Four Japanese Photographers and What They Don’t Have In Common With Cindy Sherman
A Recent Spring Photo-Viewing Trip To New York
Before I start in talking about subtle, often modest scale Japanese photography and the legacy of photographic prints as intimate, introspective, and highly crafted objects, I think I need to point out that there are of course infinite ways to use print technology to produce timeless, penetrating, poetic, and even monumental statements. This is a pluralistic and global world we’re apart of, with many avenues available for communicating and showing work and that is increasing, not decreasing. I see totally opposite approaches to using photography existing at the same time, at the same place, and I can appreciate all of it as valid, interesting, significant, and in a way inevitable. I try to appreciate work on its own terms if I can.
A case in point for me that I wasn’t quite expecting was the retrospective of the artist Cindy Sherman at MoMA in New York this spring. Sherman, since the 1980s has certainly been one of the most visible artists that utilize giant color prints and whose work has focused on the implications of the often overwhelming presence of mass media on the individual’s psyche and on young people coming of age in this era in particular. Hers was not the first but probably the most imitated example of this genre and format.
At the same time Sherman has been one of the most disliked artists by “real” photographers since she achieved such rapid fame just out of college during the Ragan era. And, much of that criticism was unjustifiable I thought at that time and I still feel that way today. She IS a photographer and it’s not her cross to bear that critics latched onto her as their primary reference when salivating to excess about “the end of the author”, (which never happened by the way) and the mind numbing late 20th century French linguistic and psychoanalytical post-structuralist theater of academia that dominated the 1980’s..
The fact is, leaving aside all the fame, the hype, and the theoretical pop philosophical writing that has been attached to her by art and social critics since the early 80’s, (to her benefit economically of course), Sherman is a highly skilled photographer, and a very dedicated one at that. She is an artist, who along with Chuck Close, have done more to update the implications of the self-portrait than any visual artists since Rembrant in my opinion. This work encompasses over thirty years of hard work. It was produced within an oeuvre that has utilized the craft of highly suggestive lighting, carefully considered if invasive camera vantages, and psychologically suggestive set-designs, which are quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before they came along. They also contain sequences of variations on topical gender, economic, historical and age themes that place them in a unique time, our time. And that is worth something in itself. (I could have lived without the vomit pictures, but that’s just me.) Overall this was one impressive retrospective at the Modern that reflects a long-term commitment from her. Anyone who thinks what she has done is easy, well, you try investigating one idea for 30 years and watch it grow. Some have done it, but not many.
Cindy Sherman Retrospective – Description by the Curator of the Exhibition
So… What is my point? My point is, I have nothing against extremely large, glossy, in-your-face, monumental color photography, even if it attempts to stare down the plastic face of the advertising world. To put it in context, much of this mural sized work can be traced back to a desire among practitioners of photography to compete in the market place with giant paintings and installations, much less advertising, as both collectable objects and public statements. Much of it is extremely effective. As a matter of fact, many of my favorite photo people in the last 20 years have worked with similar formats. These quite different individuals include, Richard Misrach, Sandy Skoglund, James Casebere, Barbara Kasten, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, or Edward Burtinsky . Other examples are Robert Polidori’s large format 8×10 camera color views of Post Katina New Orleans and urban India, and Andrew Moore’s similar pristine and thought provoking views of Cuba and Detroit, or even Chi Peng’s current generation in urban China. All of these photographers have contributed to the art of our time and most are very different psychologically. Long after their massive type C prints discolor and/or peel off their aluminum mounts and, those with plexi-glass faces turn yellow from exposure, their work will live on in digital form either through books or reconstituted print archives to be created in the future.
My point here is that there is another way that is equally powerful, if a lot more subtle, and this realm need not be relegated to the dust bins of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century history books and the dark catacombs of history museums. Craftsmanship and the uniqueness of the precious small and moderately sized print is still alive and well in 2012. Like the death of the author, the predicted demise of that world of image making never took place either. Maybe it is more desirable now than ever to experience quiet contemplation. Lord knows there’s not much of it around.
What inspired me the most in my recent spring visit to New York was not what I found at MoMA, or the giant expansive (and expensive) APAD photo gallery dealers show, and certainly not what I saw at the Whitney Biennial this year, which was the most dismal showing of photo based work that I’ve ever seen from that exhibition in 25 years. Most of what affected me was shown in the same place at the same time at the Howard Greenburg gallery in midtown. http://www.howardgreenberg.com. I just want to say thank you Howard Greenburg Gallery for producing one quality show after another and keeping my spirits up. They will often have more quality, thought provoking work in one show than comparable galleries have in a whole year.
