I suppose if the main challenge I set myself is to make increasingly beautiful work, the simpler the image the better, the more ideas the better, so the other variable is to make those images out of more and more insignificant material: a splash of dried seawater, a rusting can bottom, a handful of sand, a battered plastic bottle.
THE WORK OF BRITISH ARTIST Paul Kenny has captivated my attention for the last several years. One of the most original photographers at work today, Kenny uses continually evolving and always surprising methods of picture making that rise above mere novelty and deliver the goods. They have real content and impeccable craftsmanship, and are fueled by a passion for subjects greater than the artist’s own persona. While his work is not well known in the United States, it is highly regarded across Europe, where it is represented in major public, corporate, and private collections, including the Scottish and British National Photography Collections. The major thrust of Kenny’s work has remained constant over thirty-five years: he is making an impassioned hymn to nature. In his artist’s statement, he writes that his work explores “issues of fragility, beauty, and transience in the landscape; marks and scars left by man; and the few remaining areas of wilderness.”
Kenny’s work is contemplative and openly embraces beauty and mystery. It’s poetic—stripped to bare bones at times, or sometimes loaded with an unimaginable quantity of visual information. His eye is on the cast-off and lowly things of the world, while his mind is on greater issues. “Looking at the micro and thinking about the macro,” he calls it. However it’s described, the payoff for the viewer is profound: Kenny wants to reveal the “awe-inspiring in that which is easily passed by.” In his pictures, wonder takes its place with shape, value, and texture as an essential formal element.
Kenny’s working process is firmly rooted in the history of black and white photography and the darkroom. His early pictures emulated the realism of the great mid-century nature photographers and were recorded with traditional films. He worked within the tradition-laden parameters of what he calls the “Japanese tea ceremony of the darkroom”—repeating finely practiced movements in the right order for a specific amount of time, always achieving the same results—until he was eventually ready to move in a different direction. He then began to experiment with bleaching negatives, producing composite pictures from more than one negative, and printing found objects. Eventually, he chose to abandon film and the camera altogether in favor of making his own transparencies and printing them with the enlarger. These pictures about nature were made with substances from nature in an approach more like painting than film exposure. Each of these steps led him away from the realism associated with photography’s past and further into the heart of abstraction, all while he was reinventing the methods by which pictures are made. His inner motivations now became his subjects, thus ending a dependence on the photograph’s record of pictorial fact. His most recent images involve ingredients that sound like they came from an alchemist’s larder: emulsified flower petals, skeletal hosta leaves, homegrown algae, and birch bark. His recording tool of choice has lately become the film scanner—a risky move in more tradition-bound quarters, and one that signals his defection from all that is analog to the realm of the digital. (His website, www.paul-kenny.co.uk, includes many more images than could be reproduced here.)
I first met Paul Kenny in the summer of 2006, while we were both in residency as fellows of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland. He was walking by the bay at low tide, intently scrutinizing the complex tableau of tide pools and shoreline that surrounded him. I didn’t know at the time that he had made a significant career from walking the barren coastlines of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He gathers the same natural materials any beachcomber might, but he also collects seawater in bottles found on the beach, as well as highly selected bits of man-made refuse. On the day we met, he had a smashed and corroded beer-can bottom and part of a metal pull-tab, about which he was very excited. Finds like these are taken back to the studio and used in the creation of hand-made transparencies based on simple sketches. Sometimes he also works from particular words or phrases. The resultant pieces are projected and printed in a darkroom to make camera-less photographs.
In Ireland, we enjoyed some memorable evening conversations on music and art—which would ultimately set the stage for this article. By the summer of 2011, as I was gearing up to put pen to paper, I realized that much had transpired in his work since we last met. My wife Christi and I devised a trip to England and Scotland that would take in his London gallery and his Northumberland home and studio. While there, I was able to interview him, and also his gallery representative, Giles Huxley-Parlour of Chris Beetles Fine Photographs.
Kenny, who turned sixty this year, was born in the working-class industrial town of Salford in northwestern England, where he experienced a tough childhood in the housing estates (Britain’s equivalent of the projects). Pursuing fine art in college, he began to explore black and white photography. He found inspiration in modernist abstract painters, along with photographers like Paul Strand, Harry Callahan, and Minor White. He also began to visit some of England’s more remote coastal areas. His formative experiences of nature—so different from the urban environment in which he was raised—made a lasting impact.
