Michael Kenna: Kussharo Lake Tree
Some of Michael Kenna’s best-known work is of a sculptural tree found by Kussharo Lake, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. His infatuation with this specific tree has come to define his unique vision of minimalist, black-and-white treescapes. Citing French photographer Eugène Atget as inspiration, Kenna remarks, “Atget’s dedication to restrict his photographic vision only to subject matter taught me that nothing is ever the same; anything can be photographed infinitely.” Over the course of seven years, Kenna returned to Kussharo Lake numerous times to create a total of seventeen studies. Today, these variants have become some of Kenna’s most sought-after photographs.
Kenna states, “In the winter of 2002, I was most fortunate to have a serendipitous meeting with a glorious Japanese Oak on the banks of Kussharo Lake, Hokkaido. That particular morning was brutally cold with heavy snow falling relentlessly. The lake was completely frozen over and white. I remember the muffled silence of the place, broken only by the piercing calls of hungry swans as they slid across the ice. I have photographed many trees, but this one had a special character, like an oversized bonsai – elegant and graphically powerful. There was something quintessential in its shape, rather like a woodblock print. Looking through the camera viewfinder, I could imagine red kanji characters descending down one side of the photographic frame. My imagination conjured up a wise, old woman bent over the lake. I wondered what she must have observed from her keen vantage point over the many years she had been there.
Since that first encounter, I returned to make photographic portraits of the tree in snow whenever I could. Between my visits, branches broke and fell. To my eyes, this aging tree remained graceful and resilient. I regarded her as a dear friend and greatly looked forward to our many reunions. Then, in August 2009, the tree was suddenly cut down. Apparently, she was situated on the edge of a camp site and there was concern that people who climbed on her could fall into the water if more branches broke. The demise of the tree was reported in Hokkaido newspapers – somehow it had become quite well known as “Kenna’s Tree”. Despite my sadness, this sweet association made me smile. I did not visit Kussharo Lake again until February 2013, when I finally made a return pilgrimage. It was as cold and frozen as my first visit. Of course, the tree was no longer there. Just an empty space where my tree had stood serenely for all those years. But the hungry swans still called out in their haunting manner for their morning food, and the lake was once again iced over, silent and still.
Time passes, change inevitably occurs, friends come and go, and yet, in a curious way, things stay the same. I have extremely fond memories of this secluded winter hide-out, the home of the lovely Kussharo Lake Tree. I will surely continue to return there and to many other parts of Hokkaido to walk, listen, remember, and photograph some more.” – Michael Kenna