Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Michael Kenna: Forms of Japan

"If someone says to you: 'I want to go to Japan because I've never been there', then this is a lie. For, of course, he has been there, otherwise he wouldn't know that he wants to go there. He has been in Japan because he knows pictures from Japan, and he wants to travel to the pictures that he knows", wrote German author Rainer Fabian in his highly recommendable novel Das Rauschen der Welt.

Yvonne Meyer-Lohr, who contributed the introduction to Michael Kenna's Forms of Japan, phrases it similarly: "I believe that I can recognise something typically Japanese at first glance. Unlike on my travels to most other countries, I already carried my pictures of Japan in my mind when I arrived there."

To me (I've so far been there only in my mind), Japan stands for Zen gardens, meditation, cherry blossom trees, tranquillity, clarity, and simplicity.
Fifteen years ago, when I started to develop a keen interest in photography, I routinely approached pictures by asking questions: what is this, what is that, why I'm shown this, why I'm shown that, what was on the photographer's mind, was there really something on his mind? And so on. I'm still asking myself such questions, especially when looking at press photographs for they routinely transport an often hidden agenda. When, however, I'm shown landscape pictures in a photo book I'm putting my questioning mind to rest (as best as I can) in favour of acknowledging the sensations I experience. There's basically just one question that then interests me: What is this picture doing to me?
Michael Kenna's photographs help me to contemplate things as they are. To me, they radiate a meditative quality. I can easily identify with what Yvonne Meyer-Lohr penned. "I first saw Michael Kenna's photographs of Hokkaido, snowy landscapes with individual trees, line drawings of fence posts and clouds in the sky above still waters that peter out in the distance. I looked at the photographs and discovered more. Expansiveness. Stillness. Emptiness. Space. Development. Change. Generosity. Reduction. Simplicity. Form."

One can feel that. Just look and see.
Given that I imagine the Japanese to be restless and efficient, riding tirelessly on bullet trains through the country, it seems strange and intriguing that I should think of these photographs as typically Japanese. Yet I do. For they bring me back to my younger years when I was flirting with Zen. And, they instill in me a longing for the kind of simplicity that calms the mind.

This isn't a book about Japan, it is a book about Forms of Japan. To me, these forms could be found anywhere yet for some reason I happily accept that they should be distinctly Japanese. It goes without saying that we do see in photographs what we bring to them.

"The belief that gods are an integrated part of the landscape is very meaningful to me", writes Michael Kenna and I strongly sympathise with him. "The land itself becomes a place of worship, in which to rest and meditate, and perhaps escape to, from the complications and noise of our fast-paced modern lives."

Michael Kenna / Yvonne Meyer-Lohr
Forms of Japan
Prestel; Munich, London, New York 2015

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