Four Japanese Photographers:
First of all I don’t want to suggest that there is in any way a “Japanese style” of photography that these individuals prescribe to. Quite the contrary, each of these artists describes clearly identifiable ideas, and they work in very different ways. What I am suggesting is that all of them take advantage of an economy of means combined with a technical refinement that is generally lacking in a lot of contemporary work. Their works all draw the viewer into a more contemplative space where meditation and subtlety predominate.
Most of this one super impressive month of photography at the HG gallery consisted of three well-established and successful Japanese, art photographers. They are Eikoh Hosoe, Kenro Izu, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Also, Masao Yamamoto was not far away at the Yancy Richardson Gallery at the same time. The American Frank Gohlke was also showing at Greenburg in the back galleries with a sizable body of his work, and I don’t think by coincidence, because he has a lot in common with the other three. I’ll have to leave his work to another time, because it deserves separate attention, but it is very inspirational as well. Like these Japanese photographers, Gohlke knows the value of silence and space in art. Like the great composers Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, they know that what you leave out of a piece can be more important that what you put in it. Sometimes quietness is larger and more powerful than bright hues, physical scale, and public noise.
I’ll start with Eikoh Hosoe (pronounced “E Ko Ho So E” ). No matter how small or how big or what format he works in, Hosoe’s work always has the character of being hand-made. There is always an attention to detail that is at the service of the larger vision. He is always the master director of the process as it applies to the interaction of materials in relationship to his subjects and themes.
Mr. Hosoe was born in Yonezawa Japan in 1933 – yes he is almost 80 now! More than anyone else he has helped to establish contemporary Japanese photography as a force in world art. Hosoe visited my own photo program back in the late 70s and I was fortunate enough to experience an introduction to him by seeing the limited edition hand-made offset books he had with him that were exquisitely printed on luxurious Japanese papers and hand sewn, and bound in the traditional refined Japanese manner with materials and craftsmanship of highest quality. They were relatively large books too, with the reproductions approximating the size of the original silver prints. I’ve seen no photo books in my lifetime that compared with them. They had the power of an ancient codex to me.
Because of the way they were produced and sequenced, my feeling was that the book editions were just as valuable as the original prints they came from. I wish I had bought several of them. I’m sure they’re worth a fortune now. The books of these series were Embrace, and Killed By Roses. Hosoe , like the film director Ikira Kuraswa was acutely aware of the significance, but also the fragility of preserving the memory of Japanese art and culture in the decades after the end of the Second World War. Like Yukio Mishima the poet with whom he collaborated on projects in the 1960s , specifically the book Killed By Roses, Hosoe has always tried to put Japanese tradition in the forefront of his aesthetic. But also, like the great film director Kurasawa, he wanted to communicate the value and rareness of that tradition to the west and stop it from being totally eclipsed and erased by American mass culture in the 1950’s-60’s., up to the present time. And, he has been as successful as one individual can possibly be on those fronts. They both realized that to be pro-Japanese was not necessarily being anti-American. The success of his work is that it has described the Japanese mindset of desperately trying to hold on to their identity while surviving in a rapidly connected but strangely uniform corporate processed world. Being a global technological-economic power while maintaining their identity as an indigenous separate society is the predicament they find themselves in. (and yes theoretically we’re describing the dilemma of post-modern homogeneity but lets not go there :-} .
The other book Hosoe put together back in the late 1970s was Embrace, which remains one of my favorite things that he has ever contributed. It consists of remarkably perfect, labored over black and white silver prints that visually describe in a graphic form of light, the psychological relationship between the light skinned female and the dark skinned male as represented in historical Japanese art. This was a clear example of Hosoe using the background of at least a thousand years of Japanese visual art in an updated format that is highly expressive and relevant to his own specific milieu. If something can be erotic and spiritual at the same time then this work has done it.