By the time he moved east and completed his degree at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1975, the art world was embracing both performance and video. Kenny’s work with nature photography was coolly received by his professors, panned as “not conceptual enough” and “a bit too pretty.” Suffering real disillusionment, he sought employment outside the art world as a social worker. He advanced through the ranks, and after twenty years was named policy advisor over a large county—a huge responsibility, and one that he says took his mind away from working on art.
Despite the pressures of work and, later, family (his partner Margaret Kenny is also an artist, and they have two children), Paul still managed to work on photography. “I came home and worked on it in secret, but I didn’t show it to anybody because of what had happened in college. So for ten years I did this job, and I did this work, and I didn’t show it to anybody other than Margaret. And then for another ten years I was so confident about it that I thought, ‘I don’t care what anyone says or thinks about it. I know it’s good.’ Finally, I started to show it to people. And then it became interesting. I was getting shows and people were writing about it and buying it, so I just walked out of work one day.” That was in 1996.
An early series of photos made during his years in social work is very much at the root of his art. They center on one low wall constructed of beautifully rounded sea stones, a former sheepfold in the ruined village of Lonbain on the Applecross Peninsula in northwestern Scotland. He visited this wall over twenty-five years, returning for one week each year to live alone in a tent and photograph the wall, the sea, and the surrounding area night and day. At the end of the week Margaret and the children would arrive by train, and the whole family would spend a holiday in a cottage for a second week. The ten or so rolls of 120 film shot with his Bronica during that first week would provide raw material for his darkroom work the rest of that year.
One image from the series, Lonbain Wall #4, was particularly important in the conceptual development of his work, he explains [see Plate 1]. Through it he came to understand that an image could be invested with multiple layers of meaning. The images in the series “are all about what I think about the world in lots of layers in one picture,” he says. In this photo, we are shown an imperfectly rounded form, isolated from its surroundings by darkness. Light falls on the subject as if to provide a moment of epiphany, yet as with many of the mysteries of existence, we are rewarded only with more questions. What role does this subject play in the greater scheme of worlds within worlds? At the smallest level it could suggest the anatomy of a cell with its attendant parts. Kenny recognizes the light circle within a dark square as a structure often seen in the microscopic marine life he has studied. If we take the stone at its face value, we are left to ponder the journey it must have taken to this place, a history so vast as to make a human lifespan insignificant in comparison. On a larger level, are we to consider the stone as a representation of the earth itself? Could it also suggest the moon, or a distant planet? In pursuing this approach to reading photographs, Kenny draws upon an oft-quoted maxim of Minor White, who urged his students to “photograph objects not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” Through Lonbain Wall #4, Kenny arrived at a signature compositional format: the centered circle, revealed through the photographic equivalent of chiaroscuro modeling.
During the nineties, Kenny made other bodies of black and white work variously documenting interactions with nature. He photographed rounded stones dropping into moving water or crashing through layers of ice. He flooded the surface of some subjects with water to enhance their reflectivity. He “moved things about” to photograph aggregate compositions of similar forms. Examples of this work appeared twice in the American magazine Lenswork, the only work of his published on this shore. The first, in 1998, included pictures of sea stones and a series of images based on stratified leaf deposits from the series Leaving (created after he left his job). The second, in 2001, was an elegant portfolio called Iceforms, featuring formal abstractions composed of crystalline structures, cracks that read as linear drawings, and tiny bubbles and air pockets frozen within ice. In making these highly crafted silver gelatin prints, he sometimes employed low tech means to achieve a high tech look. Refreshingly, during our interview he never once told me about a favorite expensive lens or camera, but he did recall that five-dollar lights from IKEA illuminated some of the pictures.
A number of European writers were prompted to make connections between Kenny’s work and that of “earth artists” like Richard Long, David Nash, and Andy Goldsworthy. When I asked him about this, he answered, “I was really interested in all that stuff”—particularly in Goldsworthy, who admires Kenny’s work and owns two of his pictures—but added that photographers like John Blakemore, another fellow Englishman, had a greater influence at the time.
Composite images like In a Silent Way #3 (Elgol, Isle of Skye) signal the first of several shifts away from straight printing in the darkroom [see Plate 2]. These images feature portions of two or more negatives printed on the same sheet of paper. No simple task, this involves masking part of the photo paper while exposing the first negative, then masking the opposite side during the exposure of the second (to simplify greatly). “I went to the Isle of Skye in December, and I hadn’t banked on the lack of daylight at that time of year,” he says. “There are about five hours of gloomy light a day that far north. I made very few exposures in the gloom and the rain, and in between…I spent a lot of time in a small cave listening to the Miles Davis album In a Silent Way and looking through the rain across the sea to the Black Cuillin Mountains.” In the top part of the image, what look like star trails are made with a long exposure of nontoxic glitter floating on the surface of a deep pool. The lower portion is a rock surface covered with lichens and grasses that Kenny flooded with seawater. The finished piece reads both as an arresting time exposure of the curve of the earth and the heavens, and is also something of a hymn to Mark Rothko, one of the artists with whom Kenny was most impressed as a student.
