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Photography

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Michael Kenna, British, b. 1953
Jardin du Roi, Versailles, 1997
gelatin silver print on paper
7 3/8 in. x 7 1/16 in. (18.73 cm x 17.94 cm)


Object Type: Photography
Technique: Photography
Credit Line: Purchase, Scripps Collectors' Circle
Accession Number: 2012.2.21


Commentary
Michael Kenna’s photograph Jardin du Roi, Versailles is a testament to his skill as a photographer and to his understanding of photography as a medium. Born in England, Kenna attended the Banbury School of Art in Oxfordshire. There, Kenna soon realized that photography could offer him something that painting and drawing could not, the ability to capture the minute details of a single moment in time. This photo communicates a breathtaking French gardens, one of Kenna’s major themes over the years. The architects of Versailles worked tirelessly to use sunlight to illuminate and create visual intrigue in their gardens. Kenna is able to use this light to create very serene photographs with an added layer of mystery.

Jardin du Roi, Versailles in particular is a wonderful example of Kenna’s skill in directing light. As the viewer’s gaze travels from top to bottom, the photo shifts from light to dark, over a mesmerizing color palette of grays and blacks. Kenna breaks the rules of symmetry, confusing the eye of the viewer, creating in turn an aura of mystery. The column, which would appear to be the central focus of the piece, is not directly in the center of the photograph. This juxtaposition of man-made objects to the natural world displaces the viewer’s focus, moving it from the natural elements to the column, ultimately creating a sense of balance. Kenna continues to baffle the viewer through his interesting use of perspective. Eric Haskell writes, “[Michael Kenna] shows us gardens not as they are but as they should be, not as we see them but as we should see them.”1


1Haskell, Eric T. and Michael Kenna, Le Nôtre’s Gardens, RAM Publications, 1997. Page 11
Eric T. Haskell
Professor of French & Humanities
Director, Clark Humanities Museum
Scripps College

***

Early hours light the gardens at Versailles in a quiet way, rendering them unrecognizable to most tourists. Michael Kenna’s photography has become synonymous with a strong command of ethereal lighting; the drastic change that overcomes the gardens at first light is enough to attract Kenna and his unique treatment of historical sites. In Jardin du Roi, Kenna transforms a familiar experience by re-framing it so that we are forced to re-view it—and in doing so, we encounter the unexpected. The dark, solid column commands immediate attention. By contrast, the surrounding trees seem to materialize from the fog, revealing asymmetrical framing of the column. The tree to the left is heavily ornamented with mistletoe, guiding the eye towards it. Kenna’s control of lighting also encourages movement, highlighting a vertical gradient of dark to light. This new perspective of Versailles is novel and somewhat unsettling.

Laura Woods, SCR ’18

Marks
Front, in pencil -
lower left: 4/45
lower right: signature, 1997
Back of mounting - title, year (negative, 1996, print, 1997), limited edition, signature

Medium
sepia-toned silver gelatin photographic print

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