Another series of photographs, and the ones that were shown at the Howard Greenburg Gallery in March, are from a continuing body of work that was created by photographing traditional classical dance dramas like that found in Kubuki and Noh musical theater stage sets, as he has photographed for decades. This work in some ways is a continuation of his book Kamaitachi from 1969, where he photographed traditional theater in expressive black and white as it was performed in the countryside of Japan. In Japan, as in China, there has been a long tradition of traveling theatre groups who visited all parts of these countries often, which included the relatively isolated rural areas. Think communication, entertainment and poetry before the era of tv, radio, or even printed books and you start to understand how it has been used for many centuries in Asia.
You will notice that many Japanese photographers often use lighting, grain, and contrast in a more intense, and some would say harsher way than many of their contemporaries in America. But it is no less precise or less seductive, and often more so. Like most great photographers, Hosoe’s printing, camera work and theme always function as inseparable components of his vocabulary. To say Hosoe is prolific is like saying Picasso was a busy man, and goes without saying.
Hosoe has been a master photography printer for 50 years and, his recent work adds to that reputation. These prints shown at the Greenburg Gallery have now taken the form of traditional Asian scrolls that hang from the wall in the gallery. They are super-impositions taking the form of pigment silk-screens that were printed on hand-made Washi paper, an ancient medium of Japanese printmaking. Although multi-color wood block printing and silkscreen printing were invented in China beginning in the Song Dynasty, 960-1279 as was the fine art of paper making, the Japanese brought their unique refined touch to it beginning in the 16th Century, and really perfected it in the 19th Century.
I once saw a show at the Met of some of the best of these. It expressed the theme of European ships sitting in the harbor of Tokyo. Many of those huge wood block prints had 30 or more separate matrices, made of cherry wood blocks, each contributing a separate color or line. They were perfectly registered plates, and it still blows me away that technically they could make this happen, much less have the additional gift of pure individual expressive invention. These works influenced printmakers and graphic artists all over the world, from the posters of Talouse–Lautrek to the silk screens of Warhol and Rauchenburg. As with other historic technologies, the Chinese came up with a great, universally significant technological advancement, and the Japanese refined it and adapted it to their own ends. They in turn passed that on to the rest of the world. Once the isolation of Japan from the West was breached, everyone was influenced by these kinds of prints. We can’t even think of Impressionism, Post Impressionism and the whole realm of European and American modernist abstract and color-field painting or, the entire field of graphic design without discussing the influence of Japanese woodblock prints.
Similarly the subject of this body of work at Greenburg Gallery, named Ukivo-e Projections by Hosoe, communicates the sacredness of the communal medium of theater in Japanese society. Hosoe created these images by projecting slides of historic Japanese printmaking, and many of his own early photographs, onto the light bodies of the Butoh dancers. In turn those projections were photographed. These scroll form silk-screen prints made from his film exposures are tactile precious physical objects, but also are illusory transparent pools of light and image that, combine with the fibers of the washi kozo bark, and describe the myths of the ancient past of public events in a contemporary collective form of memory.
Hosoe has collaborated with some of the same theater directors and dancers for over 50 years and it has been an ongoing passion and muse for him. In a way, you could say if you were to have to choose one word to describe his work as a whole it would be Theatrical. But Theatrical in traditional Japanese society encompassed a lot more than actors telling interesting stories in interesting ways. Theatrical for them is close to what we would describe as being “Shakespearian”, encompassing all the myths, legends, history, poetry, art and music of their society in a grand and inclusive way. Yes, it has a lot to do with what we may call performance art today. At a time when the last of these traditional music-dance theatres are closing due to lack of attendance and economic support, Hosoe, and his Pre World War 2 generation, saw a great loss in progress that may never be reversed once the skills needed to perform the archetypal performances are unknown to the next generation. Actually the word Noh, in Noh Drama, translates to skill. And skills have to be taught and labored over. The loss of these skills is related to the general global homogenizing of Japanese society.
As a personal example, I once attended an undergraduate advanced photo class where one of our colleagues was a guy named Massa from Tokyo. He had photographed a lot of ancient shrines, temples and monuments in Japan and we were discussing them. The teacher asked him to tell us what these shrines represented to his generation. He looked a little dazed and muttered, “ I don’t really know, we just think of them as places where the old people go”. We were all stunned and silent.
