In the exhibit “The Rouge: Photographs by Michael Kenna,” the overriding theme is patience. Running through Jan. 14 at the University’s off-site gallery, the exhibit is comprised of approximately 40 photographs taken at Ford’s massive automotive plant in Dearborn. The plant, designed by Albert Kahn, stretches for 93 miles and at one point boasted a workforce nearly the size of Ann Arbor. It’s an artist’s delight: massive smokestacks, ominous cloudbanks of smog, dramatic angles – the works.

Sarah Royce
Sarah Royce

But it’s difficult not to recall Michigan’s economic woes and how they’re tied to the twilight of the American auto industry. When the subject of a photographic study is the Rouge plant, the question of representing the immediate humanity of the situation (the countless lives and futures upended by the recession) both constrains and contextualizes – and Kenna’s images eventually triumph through their dedicated pacing and unadulterated reverence to the subject.

The lush black-and-white photographs are executed in medium format with long exposure times. Every detail is coerced into focus and, since there is little action, each image carries a sense of foreboding, of absolute stillness.

Immediately noticeable is the total lack of organic lifeforms – the only exceptions being a single bird and a bare tree. None of Kenna’s images have titles, only differentiated by their series number. The photos are universally medium-sized squares, but with so much attention paid to detail and composition, each image appears remote. It’s a completely unromantic aesthetic. Kenna is keenly aware of how the eye of the photographer can compromise the integrity of the subject, and while his distanced approach is almost surgical at times, it pays off for the series as a whole.

Kenna doesn’t spotlight political or social issues (at least not overtly), and his compositional choices reflect a modernist approach to photography: uncovering the repetition and transformation of forms, grids, etc. found in manmade, “non-artistic” structures. Rather than washing out the subject with theory, though, Kenna’s academic style plays perfectly into the images.

“The Rouge Study #87” is an almost fantastical image. The artist is perched atop a monumental assembly of steel girders, looking down toward the industrial skyline. It’s clear that Kenna is perhaps hundreds of feet off the ground, but the final image is not one of wide-open astonishment. The view is closely cropped, eliminating the sense of the peripheral as well as the presence of the photographer.

Kenna himself is from the Midwest, and so the vocabulary of industry is far from foreign to him. But instead of idealizing easily recognizable objects and scenes, Kenna looks to nameless, sometimes abandoned bits of machinery and presents them as part of a seemingly alien world – namely in images #27, #66 and #72. The sense of distance is heightened; the viewer cannot label the photographed objects.

The images are not grouped chronologically (far from it), and instead appear in clusters of related compositions – such as the stunning night shots of silo-like structures from the ground, the stars appearing as concentric arcs emanating from an unknown center. This can be disconcerting for the meandering viewer, but a little patience goes a long way with this exhibit.

Kenna avoids numerous pitfalls, such as over sentimentalizing the Michigan economy and diluting the subject with academic compositions. Diego Rivera visited the Rouge plant during its mid-20th century heyday, and his studies influenced his iconic mural series at the Detroit Institute of Art. Kenna could not have approached the subject more differently, but in the end, his pared-down images carry their own weight – along with the history behind them.

The Rouge: Photographs by Michael Kenna
Through January 14
At UMMA’s Off-Site Gallery

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