Further changes in Kenny’s working process can be seen in Flotsam Doorway, Downpatrick Head, a photograph produced in a darkroom, but without a camera [see Plate 3]. For this piece, he used a Canadian shampoo bottle that had traversed the sea to Ireland, where he was working at the time. Through an extended series of experiments using found plastic from the beach, Kenny perfected a technique of flattening plastic bottles so that they could be projected from an enlarger like traditional negatives. The bottles are “not only hard to focus, but there is hardly any tolerance in the printing,” he says. “An extra second and it’s a black page, and a second the other way and it’s a white page.” The doorway is made by the glue residue left on the bottle by the label. The dark shape of the doorframe is the rest of the bottle, scratched from its travels along the rocky shore. At first glance I interpreted the doorway as a close-up view of a beach, with kelp and grasses above a film of seawater. I was later struck by how much it resembled a solarized photo in the style of Anselm Kiefer: a foreground of dried grasses or flowers at the edge of a body of water, mountains in the distance, and overhead a brooding sky—surrounded by a signature straw and earth-covered post-and-lintel border.
Kenny’s work would soon move on from the ready-made transparency as found plastic surfaces were eventually rejected in favor of a superior substrate: the 4 by 5-inch photographic glass plate. The process of adding imagery to these plates, as with all Kenny’s previous work, came from observing nature. He admired the white rings of salt that developed at the edges of tide pools as the seawater evaporated in the sun, and he sought to imitate their crystalline surfaces on his transparencies. Fully perfecting a method to do this, however, would take several years of trial and error.
To create the glass transparencies that would eventually become the series entitled Seaworks, Kenny used eyedroppers and pipettes to draw shapes with saltwater collected from the beach. Areas of the plate to remain empty could be masked off with tape. A layer of salt crystals would form as the water dried, and the process could be repeated for days or even weeks to achieve the right density of salty residue. By selectively inserting beach finds like flattened fragments of aluminum cans, washers, or rounded stones into these saline pools, Kenny was able to make ghostly likenesses of these objects appear in crystalline form. Sometimes the images were enhanced by rust or added materials like sand. Through experimentation, he learned that seawater from different oceans produced crystals that were different in appearance, and that boiling the water intensified the salinity of the working solutions and produced larger crystals.
Early transparencies involving seawater were projected and processed in the traditional black and white darkroom method, but they were fragile at best and could not stand up to the heat of the enlarger lamp. “They get damaged during the [printing] process,” he says. “I used to be able to get [no more than] three or four prints out…. They have a bloom like you would get on a plum. If you touch it with your finger, it’s ruined.’’ In the darkroom, Kenny can masterfully adjust the values in each area of the picture through dodging and burning techniques that briefly shield part of the paper from light as it is being exposed, or add more light to darken an area. It’s the combination of the handmade negative and this special printing technique that makes his prints so remarkable. A perfect example is Precious Sea Stone #5, Kephalonia/Mayo. Produced near the end of Kenny’s darkroom period, this picture uses a photograph of a pebble from the Greek islands and seawater from western Ireland to create the crystalline image, and was monoprinted through multiple exposures from the enlarger. Kenny describes it as the “pinnacle of the period.”
Like the fossilized pebbles he collects, the surface texture of this picture seems to provide clues to a world that existed long before human knowing. The image is filled with vitality and wonder. Its center resembles Hubble telescope photos of exploding stars or the births of galaxies. The oval vignette suggests an egg—perhaps brimming with life. There is also a suggestion of movement: could these be bacteria vibrating in some micro universe? The surrounding darkness once again isolates the iconic form, while lending a tone of gravity to our deliberations.
As a new millennium began, Kenny had to accept the inevitable reality that darkroom photography was being displaced by digital means. His favorite films and chemicals were beginning to disappear from production, and he found himself having to make substitutions for proven materials. The last straw came when the paper he loved ceased to be manufactured. For seven years the Forte Photographic Company of Hungary had been supplying him with their museum paper at no cost. “I just got an email one day saying that the factory was closing. At that point I had to decide what to do. Do you go on seeking out another kind of paper only for that to disappear? I realized I’d got to do it another way or become completely hidebound by the technique.”
