Michael Kenna's "Brooklyn Bridge, Study 1, New York, USA," 2006
There’s something metaphorically gorgeous about leaving a camera lens open for exposures lasting as long as 10 minutes. It seems to indicate that vision has become long, languorous and better informed. It’s also one of those things that adds such sheen to a métier that it invites imitation.
Thus, the signature technique of English-born photographer Michael Kenna has been swiped, rearranged and reconfigured. But, as with many things, the first iteration is often the best. And, speaking of sheen, Kenna has been made a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters (France’s version of a knighthood). PDNB Gallery on Dragon Street in Dallas is showing his work as part of their end-of-summer show billed as “New York”; it ought not be missed. One singular work, a black and white photograph, is an unflinching paean to the East Coast urban leviathan, aka “The City”: Brooklyn Bridge, Study 1, New York, New York, USA, 2006.
The image shows a mammoth section of the Brooklyn Bridge curving in from the upper left corner and stretching toward Manhattan. The water beneath the bridge is silken and the buildings, for all their sleek, post-911 currency, seem oddly burnished and innocent. It’s New York in all its consummate glory, and yet the bridge and the sky deliver a brand of vulnerability to the hulking financial center that is anything but customary. The mere allusion of constellations, laws of gravity and the sheer amplitude of a posited universe accomplish the unimaginable — they put New York into perspective.
And, by the way, what is it about New York? It’s simultaneously aristocratic and grimy. It’s a conflation of two, very disparate, worlds: Luxe hired cars driving past lighted bridges at midnight and lines of homeless people at St. Xavier’s soup kitchen. It’s spectacular and hideous; immaculate and filthy; wealthy beyond imagining and impoverished in ways that are gasp-inducing.
Kenna gives us all of it, the whole shebang. But he does so quietly, by taking a longer look. He exposes us to the City for such an extended period of time that the whole world becomes a bit tighter, flatter, softer. And this new perspective? It’s due to distance. Manhattan is put into context via sky, bodies of water and crepuscular lighting. The result is that Wall Street, Lexington, the Upper East Side and all the city’s surfeit of spendy charm is dwarfed by the geometry of the great sweep of the Brooklyn Bridge and a long stretch of sky. The City seems to be a long way away.
And time? Well, it is put on hold — for maybe as long as 10 minutes, actually. So time plus distance, in the case of Kenna, equals quiet contemplative beauty; the leviathan becomes a tad more manageable and an uncommon grace descends upon it.
Along with Kenna, “New York” also includes work by John Albok, Harold Feinstein, Morris Engel and other lensmen, many underknown today. Life in New York from the ‘20s to the ‘60s is chronicled with sensitivity and nuance. Flooding fire hydrants on hot summer days; draping clotheslines; scenes from Coney Island and more. Paired with these vintage works, Kenna’s images of the iconic Chrysler building are elegant enough to inspire absolute reverence.
Jettison any thoughts of a flight to Manhattan — PDNB is temporarily the Big Apple’s satellite location. Sure, New York is chilled soup and lamb with Aleppo pepper served at Daniel. But it also swells with another species of richness — one that you can experience on nearby Dragon Street.
“New York: Michael Kenna, John Albok, Harold Feinstein, Morris Engel and Others,” at PDNB Gallery, Dallas, opening Saturday, August 8 (2 to 8 pm), through September 5, 2015.