For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2006

The Rouge: Photographs by Michael Kenna

December 2, 2006–January 14, 2007

Carole McNamara, Senior Curator of Western Art

The Rouge Study #1, Dearborn, MI

Michael Kenna
The Rouge Study #1, Dearborn, MI
1993
sepia-toned gelatin silver print
UMMA, 2002/2.240

The Rouge Study #18, Dearborn, MI

Michael Kenna
The Rouge Study #18, Dearborn, MI
1993
sepia-toned gelatin silver print
UMMA, 2002/2.257

The Rouge Study #52, Dearborn, MI

Michael Kenna
The Rouge Study #52, Dearborn, MI
1995
sepia-toned gelatin silver print
UMMA, 2002/2.290

English landscape photographer Michael Kenna first toured the Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1992 and returned to the site over a number of years. The resulting photographs capture the smoky atmosphere, the dramatic structures, and the bold silhouettes that give this early twentieth-century technical marvel at the center of modern American industry its character. This suite of more than 75 images possesses all the trademark characteristics of Kenna’s photography, including dramatic composition, subtle exploration of light, and ongoing textural investigation.


How an artist transforms the site he depicts is the essential question that underlies Michael Kenna’s views of Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant. The gigantic Rouge automobile factory, designed by famed architect Albert Kahn for Henry Ford and finished in 1928, stood as a marvel of engineering and functional design and a standard by which modern manufacturing was measured for more than a generation. Consisting of ninety-three buildings straddling a site a mile-and-a-half long and a mile wide, and staffed by a workforce roughly the population of present-day Ann Arbor, the Rouge was critical to the future of what was arguably the twentieth century’s most influential product. In addition, the site played a key part in the development of Modernism, serving to inspire such artists as Diego Rivera and Charles Sheeler. How does a contemporary artist approach such a storied subject with a fresh eye?

Kenna’s elusive images capture the distinctive qualities of the Rouge, but he has infused them with a poetic vision. This personal approach frees the site from the specifics of automotive production and allows for the play of broader ideas and possibilities inherent in an industrial landscape. Kenna’s background seems to have made him ideally suited to this exploration. Born in Lancashire, England, Kenna grew up in the gritty industrial Midlands region where factories with belching smokestacks were commonplace; his eye was trained early to see more in such landscapes than others might. Kenna is known for views of industrial sites, such as nuclear power plants in Britain and California, done in the 1980s, as well as unpopulated landscapes of rural England and formal French gardens. Thomas Halsted, the Birmingham, Michigan, dealer who represents Kenna’s work, first arranged for the artist to tour the Rouge factory in 1992 with then-Ford employee Lee Kollins. Captivated, Kenna created more than 100 images of the Rouge over the next decade.

Kenna’s images provide a critically different view of the Rouge complex from those of American Precisionist painter and photographer Charles Sheeler, who also engaged intensely with the site. In the late 1920s, Sheeler spent several weeks photographing the Rouge for Ford Motor Company, creating images that brought worldwide attention to the site and signaled a new, industrial aesthetic. Kenna, rather than following Sheeler’s use of bright daylight and cast shadows to create vivid tonal contrasts, shot his views during liminal times of day—dawn, dusk, and at night. The diffused light creates the effect of an eerie glow that seems to emanate from the towering structures of the plant. In stepping away from the hard edges and linearity presented by the site, Kenna reveals a surprising softness that is reminiscent of his work in more pastoral settings. It is this dreamlike quality, wedded to the suggestion of pulsating energy, which makes the images compelling.

These photographs are both suggestive of a human presence and yet devoid of life, perhaps evoking an unthinkable future moment when the plant would fall silent. Smokestacks of the plant’s power house are enveloped in fog, dematerializing the forms even as the chimney shafts discharge their own smoke and steam. Nocturnal views that are exposed for several hours include the wheeling traces of stars as they move across the sky. Kenna’s oblique views of the Rouge’s many conveyer belts, railroad tracks, and buildings juxtapose the plant’s industrial forms (which so excited Sheeler) with the irregular forms of slag heaps or mounds of iron ore pellets in the foreground and other suggestions of soft organic forms.

In the end it is Kenna’s uncanny ability to infuse a site such as the Rouge plant in Dearborn with both complexity and an otherworldly beauty that makes his photographs of this engineering and manufacturing masterpiece so memorable. For Kenna, the familiar industrial forms he captured at the Rouge take on the poetic quality of his most elegant and lyrical landscapes, in his aesthetic choices Kenna provides a new and transforming look at an extraordinary landmark.

Ford logo
The Rouge: Photographs by Michael Kenna is made possible by Ford Motor Company Fund, as part of its support of UMMA’s 2006–07 season.

Additional support for this exhibition has been provide by Michigan Radio.