Rouge: Michael Kenna

The Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, was once considered the most advanced factory in the world and an icon of American industrial achievement. It was at the Rouge, designed by Albert Kahn, house architect to Henry Ford, that the modern-day industrial complex was born, using shed architecture and glass walls that were both lightweight and inexpensive and brought diffused light directly onto the factory floor. From its origins, the Rouge came to be a vast complex containing miles of railroad tracks, blast furnaces, coke ovens, a foundry, and enormous storage areas for holding the raw materials to be used in manufacturing—a veritable city unto itself for the industrial age.

Michael Kenna (British, born 1953), The Rouge, Study 100, Dearborn, Michigan, 1995. Gelatin silver print, 19.3 x 18.9 cm. The Ford Rouge Complex Collection, gift of the Ford Motor Company. © Michael KennaThe entire manufacturing process was carried out on site, from the arrival by river of ships carrying iron ore to the final assembly of cars—all intended by Henry Ford to allow his company’s production to be as self-sufficient as possible. Indeed, the Rouge was the only factory in North America to function in this way; even the electricity needed by the factory was produced on-site. At the core of the complex, the eight 320-foot stacks of the powerhouse towered over the rest of the Rouge. During peak production the powerhouse—Henry Ford’s favorite haunt at the Rouge—delivered enough electricity to supply the domestic needs of a city of a million residents.

From almost the beginning, the Rouge drew visitors. From 1924 to 1982, as many as a quarter of a million visitors a year toured parts of the Rouge, including the steel operations, assembly line, and occasionally the Engine Plant and Glass Plant. For a time, the Rouge drew visitors seeking inspiration for the new, including artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who spent time studying the Rouge’s facilities for Rivera’s murals Detroit Industry, and the American photographer Charles Sheeler, who was commissioned in 1927 to carry out a series of photographs that would exalt the achievements of this new emblem of industrial progress. Sheeler’s Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company (1927) became perhaps the best-known single image of the Rouge, embraced as “the finest image of technological utopia.”

Michael Kenna (British, born 1953), The Rouge, Study 49, Dearborn, Michigan, 1995. Gelatin silver print, 19.3 x 18.9 cm. The Ford Rouge Complex Collection, gift of the Ford Motor Company. © Michael KennaThe British photographer Michael Kenna began his own work with the Rouge in 1992 as an homage to Sheeler. What Kenna has called “pilgrimages” to sites where other photographers have worked helped him develop his own vision, one that also owes much to the early pictorialist photographers and their fascination with the visual effects of mists, smoke, and soft blurring. The project began in December 1992, during a visit to Detroit for an exhibition of his work, when Kenna was first able to tour the Rouge. This was to be the first of more than a dozen visits between 1992 and 1995, during which Kenna remembers “many freezing winter days and nights walking around this industrial maze . . . sometimes my cameras would freeze to the point where they stopped functioning. I would have two cameras with me, one being used and the other, covered and wrapped, inside a bag, ready to swap out when necessary.”

Kenna’s work at the Rouge continued the artist’s long and profound relationship with the industrial landscape that had begun during his upbringing in a highly industrial town in northwest England. These influences found photographic form when Kenna began to photograph the cotton and wool mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1980s. In these works and the Rouge images made a decade later, we find a number of themes and strategies critical to Kenna’s work as a photographer: an interest in photographing under low-light conditions and even at night; a concern for reflections and the image doubling they create; a fascination with the contrasts between the strong linearity of the built environment and the effacing atmosphere around it; the absence of people. Some of these strategies required long exposures, which Kenna has described as an “accumulation of light, time, and movement, impossible for the human eye to take in.” Despite the fact that parts of the Rouge complex were operational at the time of Kenna’s work there, the resulting images seem caught up with memory, with the mere traces of human activity, and in this there is something both highly temporal and seemingly monolithic and outside of time.

Michael Kenna recently returned to the images he had made in the 1990s and selected an additional fifty images for inclusion in the published series, which becomes the occasion for Rouge: Michael Kenna, an exhibition that displays approximately one third of the published body of work. The expanded series evidences remarkable versatility both in subject matter and in photographic strategy, even as Kenna’s eye is everywhere drawn to dynamic design: crisscrossed conveyors; smokestacks illuminated against a night sky; the sweeping curve of a moored freighter. The Princeton University Art Museum is proud to be the only repository for the whole of Kenna’s published work at the Rouge, work that seems newly resonant in an age in which we are once again questioning the legacy and meaning of America’s industrial past, as well as the significance of the relics and sites of that past at locations such as the Rouge.


James Christen Steward

Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director