I believe this work was primarily a vehicle for Hosoe’s personal poetic self-expression but, it also functions as a quiet yet persistent voice that has been sent across the ocean like the last waves of a Tsunami to describe and to hopefully save this unique art form of theater in one way or another. Or, at the very least, to save it’s content as a collective memory through photography. Looking at it from even more of a distance one can see this body of work in the context of all of Hosoe’s projects as a metaphor for the fragility of Japanese cultural traditions in their entirety and the changes that have occurred within his lifetime. Perhaps in an analogous way we all see localized rituals disappearing, or at least morphing into an international culture beyond our control. Such is the stuff of life today.
But Hosoe’s work is not a downer, quite the contrary. It has hope, humor, excitement and passion. It takes that powerful force of cultural transition and shapes it into something sustaining, epic, and eternal.
For an excellent, quick over view of Eikoh Hosoe’s life and amazing work see these videos as a start and let him describe it. I’m glad he’s still out there in the world.
From a retrospective – Theater Of Memory, a good over view of his work over the past 50 years –
Eikoh Hosoe is represented by Howard Greenburg Gallery New York.
Hiroshi Sugimoto – Like Eikoh Hosoe, Hiroshi Sugimoto often uses photography to describe emotions and presences that one would normally think were not photographable. There are usually things taking place within the process of making his work that are invisible and intangible. Yet we sense them, experience them somehow as being present. Sugimoto is an alchemist. By that I mean he attempts to create something new from matter by transforming it. His work is always just a hair away from not being objectified into a physical form. It is almost ephemeral, but not quite. He’s always been very interested in the specifics of the medium of photography as a form of mystical science. One of his biggest influences is Henry Fox Talbot, one of the two co-invertors of photography. He somehow still maintains the excitement and mystery that the very first photographers must have felt. His work always reminds one of the first moments, possibly as children, that we first saw the image of something materializing from nothing in our first darkroom experience – that very first print you saw coming up in the developer tray. His work is never weighted down with cultural baggage. Probably the most obvious example of that intangibility is his use of high voltage electricity as a vehicle of light and as a subject. It allowed Sugimoto to create and to be able to photograph pure energy that is in flux.
In the series “Lightening Fields” Sugimoto describes how he created a high-energy electrical field in his studio that was designed specifically to photograph. It was an extremely dangerous set up but the results were worth the risk. Many of these look like natures version of lightening fields or aerial landscapes taken during energy storms of one form or another, suggesting storms or events taking places on distant planets or even from another place in the universe. Maybe they describe another dimension, split in time and space in a quantum moment. They point to energy as a primal force at the root of all life. They are also incredibly beautiful silver prints.
Description of Lightening Fields -
Another example of his interest in the invisible factor of the space between events in time is his series of movie theatres. These lush silver prints, shot with his usual 8×10 camera in black and white film, represent in all cases of the series, very long exposures in time. The result is total whitening out of the movie screen that was bathed in light over time, revealing a glowing white rectangle hovering is space, clean and pure. All the people in the theatre are invisible, and only the architecture is left sharp and tangible
I saw a series of his photographs in 2006 at Sonnabend Gallery where he had fabricated plaster corners in his studio specifically to be photographed over time, and only with the natural window light. They had no obvious color. They were white and gray but shot with color film. Gradually you became aware that there was quite a bit of difference in the color of each 30×40 inkjet pigment print, but only after you eyes began to adjust to this realm of hue and light. This series in particular, named “Colors of Shadow”, like his horizons of seascapes that are all black and white silver prints, can’t be appreciated by reproductions. You can purchase books of this kind of work and get some sense of it, but that is just a hint of the physicality that they transmit. Sugimoto’s work, though quite varied in subject matter and theme, is always about perception. They are about the relativity of it, the temporality of it, and the mystery of it.
“Colors Of Shadow” -
One of the greatest examples of this aura of light in his work is a black and white gelatin silver print of his that I saw up close at APAD this year. If that was the only thing I saw there of value it was enough. It is one of the ocean horizon line photographs, called “Sea Scapes” that were shot of ocean horizon lines all over the world. The one at APAD of the Baltic Sea was almost black, and from a distance it looked like a black rectangle. I had seen reproductions of it but they didn’t mean a thing to me until I approached the real work that had an image that was just on the verge of seeming like a mirage. All of his work is like that. With this one, when you approached it you saw the faint outline of the merger of sky and sea. You felt just how fragile that separation is between one world, of an almost invisible atmosphere and another of a deep unknown and fluid ocean. They are part of the same system however. They are one thing, which is everything that creates life on this planet. But the barriers between the two are amorphous. Now that is a metaphor for everything. Admit to yourself that there is no distinction between this world and the next and you are halfway to enlightenment. When you confront these prints you don’t rationalize about that of course, what you feel is something archetypal that is in your gut, beyond words and reason. You could call it a Zen experience, but even then it’s a poor description of something that has no linguistic parameters.
