Bringing the Distance Close

How to photograph the wind? How to embody pure motion in a still image? How to portray the invisible? The latter, of course, makes its presence felt through its brief tenure, if there is one, in the realm of the seen. Similarly, motion is most accurately encountered in its alignment with the nominally fixed. In his 1984 image Windy Trees, Paris, France (1984), British photographer Michael Kenna adopts both strategies to particularly strange effect. The picture is in landscape pagination, with a low dark hedge running across its base, occupying perhaps a fifth of the surface area.

The sky that can be seen is a tabula rasa, in no way inflected, its overcast hue coming to us only because of the picture’s greyscale. In the background, the lower floors of a white office block can be seen, but this is only partly visible because it is concealed behind the reason for the picture: entering forcefully from the right, to reach almost across the space, the densest foliage imaginable of what must, by arboreal definition, be two trees (although only one trunk is visible, just off picture-centre).

Rarely has a tree appeared as solid inside a photographic image as it does here. The delicate tracery of leaves, the spaces of light and dark between them that offer a scale-reduced fractal echo of a walk through woods, is here so absent that it becomes hard to conceive of the tree as a system of roots, of routes, in the air.

This density resembles, most aptly, the searching stump of a huge boom microphone. That is to say, the object that enables the sound, the temporary vessel of the wind, has adopted the dress of what might best capture the encounter between itself and weather. Wind normally separates things one from the other, highlights their isolation, wrenches them from earth, removes their security.

Here, it has truly become invisible. It has concealed itself so well inside the foliage that it is as if it is not. Does Kenna’s image conspire in this withdrawal or expose it? Does a photograph show us what is present, or collude with what is not, with what seeks always to elude our gaze?

Windy Trees, Paris, France is included in the publication Night Walk (1987). Out of print. Image (suitably) unavailable, not here to be seen.

Michael Kenna’s website includes a small but powerful archive of his early black-and-white photographs.

Gareth Evans

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