Michael Kenna’s Tree

I love Michael Kenna’s black and white photos, and there is one subject that he photographed many times over the years. I own one of them – the one shown above – not a full-sized photo, which costs several thousand dollars, but a small one in a One Picture Book published by Nazareli Press.

This is a photo that Kenna shot with a Holga camera, and which you can see in his recent book Holga. There are also a number of photos of this tree is his wonderful book Forms of Japan. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Kenna photographed this tree from many different angles over many years. You can see a number of different photos of the tree on his website. The story of his relationship is interesting, and sad. In his own words:

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, Japan. 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 quintessentially Japanese 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 whenever I could. Between my visits, branches broke and fell. To my eyes, this aging tree remained graceful and resilient. I began to regard her as a dear friend and I 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 return there in the future to walk, listen, remember, and perhaps photograph some more.

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