Michael Kenna and Detroit

In the past 3 weeks that I haven’t written an entry I learned a very valuable lesson which applies to the artistic world, and as a consequence to both my photography and this blog.

I caged myself in. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, about Michael Kenna and his work at The Rouge plant here in Detroit, but as I read, and admired his work, I went down a few too many rabbit holes.

You know that feeling when you start reading something on Wikipedia, like when the first Coca Cola bottle was sold, and 30 minutes later you are learning about the chemical bonds that make plastic adhesives?

That’s what happened. I got stuck in a rut, a good rut mind you, but still a rut. I wanted to write so many other things in between, like a recent trip to Chicago, Washington, Grand Rapids and all the small discoveries in between. But I had chosen to write about Michael Kenna, and so I blocked myself from writing anything else.

So, first thought, I’m going to write what I feel like writing about. As I’ve said before, be it 500 or 5000 words. In the end what counts is discovery through photography. That’s the engine.

And the same can be said about photography.

Inspiration, creativity. They aren’t linear. They can’t always be at the same level of intensity. As photographers, as humans, some days, some periods, we are just off. The mind is resting, absorbing nonetheless, but still resting. Other times we are active, we have that will to express ourselves, whichever way we choose to do it.

So that’s the disclaimer. I will be writing as things pop up, be it weekend trips, daily thoughts, or simply articles that I think can benefit from additional exposure… pun intended.

Now to Michael Kenna.

I don’t recall where I first encountered his photos, but, although they were not the street photography I was attracted to at first, they struck a chord. So powerful that my first photography book is The Rouge, a signed copy of it.

The Rouge, by, and autographed Michael Kenna


The Ford River Rouge Complex is an automobile plant that was built in the 1920s in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. The largest at that time, it still serves as the plant that produces the Ford F-150 pickup truck. Visitors, myself being one of them, can see the production line of the state of the art facility as tours were added for the general public. Although I ask whether it’s appropriate to go see workers while they work, one can’t deny that it’s interesting to see.

Kenna, and English photographer from just outside Liverpool, where I lived for a year, took a series (hundreds) of photos of The Rouge complex between 1992 and 1995. And they are far from the tourist photos. Far, far from them.

Below are some of the photos, which can also be found on his website.

And before you scroll through them, turn this on. The music that walks hand in hand with this post.

Rouge Study 14, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 27, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 7, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 6, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 8, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 9, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 11, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 31, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 35, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 37, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 41, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 81, Michael Kenna
Rouge Study 87, Michael Kenna


What’d you think?

I absolutely love them. And what makes me so enamored is that they have deep contrast, the shadows show almost no detail, yet you can look at them over and over again and see something new. You can count the chimneys. You can admire the angles in the geometry. You can fixate over the almost square format. And you can wonder how an industrial complex can render such strikingly vivid photographs.


But the photos aren’t everything. And the research, that slowed me down, is never in vain. In reading about Michael Kenna I came across some quotes from interviews which gave me some more than ‘just’ his photographs.

1. Haiku vs Prose. “In this way, my photos are more like haiku than prose”. The photos have just enough to convey a message. They allow the viewer to come up with the rest, to build their own stories, to let their imagination fill in the shadows.

2. Trial and Error. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. It was pure trial and error.” Kenna is famous for his long exposures of even up to 10 hours, as well as his night photography. But one time, while traveling, he was jet lagged and he made photographs of a swing set, from 1/30 seconds, to a full hour exposure. What came out of it, in 1977, was his “Swings” project. 

3. Edit and Re-edit. “She [Bernhard] took creative license with a negative more than anyone else I’d ever seen, cropping, elongating, retouching and playing with contrast. She opened my eyes to the possibilities of the printing process and I went back and printed earlier negatives of mine, now that I could interpret them in a way I’d never thought of before.”  After moving to San Francisco, in 1977, Kenna would begin printing for the photographer Ruth Bernhard. As he learned new techniques he would apply them to his previous work. For the same reason, many photographers, myself included, shoot RAW, because it’s only a matter of time that some new technique is learned and that there is that one photo, taken in the past, that could use that specific adjustment.

4. Work it all. I was around all this amazing imagery, photographs by very famous people I hadn’t even heard of. Their work seeped into my blood.” He photographed theater dress rehearsals, for record companies and the press; assisted other photographers, and sold stock photos of such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, Marc Riboud and Jacques-Henri Lartigue for the John Hilleleson Agency on Fleet Street. First-off, if Bresson is buying your images, that warrants getting a monument in your name. But more importantly, Kenna was shooting what he could get his hands on although it wasn’t his passionate subject. Nonetheless it gave him both access to the Greats before him and experience.

5. Photographing is therapeutic. “Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you.In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.” 

Anything else to add to this?


That’s Michael Kenna.


Until Next Time,

Who knows?