Digital imaging and printing offered any number of new possibilities. “The whole process opened up some room in my head that wasn’t there before,” he says. The availability of color, longevity of the image file, and the possibility of printing the work in various sizes all seemed like positive advances. By removing the cover from the scanning bed, he was able to scan three-dimensional objects, a method which makes the background dark and the borders of the piece black. After some research, he learned that a scanner’s optimum point of focus is slightly above the bed itself, and this gave him the idea of elevating the layer to be recorded using Petrie dishes. New work could be created in the dishes or on glass plates covered or surrounded by fluid. The entire scanner bed could be turned into a reservoir by calking the edge of the glass with silicon gel. One or several flashlights could be used to illuminate aspects of a subject from above or the side during scanning. While these techniques produce different effects from the Seaworks series, Kenny insists that nothing in the new work is created in Photoshop, and that the scans are not enhanced beyond subtle shifts in contrast or color saturation. All of the color comes from the natural materials employed. Despite these shifts away from the historic photographic process, he is adamant that the new work is truly photography: the record of light passing through a matrix and recorded on a paper surface.
Central to the success of Kenny’s recent work is his long association with Jack Lowe, one of Britain’s most accomplished craftsmen in archival pigment printing. Their collaboration made possible the digital output of Kenny’s work with the very latest printers on fine cotton rag papers. At the Photokina Exposition in Cologne in 2008, Hewlett-Packard joined forces with the Innova paper company to honor Kenny by printing his work at a size of two meters wide, and flew both the artist and his printer to view the installation.
One example of a photo scanned from a hand-made slide is Mappa Cheswick [see front cover]. The piece and its title both have their roots in the late-thirteenth-century Mappa Mundi from Hereford Cathedral. One of the largest and most impressive medieval maps known, it’s a synthesis of human knowledge of its day, and includes both earthly and heavenly realms. Kenny calls it “visually and intellectually sumptuous.”
Mappa Cheswick echoes the medieval map’s circular shape, and the photo’s richly textured earth colors mimic the darkened and stained animal vellum, damaged after almost eight hundred years of display. Cheswick, a beach near the Kennys’ Northumberland home, is the source of the seawater which was dried to produce the print. Kenny then scanned the residue on the slide like positive film, with light passing through it, a process that transposed the natural blues and greens into oranges and golds.
Like the Hereford Mappa Mundi, Kenny’s work seems to want to bridge earthly and heavenly realms. His photographs appear to strive to make room for awe, even to capture some aspect of the spiritual—though not through the lens of any organized religion. His personal fascination with icons and their layered interpretation is a sign of this, as is his absorption in music while making art. “When I need to focus and center myself, when I need to have courage and conviction to move the work on, to add a new layer of truth, I have one special piece, Grechaninov’s music for Passion Week,” he says. “I put it on and my world becomes calm, my purpose becomes fixed, my thoughts clear. I feel completely focused and empowered.”
Night Sky over Heineken (Uisken, Isle of Mull) is another image recorded via the scanner [see Plate 4]. While the title gives a glimpse of Kenny’s wry sense of humor, the picture cannot be dismissed as mere whimsy. One of twelve works commissioned for the An Tobar Gallery in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, Kenny’s version of Starry Night transforms the most economical of materials into a spectacular galaxy of burning lights—or perhaps a view of the ocean’s depths as revealed by a submariner’s headlamp. What looks like the earth is made from a splayed-open Heineken can, and the stars are salt crystals, but that luminescent glow, fantastic texture, and natural coloring are all somehow strangely unified and believable. Like the earliest inhabitants of the Isle of Mull, whose megalithic markers and architecture still dot the landscape, the viewer is left to marvel at the incomprehensible scale and mystery of the sky above.
In Kenny’s most recent pieces, the use of seawater has given way to experimentation with plant material. Like earlier methods, this new process evolved over time. He recalls that one year Margo Dolan, co-founder of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland, had given him a little bowl of fallen tulip petals as a parting gift. Kenny made a collage from the petals and left it in Dolan’s office window just before his return to England. Probably neither of them expected that this might suggest a new use of materials to Kenny—but tulip petals have made an appearance in his latest pieces. (Tangentially, John Blakemore was most noted for his work with tulips.)
