For over 45 years, Paul Kenny’s photographs have mused on “landscape, the earth, the fragility, the power and beauty of nature.” But not just mused. Kenny’s images make contact with earth’s constellated matter. They accumulate, they construct. Scavenging beaches for pebbles, shells, and washed-up junk from far-away cities, Kenny composes little galaxies of debris on glass plates. The seawater evaporates, its residuum crystalline and cosmic. In some images, fishing line divides the frame like horizons below a starry, starry night. The “negatives” are scanned and printed. What remains is what the late Roger Caillois called l’écriture des pierres, the writing of stones.
Caillois, whose words accompany Kenny’s photographs below, never tired of the way nature seemed to sketch itself onto the very core of itself, long before we dream-debauched bipeds ever picked up a brush. “No matter what image an artist invents, no matter how distorted, arbitrary, absurd, simple, elaborate, or tortured he has made it or how far in appearance from anything known or probable, who can be sure that somewhere in the world’s vast store there is not that image’s likeness, its kin or partial parallel” in the rocks and wood and clouds?
To be sure, Kenny’s photographs, or photoglyphs (as I like to think of them), more than justify the hunch.
Life appears: a complex dampness, destined to an intricate future and charged with secret virtues, capable of challenge and creation. A kind of precarious slime, of surface mildew, in which a ferment is already working. A turbulent, spasmodic sap, a presage and expectation of a new way of being, breaking with mineral perpetuity and boldly exchanging it for the doubtful privilege of being able to tremble, decay, and multiply.
Obscure distillations generate juices, salivas, yeasts. Like mists or dews, brief yet patient jellies come forth momentarily and with difficulty from a substance lately imperturbable: they are evanescent pharmacies, doomed victims of the elements, about to melt or dry up, leaving behind only a savor or a stain.
It is the birth of all flesh irrigated by a liquid, like the white salve that swells the mistletoe berry; like the semisolid in the chrysalis, halfway between larva and insect, a blurred gelatin which can only quiver until there awakens in it a wish for a definite form and an individual function. Soon after comes the first domestication of minerals, the few ounces of limestone or silica needed by an undecided and threatened substance in order to build itself protection or support: on the outside, shells and carapaces, and on the inside, vertebrae that are immediately articulated, adapted, and finished down to the last detail.
The minerals have changed their employ, been drawn from their torpor, been adapted to and secreted by life, and so afflicted with the curse of growth—only for a brief spell, it is true. The unstable gift of sentience is always moving from place to place. An obstinate alchemy, making use of immutable models, untiringly prepares for an ever-new flesh, another refuge or support. Every abandoned shelter, every porous structure combines to form, through the centuries and the centuries of centuries, a slow rain of sterile seeds. They settle down, one stratum upon another, into a mud composed almost entirely of themselves, a mud that hardens and becomes stone again. They are restored to the immutability they once renounced. Now, even though their shape may still occasionally be recognized in the cement where they are embedded, that shape is no more than a cipher, a sign denoting the transient passage of a species.
Unceasingly the microscopic roses of diatoms, the minute lattices of radiolaria, the ringed cups of corals like tiny bony disks with countless thin spikes resembling circles of converging swords, the parallel channels of palms, the stars of sea urchins—all sow seeds in the depths of the rock: the seeds of symbols for a heraldry before the age of blazons.
Meanwhile the tree of life goes on putting out branches. A multitude of new inscriptions is added to the writing in stones. Images of fishes swim among dendrites of manganese as though among clumps of moss. A sea lily sways on its stem in the heart of a piece of slate. A phantom shrimp can no longer feel the air with its broken antennae. The scrolls and laces of ferns are imprinted in coal. Ammonites of all sizes, from a lentil to a millwheel, flaunt their cosmic spirals everywhere. A fossil trunk, turned jasper and opal like a frozen fire, clothes itself in scarlet, purple, and violet. Dinosaurs’ bones change their petit-point tapestries into ivory, gleaming pink or blue like sugared almonds.
Every space is filled, every interstice occupied. Even metal has insinuated itself into the cells and channels from which life has long since disappeared. Compact and insensible matter has replaced the other kind in its exact shapes, running in its finest channels, so that the first image is set down forever in the great album of the ages. The writer has disappeared, but each flourish—evidence of a different miracle—remains, an immortal signature.
Paul Kenny is represented by Huxley-Parlour in London. Copies of Kenny’s book, Seaworks: 1998-2013 (TripleKite Publishing), can be hunted down on the web. It’s a gorgeous book and an absolute necessity for any photo book collector. Follow Kenny on Instagram and Twitter. And check out the video below for more on the craft and origin of this amazing series!
Featured Image: Iona Sun (2010) © Paul Kenny