As mentioned earlier, Sugimoto is an alchemist. He’s fascinated by the properties of materials and the way they interact with energy and light. Sugimoto works in all kinds of print sizes, from quite large silver and inkjet prints to quite small things. The single print of his shown in this Greenburg group exhibition was called Alhambra, San Francisco, 1992, Gelatin Siver Print, 19 1/8 x 23 5/8 Edition #7 of 25. Sometimes representing an artist by one work is all you need. It was one of the Movie Theater time exposure prints from the series “Theatres”. Like the almost black Seascape of the Baltic Sea that I just described, or like the grayish hued plaster coated walls of his studio shown in NY about 6 years ago, quite often there is some property in the work that is so subtle as to be almost primal in its effect.
One thing about Sugumoto, he’s never exactly the same. Photography, art, and life are a constantly moving journey for him. I don’t think he even knows what the next road will bring. Mr. Sugimoto is represented by Pace Gallery in New York and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco.
Interviews with Sugumoto about the work “Joe”, a group of photographs of the sculpture by Richard Serra of the same name – http://sugimoto.pulitzerarts.org/interview/
Kenro Izu –
Like Eikoh Hosoe and Hiroshi Sugimoto, Kenro Izu is both a mater photographer and a master printer. That term “master” is thrown around a lot and quite often it means that someone is fairly competent. These days anyone who can print at all might consider himself a master. But in the case of these three individuals, master means master.
Kenro Izu’s medium of choice is a custom made large format wood view camera, 14×20 inches in size, but he also works in 8×10 and 11×14 negative sizes. His prints in the past have almost always been hand coated platinum prints on rag papers. They are all contact prints, with the print being the size of the negative used. They all have a 19th century quality to them.
Izu started out as a photo student in Osaka and later moved to New York where he worked as a commercial still life photographer. Later in life he fully developed his personal artwork to a very high degree and now is almost completely known for that work that was shot all around the world. Over the years he has done series in Egypt, Syria, Mexico, France, Jordan, Scotland, England, and Easter Island.
His most known works, and the ones of the book by the same title, Passage to Angkor, document the ancient, and once forgotten, 12th Century stone temples in the jungles of Angkor Wat Cambodia. They are the South East Asian equivalent of the gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, but a lot more remote and earthy, and closer in feel to the pyramids of Mexico, the Maya towers of Tikal, or the Inca complex at Machu Picchu, only a lot more intact. This series is a case where the art medium and the subject matter fit each other so perfectly that these photographs seem destined to be made by someone, and Izu was the one to do it. And, he did it extremely well. I’ve seen a lot of platinum prints over the decades but few I can remember seeing had the richness, perfect color and authority that these prints have. I was fortunate to see most of this series about 10 years ago at Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta and every print, as big as they were for platinum, was perfectly made. I have this book here beside me now of this series and it is also exceptionally well made. However, as much as we would like these reproductions to be, they are not platinum prints, so once again, you need to see the original work to really feel it’s power.
Kenro Izu established a charity, Friends Without A Border, in 1995 in which he donates proceeds from this book as a way of returning something to Cambodia for the many photographs he has made there since he started the project in 1979. He’s done more than anyone else to make this site known around the world. It is said that this temple complex is his spiritual “base camp” now, and probably forever. Certainly it has affected him and all the work he has done and will do since that project. When he was here at Emory University discussing this work, everyone was impressed at how dedicated he was to the preservation of these monuments.
Some of the prints of Izu’s on view at Howard Greenburg Gallery are from his on gong series called Sacred Places. This series includes platinum prints made in centers of worship or spirituality all over the world. Some of the places are Machu Pichu Peru, worship sites in Tibet, the pyramids of Mexico, the pyramids of Egypt, Petra in Jordan, Stonehenge in England, and Native American ritual sites in the Southwestern United States. What they have in common is peacefulness, but also permanence, as if they have always been there and always will be there. Often he shoots just before the sun comes up or just after dusk where there is a warm glow to the monochrome surfaces of his prints. Also, the fact that they are produced in such a consistent way helps the feeling that they are all of one family of spirit. What you see is what all of the cultures have in common, not their differences. Gandi once said that it is a crime how people kill each other simply because each calls God by another name. In looking at these photographs you get the feeling why he was right.
