Big things are happening in the little, lightly trafficked UMMA refuge at South U and Forest. After the mesmerizing Barsamian exhibit of whirling modern zoetrope contraptions and the enchanting and mournful Plains of Sweet Regret video installation, the UMMA is mounting what promises to be its third outstanding exhibit in a row, a blockbuster show of English photographer Michael Kenna’s exquisite black-and-white photos of the Ford Rouge complex.

Three of the Kenna Rouge photos in the UMMA’s collection were standout works in the summer 2001 exhibit Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern. This time, the visitor can see no fewer than ninety. Taken in the early 1990s and printed by a silver-gelatin process that renders the works pearly and starkly chiaroscuric, the brooding, poetic photos transform a dirty, utilitarian industrial site into meditations on the unlikely beauty of smokestacks and slag piles.

The Rouge, Study #7 (right) shows a curving chimney complex silhouetted among climbing drifts of mysteriously illuminated white cloud. A stain of inky smoke rises against pale mist. The precise outlines of the metal structure, surrounded and dwarfed by the luminous vapor, render the hulking machinery into a toylike shape in a floating-cloud world.

The factory is also dwarfed by natural phenomena in Study #18. Resembling a mountain range, a dark gray ridge of dirt or coal looms up through the bottom two-thirds of the photo. Beyond it, an array of Rouge chimneys exudes insubstantial wisps of white smoke, and seems in danger of burial by the hulking pile, as if the glacierlike coal were burying and erasing the structures.

Study #88 offers a similar contrast between the artificial and the natural. The work looks up from the base of two large chimneys extending into opaque gray sky. Above the massive columns, thin and faint white curves of star tracks appear from what must be a time-lapse photo. These unassuming marks quietly raise questions about the permanence of the monumental structures.

An infernal nighttime city of towers, chutes, and railroads appears in Study #96. Mist and smoke again fill the view, blurring lights and suffusing the imposing square structures in mystery and dreamy unreality. At this place devoted to motion and noise, a parked rail car in the photo adds to the feeling of poised stillness.

An enormous black scoop, parked crookedly in the foreground of Study #5 against a background of crane arms indistinct in a fog, suggests, despite its massive and clumsy bulk, a lyre strung with nine cables. The scoop-lyre offers a succinct metaphorical representation of how Kenna’s photos of the Rouge tease from this utilitarian factory a dark and powerful visual music of mystery, grace, and foreboding.

The photographs are on display at the U-M Museum of Art Off/Site December 2 through January 14.

[Review published December 2006]