The shapes of urban life

FIVE years ago the photographer Michael Kenna was traveling from London to the industrial North of England when his eye fell on what might have been a gigantic outdoor sculpture or a modern-day version of Stonehenge. It turned out to be an electric power station, and the structures that had intrigued Kenna were its cooling towers.

Whatever its usefulness to society or its potential danger to the environment, Kenna saw the power station as a beautiful arrangement of forms. At first he took pictures from outside the fence. Then he introduced himself to the management, showed them some of the photographs he had already made, and was permitted inside.

Over a period of years he has photographed the cooling towers at many different hours and from many different angles.

Another photographer might have emphasized the rigid alignment of the towers, or the hardness of their brick surfaces. But Kenna has taken a more playful view; he shows us the towers from angles that transform a balanced, symmetrical arrangement into something pleasingly off-center.

Kenna's power-plant pictures offer a combination of exhilaration and menace, which is perhaps not entirely different from the experience he had while making the photographs. From a distance the power station looks handsome, modern, and still, but inside the fence Kenna can feel the pavement vibrating under his feet. Perceived in that direct, intense way, the power station ceases to be a frozen arrangement of bricks and heavy machinery and turns into something like the natural world in its more awe-inspiring moments.

Kenna was not always able to see the beauty in England's industrial landscape. He was born in Widnes, a factory town between Liverpool and Manchester, in 1935. As a child he lived in one of the most polluted areas in England. Widnes itself is a center for chemical manufacturing, and the textile mills of Lancashire and Nottinghamshire were not far away. Kenna came to love whatever greenery he could find.

During his childhood there were fields and woods outside Widnes, and he used to walk in open country that has since been eaten away by suburban development. He made drawings and paintings of the natural world, and after studying at a Roman Catholic junior seminary where art was his strongest subject, he went to art school. In 1973 he went to London to study photography.

He rented a room in Richmond, a town in Surrey that is only a subway ride from central London but has retained much of its 19th-century charm. Just as he had once walked outside Widnes and made nature drawings, now he walked in a pleasant area near London and made photographs.

The neighborhood offered him an attractive mixture of nature and civilization. He could see fields and trees and the Thames, but also fences and bridges. Kenna's first artistic photographs were made in a place that was profoundly different from the mill towns he had known as a child.

Until the death of Bill Brandt, in 1983, Kenna felt unable to photograph industrial subjects. Brandt had been one of Kenna's favorite photographers; he had photographed industrial England during the 1930s, and in his memory Kenna went to see what the places looked like in the 1980s.

He found that his earlier discomfort had lessened. Many factory and warehouse buildings now stood empty, and some had been torn down. Britons of Kenna's own generation, who had never worked in the old buildings, found them attrac tive by comparison with the garages and supermarkets that were replacing them.

Although he has not yet photographed his hometown, Kenna has made his peace with the industrial landscape. He says of his power-station photographs that they are not political statements; he is perfectly aware that burning fossil fuel produces acid rain, and that nuclear power involves potential radiation hazards.

Despite those considerations Kenna sees beauty in a modern power station. He tries to photograph it as a mysterious apparition, not merely as a reminder that science makes the wheels go round.

Kenna celebrates the beauty of the man-made landscape. In his photographs, a power station, a formal garden, or a disused cotton mill may be seen as an adult version of the Eden in which he walked when he was a child.

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