In addition to his long time involvement with Platinum, Izu is now making some fairly large carbon pigment prints of some of his older images, and of some new ones. Howard Greenburg Gallery represents those as well.
In this latest group show of Japanese photography, besides the Sacred Places work, he also showed some really gorgeous nudes. Normally when I see photographs of nudes in more traditional poses I walk right past them, but not with these. Actually of all the prints I saw in that show, these were the ones that stopped me and stayed in my mind. They were very dark and lush 14×20 inch contact prints made by doing multiple, and perfectly registered layers of platinum, and then cyanotype on top of it. Maybe someone has done this before but I’ve never seen it. This was a beautiful combination. They had the metallic depth of platinum but with a dark bluish color embedded into them that made them glow. Maybe this is a new direction for Izu. If so I would love to see more. Like Sugimoto’s almost black Baltic Sea print, these nudes seemed to almost disappear to your vision as you walked around the room. They reminded me in a way of a Chuck Close daguerreotype self-portrait that I saw awhile back where you only saw the image from one vantage point. If you turned your head for a second you were afraid it might disappear forever. When you think you’ve seen every alternative print process there is, then you run across something like that, which is totally unique and pure.
Series “Blue” :http://www.kenroizu.com/html/bl10.html
Series “Sacred Places” :http://www.kenroizu.com/html/sp1.html
Kenro Izu is represented by Howard Greenburg Gallery in Ny, Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, Robert Klein Gallery in Boston and, Addison Ripley Fine Art in Washington .
If there was ever a physical form in which to shape the idea of intimacy, it could be a Masao Yamamoto photograph.
Yamamoto was in born 1957 in Gamagori City in Aichi Prefecture, Japan . As a young boy he was a collector of insects and natural objects, and I imagine something of a dreamer. As a young man he began using his simple 35mm camera to preserve these random fragments of moments in time in the same way an amateur biologist would preserve a rare butterfly’s wing. He never stopped pursuing this passion. His pictures represent collections of ephemeral connections between things. Things like a bird sitting for a second in the hand of a child, a flock of geese moving toward the bottom right hand corner of the print while in the split- second process of landing in a formation that surely has been in practice since the days of the dinosaurs. There is a photograph of three dark mountain monkeys equally spaced digging in a blanket of smooth white snow unaware of the photographer. Another photograph is of a triangular shape of a freshly plowed field seen on a walk at night and lit with a spot light.
When you describe these things in words they make no sense. The more you talk about them the less you understand. It is not the objects or even the events photographed that you think about after seeing them, but rather the miracle and mystery of memory itself. Like with the work of Hosoe, Sugimoto, or Izu, this is almost a primordial instinctual kind of process, not an educated, programmed, or calculated one. The author can never know what his public audience comes away thinking about this kind of work. This randomly intuitive direction is a dangerous way to make photographs as a free-lance photographer for a living, but he does it, and he does it extremely well.
Yamamoto’s prints from his earliest series were always very small, the average size being about 3”x4”. They are tiny gelatin silver prints that are toned a golden brown by tea, giving them a pre-aged patina. He also often folds and edge, or rubs a corner, or gently tears the edge of the print, which reinforces its role as an artifact of history. He is known to carry them around in his pocket for a period of time before showing them. It is important that they have a personal history. You have no idea how old they are, what their history is exactly, or where they have been, or where they will end up. They seem to have an existence of their own. They’re vulnerable flying around in world like that with no frame, no glass, nothing to shield them The effect of seeing these individual prints is certainly an effect of sensing their vulnerability. A vulnerability of both of the vision encountered, as well as the print itself. They have very quiet voices almost inaudible. You have to listen very carefully, and even then you might not hear them if you don’t concentrate.
Many of Yamamoto’s series have been shown together in groups or clusters, and therefore reinforce the implied continuity of a wandering soul living his life one minute at a time. In A Box of Ku in particular these prints benefit by being together on one place, or at least a few of them at a time. This lets the viewer experience something of the spontaneous process that the photographer felt in making them. If one could see into the human brain and look at a graphic snap shot of pure memory records, these are what they might look like. The prints function as separate memories that bounce off of and reinforce each other.
