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Book of the Week: Selected by Collier Brown

Book Of The Week Rafu Photographs by Michael Kenna Reviewed by Collier Brown For over thirty years, Michael Kenna has photographed temples, shrines, gardens, seascapes and landscapes, in black and white, throughout Japan. Ten years ago, he also began to photograph female nudes in various locations in Japan. A selection of these photographs were unveiled to the public for the first time at Paris Photo in November 2018.
Rafu. By Michael Kenna.
Photographs by Michael Kenna

Nazraeli Press, Paso Robles, CA, USA, 2019.
64 pp., 41 duotone plates, 8x12".

Michael Kenna. Some free associations: water/no dragonflies, snow/no skis, tree/no sparrows, windmill/no wind, temple/no bell, wharf/no beginning, fence/no end. Absence. Tranquility.

I feel uneasy with the word “tranquility.” Then again, I can’t sleep without a turbine in my ear; I can’t focus without a little commotion at the back of the café, and as for Headspace, well, it’s an on-again-off-again relationship. I suspect tranquility exists only in art. And it’s Kenna’s photography (thankfully) that makes me suspicious.

As a boy, Kenna often lingered in old church ruins and abandoned train stations—“oases of calm,” as he describes them. It’s a phrase worth recalling, given the fact that Kenna has been leading us to oases for years—in books like France (2014), for instance, with its extraordinary musings on Mont St. Michel, or Tranquil Morning (2012) with its fencepost haikus.

Which is what makes Kenna’s new book, Rafu, so surprising. While previous publications give us the impression that solitude and landscape have been, for Kenna, unbreakable obsessions, Rafu is the result of a decade-long side-excursion into other subjects. In 2008, during one of his many visits to Japan, Kenna started photographing female nudes. “Rafu” (裸婦)means nude, or undressed, female. No mountains, no forests, no seas. Just the body behind the silk screen.

The book, even by design, invites us behind that screen. When you open the purple silk cover, you find the photographs bound separately inside. Remove the photographs, and the cover stands on its own, trifold, with Japanese cranes, a cherry blossom, and a woodpecker brushed in ink, just as you’d find on any Byōbu, or traditional Japanese folding screen.

Rafu wasn’t a book project, not initially. More like a detour from the main road. Neither did Kenna have a particular type of model in mind. Friends, or friends of friends, would stop by and pose. Some were dancers, some office workers. The decision to use only Japanese models was a matter of poetic self-constraint. There’s a sonnet-like quality to Kenna’s practice: a single interrogation that may resolve itself or not. But either way, it keeps you in one place, in one moment, still.

If anything about the nudes echoes the scenic work, it has to be that stillness, that need to be with the subject in the moment and to follow the meditation through. But there’s more to it than stillness. “I approach photographing the female nude, very much as I approach the landscape, with absolute respect and admiration,” said Kenna in a recent interview. And like the landscapes, “I look for the individual characteristics in bodies, their shapes and uniqueness.”

In some ways, Kenna’s nudes seem inevitable. Having worked with Ruth Bernhard, one of the most accomplished photographers of the female nude in the twentieth century, I can’t imagine Kenna not wanting to try his hand at the genre. The surprising thing is that unlike so many apprenticeships, the work of the apprentice, in this case, resembles the master’s only by way of attention, not style. I see in Rafu an eye toward elegance and form that puts me in mind of Bernhard, but I see a rawness too—a mortality in the bones that reminds of me Eikoh Hosoe and the choreography of Japanese Butoh. There’s also a substance in the darkness, a depth, a “praise of shadow” that writers like Junichiro Tanizaki have described as essential to Japanese art.

Kenna’s monuments and landscapes rise up from the mists. But the nudes are hewn from harder stuff. Sculptural, Klimtian. No angelic down or wisp of incense. No Grecian symmetries. The female nude in Rafu is exactly what the body wants to be: not the dream of itself, not the paradigm or archetype, but the self-containment of its own mystery.

Mystery is important to everything Kenna has done. The hills and long horizons of his previous books draw us beyond the human shape of things. Oddly enough, that much is still true in Rafu, but in reverse. A photograph, even a print, says Kenna, should be “deliciously unpredictable.” It’s an ambition achieved in Rafu, where each image is a beginning and end unto itself. There’s no way of knowing what the next pose, the next expression, the next mood will be. Rafu is an exceptional addition to the nude genre in photography, living up, in its own way, to Bernhard’s insistence that artists try new things, that they be “consistently inconsistent.” She would have been proud.

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Collier Brown is a photography critic and poet. Founder and editor of Od Review, Brown also works as an editor for 21st Editions (Massachusetts) and Edition Galerie Vevais (Germany).