glance, one can see pop art in Dowd’s exhibit, it may seem playful, perhaps casual. But my shoes, my stove, my life is a highly personal and conceptual exhibit. It is meticulously crafted and thought provoking.

Paying homage to Henri Cartier-Bresson in France, Michael Kenna is part of a lineage of great photographers that also includes Alfred Stieglitz. Luke Dowd uses a more contemporary approach, utilizing philosophy and technology. But both artists are challenging viewers to revaluate their surroundings.

Michael Kenna's France remains on display through August 1. More at pdnbgallery.com.
Luke Dowd's my shoes, my stove, my life remains on display through June 20. More at zhulonggallery.com.

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