Yamamoto has often expressed the importance that each of these pieces of memory be small enough to fit into the hand. His preferred way of looking at them would be that way. They are often not behind glass, or in frames, or lined up in rigid symmetrical linear ways as most photographs are shown. How did we end up in that box anyway?
In his first well know series, A Box Of Ku (which could translate to a box of sky or a box of emptiness) these tiny, yellowish brown fragments of silver paper are collected as a family of disparate subjects and moments, none of which is exactly the same size or shape as another. The effect is something along the line of finding a box of highly personal picture artifacts from someone’s long ago life that you found in a dusty attic from a location that you know almost nothing about. In that way they become catalysts for resurgent memories and dreams of your own. What you start thinking about is what we all have in common as beings floating about in the world.
I saw this series many years ago at Jackson Fine Art here in Atlanta where the gallery had displayed them by hanging them in a constellation of less than perfect rectangles of paper prints. Every time you looked at the piece you saw them differently, different linkages were made in your mind, and you never walked away knowing what IT was, because IT was not static, and not finished. It was still a man’s life in progress and these were poetic relics of that life. In an era of high-resolution flat screen tvs and video billboards, Yamamoto’s work has struck a chord that people are beginning to hear and appreciate. He shows you the beauty of being mortal.
His tiny nudes and details of nudes are some of the most delicate things I’ve ever seen in a photograph. They are almost like a gift, either to the subject or possibly to the viewer of his work, or both. They are not about aesthetics or ideas; they are about love. They honor human relationships in a powerfully silent way. This is from an ongoing series called “Nakazora” which roughly translates to the space between earth and sky.
Elton John collected a lot of Yamamoto’s work for his massive photography exhibition, The Chorus of Light, and the great book of that work by the same name. Jane Jackson here in Atlanta, founder of Jackson Fine Art, is responsible for that. Yamamoto is popular all over the world now, with a big following in France and other countries in Europe.
In 2001 a very fine limited edition offset portfolio of his work was produced by 21st Century Press. The Deluxe Edition of this book contains three silver prints and twelve platinum prints. I have seen it and it is quite impressive and true to his work.
The series of prints that were on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery this spring were all from his series on the theme of Mountains. The series is called Kawa=Flow. The title refers to the journey from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown. The significance of this mountain and its entire ecosystem is hard for most American’s with our endless National Park systems to appreciate. Mount Fuji in particular is not only the primary center of inspiration for all Japanese, but it has endured as the most potent symbol of the power of nature and its enduring inspiration for art and poetry, and even national pride within the entire country. Yamamoto lives close enough to Mount Fuji to experience it’s presence on a regular basis. These photographs contain no people but rather focus on everything from the tiniest details of wildlife and atmosphere, to the streams and valleys, to the distant snow covered vistas of the mountain as a whole seen from endless vantage points. They are a “diary of a walk that never ends”.
Here is how Yamamoto describes his intentions as a whole:
“For me a good photo is one that soothes. Makes us feel kind, gentle. A photo that gives us courage, that reminds us of good memories, that makes people happy.”
“In Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu wrote, “A great presence is hard to see. A great sound is hard to hear. A great figure has no form.”
What he means is that the world is full of noises that we humans are not capable of hearing. For example, we cannot hear the noises created by the movement of the universe. Although these sounds exist, we ignore them altogether and act as if only what we can hear exists. Lao-tzu teaches us to humbly accept that we only play a small part in the grand scheme of the universe.”
Masao Yamamoto is a listener. His is an art which is looking into a quieter place, a less aggressive, less confrontational place, a place where the individual is not at war with himself or at war with the culture at large, a place where you can hear yourself think and not apologize for it. Sometimes the best way to understand the culture at large is to start by understanding yourself. There is no single way of doing that.
Slide Show Sequence of Yamamoto’s Work :
Masao Yamamoto is represented by Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica California, and Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta Georgia.
I would like to thank the artists, Eikoh Hosoe, Kenro Izu, and Masao Yamamoto for allowing me to reproduce these illustrations. I also would like to thank Howard Greenburg Gallery in NYC for their assistance in contacting these artist’s studios, and Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica for their interest and help. I would also like to thank Seiko Uyeda for reading the text and helping me resolve some points about Mr. Yamamoto’s work.