Shortly after the Kennys moved to Northumberland in 2003, a record-breaking storm buried their house in two meters of snow. Paul and Margaret were stranded for four weeks. “Just finding little scraps of things I could work with was really a challenge,” he said. He noticed some skeletal leaves projecting from a hanging pot outside, and began to build a little composition with them. Later, when they were finally able to dig out, he noticed that all of the vegetation was smashed flat against the ground. Some of these flattened materials were trimmed with cutting templates of the type used in scrapbooking, then affixed to glass plates with humble Marvin Medium. Four of these pieces, including After the Snow, Silver Leaf #1, were exhibited in last year’s group show, The Photographers 2011, at Chris Beetles Fine Photographs in London.
A much larger one-person show of new work is planned for May of 2012 at the same gallery. In preparation, Kenny is presently finishing up almost fifty new pieces created from plants raised in the family’s cottage garden. Christi and I were able to view some of the work in progress during our visit to his studio over the summer. Since his earlier work has used elements from all over the world, and he travels with very few tools or supplies, I was interested to see the place where the pieces are actually made.
In the center of the garden of the Kennys’ home is a small rectangular pond constructed in the shape of 4 by 5 photographic negative. The pond is surrounded by an area for chickens, a greenhouse for tomatoes, a storage shed, and many kinds of vegetables, flowers, and berries. The studio stands to one side of the garden, and an open wooden door beckons us inside. Along the sides of the narrow room, tables are completely covered with work in progress. Glass plates and Petrie dishes hold some of these experiments, and below the counters other pieces are being dried and flattened under weights. Also under the tables are boxes and bins holding the flotsam and jetsam that have inspired much of his previous work: the handmade negatives, the flattened plastic bottles, and labeled bottles of seawater from many places.
Pipettes, eyedroppers, and X-acto knives surround the projects on the tables. Some of the morning’s work involves black currant berries that have just been harvested for making jam and cassis. The berries have been ground with a large mortar and pestle (purchased on E-bay, like many of Kenny’s finds). Characteristically colored berries can be recognized in several of the dishes. A very modest computer and a film scanner hold down the end of one of the tables. This is a picture of a studio that functions both as a wunderkammer—a cabinet of curiosities—and an eccentric botanical testing facility.
Geranium Moon #2 is obviously a product of this lab environment [see Plate 5]. The color comes from flower petals ground into “juice,” as the artist calls it, suspended in another emulsified liquid derived from plants. The moon is a secondary puddle of ground geranium flowers, which has been allowed to harden on top of an initial layer of dried plant material. A Petrie dish frames the composition like the barrel of a telescope focused on some primordial world in a distant galaxy. The light appears to be either dawning or dying. The iridescent moon rises from the swirling, blood-colored atmosphere accompanied by attendant stars. Geranium Moon might summon smaller-scale interpretations as well—perhaps this is a womb-like environment that supports and protects a miraculous life form. It’s a testimony to the artist’s inventive powers that such elemental materials could be manipulated to produce a world at once so majestic and so intimate.
A final piece, Foxglove #3, presents a more straightforward use of flower petals [see Plate 6]. These have been neatly cut into rectangles and assembled into a post-minimalist grid that resembles a luminescent building, its board and batten siding chipped and weathered by time and the elements. A streak of light suggesting energy or movement animates one of the rectangles. In so doing, it establishes this panel as the subject, a doorway to a world of privileged radiance which the viewer cannot experience but only imagine.
Kenny has named the upcoming Chris Beetles exhibition O Hanami after the Japanese celebration of the cherry blossom season. On a recent visit to Japan, he was fascinated by the way people “sit in a park and wait for a wind to come and petals to drop, and they will applaud. I thought it was amazing.” O Hanami, he learned, is sometimes translated as “the celebration of transient beauty.” This sense of exuberance may reflect a somewhat lighter tone in Kenny’s newest work, in contrast with the weightiness of his earlier black and white printing and its subject matter chosen from the dark side of nature’s cycle of life, death, decay, and rebirth.
As for the future, Kenny is proud of his ability to keep moving forward creatively. “I find a lot of artists get to a place and don’t move,” he says. “Some painters never move ahead for years. How is it they can live with themselves? How can they get up and go to the studio each morning?” It’s not very likely that Kenny will ever end up repeating himself ad infinitum. He’s thinking about the work to come even while completing the images for O Hanami. “Things I could never have dreamed of achieving, I can now make real,” he says. “We’ve been making images that have never before been able to be made…and we’re just at the beginning.” He has lately started some experiments with time-lapse animation, and recent travels to the isles of Eriskay and South Uist in the west of Scotland suggest that a return to the sea might be part of the next verses of his evolving hymn to nature. Standing in the studio, surrounded by work on every side, he comments on the present moment of a career that has been an ongoing celebration of transient beauty: “I’m loving it,” he says. “Just loving it.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.