The Rouge: Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna (British, born 1953), The Rouge, Study 1, Dearborn, Michigan, 1992, printed 1993. Gelatin silver print. Princeton University Art Museum. The Ford Rouge Complex Collection, gift of the Ford Motor CompanyMichael Kenna’s engagement with the Rouge industrial complex in Dearborn, Michigan, began in December 1992 during a visit to Detroit, after which he returned to photograph the site more than a dozen times between 1992 and 1995. His absorption with the Rouge—developed by Henry Ford for the Ford Motor Company between 1917 and 1927—grew out of a profound and personal relationship with industry and the industrial landscape. Born in Widnes, near Liverpool in northwest England, Kenna has noted, “Childhood experiences obviously have a great influence on one’s life, and as a boy, even though I had five older siblings, I was quite solitary, content for the most part with making up my own adventures and acting them out in local parks and streets. I liked to wander in train stations, on rugby grounds, along canal towpaths, in empty churches and graveyards, all locations that I would later find interesting to photograph. The industrial landscape that surrounded me was a strong influence on many later projects.”

The Rouge that Kenna visited between 1992 and 1995 was one of deep contrasts. He recalls, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” It is with Kenna’s images of the Rouge that many of the artist’s longstanding photographic concerns—photographing under low-light conditions or at night, an interest in the strong contrast between the linearity of the built environment and the effacing atmosphere around it, an absence of people—find their fullest expression.

Michael Kenna (British, born 1953), The Rouge, Study 113, Dearborn, Michigan, 1994, printed 2016. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, Mary Trumbull Adams Art Fund. © Michael KennaWe can now better understand these interests with the publication of an additional fifty images from the series, which join the previously printed images in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum. The new images are not in fact new, but newly published from Kenna’s work at the Rouge in the early 1990s. What we find in the expanded corpus of images of the Rouge is a body of work that captures something of the industrial might of this great complex at a distance and that conveys its monolithic presence. The sometimes mysterious presence of smoke or mist remains an enduring motif: a bridge crane hovering over a mountain of iron ore is obscured as its line plunges into a cloud of smoke or steam, making it seem both an engine of energy and a relic; clouds of steam and trails of smoke drifting across the powerful black lines of smokestacks are suggestive of the pulsing activity within, even while shrouded in a latter-day romanticism. These dual elements of smoke and mist remind us that the complex was in the 1990s—and remains—at least partially operational, and act both to disguise and to reveal, appropriate to the Rouge’s complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.


Rouge: Michael Kenna was made possible by the Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund and the Frederick Quellmalz, Class of 1934, Photography Fund.