I’ve had a long fascination with the steel industry. Where this stems from I don’t know, possibly from my time at technical college learning metallurgy from a former British Steel metallurgist, and getting my head round such terms as Jominy End Quench, and other such stuff. The attraction of the photography of Michael Kenna is maybe easier to explain, it has a wonderful air of stillness about it, regardless of the subject matter. So I’ve been on the lookout for an affordably priced copy of his book ‘The Rouge’ for some years, a task not made easier by his relatively low profile in the UK, which is a shame because he is a Lancashire lad from Widnes (although he moved to the USA in the 1980’s).
The Rouge is a set of photographs taken around the Rouge steel plant in Detroit. Kenna was given the kind of access a mere mortal like myself could only dream of.
Kenna’s style is all about stillness, and he carries this style into all his work, irrespective of the subject matter. To that end, he has chosen to capture predominantly external scenes rather than the controlled anarchy of the interior. It would have been interesting to have seen how he interpreted the dynamic, primal energy of the interior of the mills in his quiet, reflective style.
I actually have two editions of this book. I’d been after a copy for a while, but the cost of his out of print books is scary. However, I sourced a copy in the USA for an almost palatable sum and bit the bullet. After a comedy of errors involving the postal services that resulted in the book making two transatlantic crossings, the book finally arrived for my enjoyment. And then less than two months later, I discovered that the book had been reprinted, with more pictures and a new essay. And for less than I’d paid for the 20 year old copy.
Naturally, I bought a copy of the new edition as well and was rewarded with not only a better book than the original, but one that I suspect was how the photographer wanted it first time round.
One major change was the removal of the detailed captions from the side of the images in the original book. I was in two minds about this idea in the first edition. Does having a brief description of what the scene depicts take away some of the mystique? The manufacturing engineer in me (I have a degree in the subject) finds this hugely informative, but the photographer in me finds it a distraction that takes away not only the mystique but also the opportunity for the viewer to interpret the image. I suspect that this was a condition of access and cooperation from Ford, as none of his other books have similar captions. On balance, I prefer the new captionless approach.
The second edition also contains 50 more photographs, and has much improved reproduction. The first one wasn’t bad, but the new one has benefitted from advances in printing technology over the intervening period. A gallery of these photographs can be found here: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=36
Finally, the new book also has a new opening essay by James Christen Steward, Director of the the Princeton University Art Museum, which is an interesting assessment of Kenna’s career, style and industrial landscape photography.
If I’d known that the book was going to be reprinted, I’d certainly not have bothered with the original. It’s still a good book, but the new version is a much better book and I’ve no qualms in recommending it to anyone who either has the original or doesn’t.
If you’re interested, I’d recommend buying a copy sooner rather than later, as Michael Kenna books can sell out and be very expensive second hand (as I’ve found out in the past). It can be bought on Amazon here.