Michael Kenna’s Power Stations: Exploring Ratcliffe-on-Soar 

02nd March 2024
Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 19, Nottinghamshire, England, 1984'

Michael Kenna (born 1953 in Wildes, Lancashire) is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most prominent photographers. His work is recognisable for its black-and-white, minimalist compositions, often featuring a soft and peculiar light. Kenna is able to treat huge empty landscapes with the same intensity and precision as individual flowers or human-made sculpture. Over his more than 50 year career as a professional photographer, Kenna has travelled extensively around the world and taken some 175,000 photographs, some of which are held in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., or the Bibliothèque in Paris.

While Kenna has come to be known most markedly for his travel and landscape photography—particularly his numerous trips to the same locations in rural Japan—a less recognised contribution to photography is his powerful work documenting one of Britain’s largest coal-fired power stations. Beginning in a period of political tension around coal power and mining in the early 1980s, Kenna set out as a young photographer to document the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station in Nottinghamshire. He visited the Ratcliffe station many times between 1984 and 2003, enacting what became a crucial part of his practice: returning to a single location in order to slowly and meditatively photograph a site in its many-faceted entirety. Nodding to the photographers from the New Topographics, Kenna applied rituals of repetition and meticulousness as seen in the work of practitioners like Bernd and Hilla Becher, but with his own personal flair.

Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 6, Nottinghamshire, England, 1985'
Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 34, Nottinghamshire, England, 1985'

The photographs from Ratcliffe offer a wonderful exhibition of Kenna’s approach to his subjects. The monumental cooling towers of the power station hold an ominous beauty as they loom out of the mist and smoke. Already a master manipulator of half-light, Kenna captured the tonal range of the slowly-moving grey skies that would have been a common backdrop to his childhood. Kenna has approached the power station from many different perspectives, taking a wider view of the cooling towers nestled in a weathered Nottinghamshire landscape, as well as in intimate proximity, showing the individual brickwork and character of these industrial megaliths. Over the two decades in which Kenna returned to the site, the complete series of photographs offers a multifaceted view of the power station and one is encouraged to regard it in multiple ways. The cooling towers become both polluting blights on an otherwise harmonious countryside, and elegant monuments to modernity.

Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 35, Nottinghamshire, England, 1985'
Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 62, Nottinghamshire, England, 1984'

The Ratcliffe series exhibits the qualities that have brought Kenna to international acclaim: subtlety of tone and light mixed with an exuberant black-and-white, patient revisiting of a location to uncover something deeper or unseen. Yet, for a photographer who has become most renowned for his calm appreciation for the beauty of Japanese landscapes and Buddhist sculpture, there is an unusual emotional (or sentimental) response to see his perceptive eye cast onto a gritty landmark of industrial life in his native drizzly Northern England.

Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 54, Nottinghamshire, England, 2000'
Michael Kenna, 'Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 69, Nottinghamshire, England. 2003'

FeaturedMichael Kenna

Michael Kenna portrait

The ArtistMichael Kenna is one of the most acclaimed landscape photographers of his generation. His photographs have been the subject of some 50 monographs and are held in the collections of over 100 museums worldwide.

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