Dossier | Photographs That Fit in the Hand: Yamamoto Masao | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Photographs That Fit in the Hand: Yamamoto Masao

  • Yamamoto Masao, Nakazora F-164 (détail | detail), 2008. Photo : © Yamamoto Masao
  • Yamamoto Masao, #149, 7,5 x 4,5 cm. Photo : © Yamamoto Masao

Photographs That Fit in the Hand:
Yamamoto Masao
By Lilian Froger

Born in 1957, Japanese photographer Yamamoto Masao (1) has been active since the early 1990s and is recognized foremost for his Nakazora series, comprised of nearly 1,500 small prints, some no larger than a postage stamp. Once developed, these images are physically altered and artificially aged, before being assembled into large-scale installations affixed directly to the wall. The photographer’s decision to hang the work this way runs counter to the increasingly debated classic presentation of photography popularized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art which favours framed prints aligned one next to the other at eye-level. Without the frames, viewers find themselves face to face with shots whose proximity is heightened by the use of small — not to say miniscule — formats, creating a new relationship to the images.

The prints’ reduced size brings them closer to family snapshots or old photographic forms than to contemporary art photos. This impression is reinforced by the deliberately worn feeling of the pictures and by their iconography, the subjects of which are often hard to identify. We will see how the artist, despite recourse to miniaturization and simple forms, manages to make the images resonate in the mind, and incites the viewer to internalize or appropriate them to him or herself.

The modest format of Yamamoto’s photographs is by far their most striking feature. They are rarely larger than 10 cm per side, and the smallest can measure just 1 by 1.5 cm. The images’ dimensions suggest a source in the intimate, the private, and that they might easily find their place in a family photo album. Building on these photographs, and in parallel with his installations, Yamamoto also creates small boxes reminiscent of daguerreotypes in protective casings. To make these works, the artist places his photos inside metal boxes found in flea markets, which he then covers in transparent resin. The formats and precious appearance of these small boxes also suggest a private reception and contemplation. (2)

In making his photos so tiny, the artist hopes his work can be held in the palm of a hand. (3) The size of the hand also serves as a guide in image production, which explains why mid-size formats are so rare among Yamamoto’s work. To concretize his hope and allow viewers to actually manipulate the prints, in most of his exhibitions the photographer includes a box or old leather suitcase containing several dozens of shots which visitors are invited to handle — even without wearing gloves.

The objects’ progressive damage by touch is not viewed negatively — to the contrary, it is the very effect sought. The prints’ alterations bear witness to a genealogy of persons coming into contact with them; they are the physical manifestation of the object’s memory. Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965) wrote on the wear caused to objects by handling them in his book In Praise of Shadows: “In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling — which is to say grime.” (4)

Yamamoto further accentuates these marks by voluntarily damaging his prints after developing them. He does this through various strategies — notably the use of black tea — and by tearing, dog-earing, fraying the edges, by leaving them out in sunlight or even by keeping a few in his pockets for weeks, until he achieves the desired effect. (5) The sense of time that builds up in the works, becoming nearly palpable thanks to the alterations, consequently amplifies the intimacy between them and the viewer. The artist plays with the pictures’ aura of nostalgia by simulating an anachronism: despite their ancient appearance, the shots are contemporary. The result is described in a short text published in 2006: “Is it the accelerated aging of the dog-eared and yellowed photographs that creates an exhilarating illusion of long intimacy with these images? As if we had seen all these scenes, without being able to recall them... . We are not jealous of the tiny pictures: they already belong to us, so much do they feel lived, so easily, and quickly, can we conquer their slightness.” (6)

This taste for miniaturization is deeply rooted in Japanese aesthetics. Whether in the arts of the garden and bonsai, in the reduced scale of tea pavilions or in the poetic art of the haiku, the examples of reduced format art are numerous. (7) As Augustin Berque so aptly notes concerning Japanese poetry and architecture, this reduction, accompanied by a simplification of forms, cannot work without complex refinement and codification. (8) The case is the same for Yamamoto’s works: if they appear modest, their spareness is also artificial as it is the photographer himself who deliberately damaged the images and chose their tiny dimensions. He has stated in an interview: “I quite like the idea that my pictures create the feeling of anonymous photos found in a flea market, that they have that charm and mystery, and that each viewer takes them into him or herself, discovers them and invents his or her own story. I never provide a date or a title. These photos might have been taken in Finland, or Japan, or somewhere else; in 1930 or recently: it doesn’t matter.” (9) In fact, the photographer is sufficiently discreet concerning the conditions of shooting, the place and time, that the scenes depicted do seem familiar to the viewer. He works towards a “beyond the image,” through implication, so the images resonate even more for those looking at them.

Reduction, concision, allusiveness: Yamamoto concentrates in his work some of the most striking characteristics of a Japanese aesthetic, qualities notably present in the short-form poetry so frequently associated with the artist’s photographs. The subject has been written about as follows: “Whosoever looks at one of Yamamoto’s photographs will immediately understand the effect a haiku can have.” (10) While the comparison to haiku made here appeals to a kind of exoticism, it is no less accurate, especially with regard to the composition of this poetic form and the sensations it evokes: “It is in its retention that the densest poetic form in history finds amplitude... . Its few syllables open up an infinite space of birth that reading fails to exhaust... . One must admit that the reader is called to the liveliest, the truest parts of his sensibility to ‘complete’ the poem.” (11)

Yamamoto’s photographic formats, dictated — above all — by the hope that the viewer might take them in his or her hands, arouse a feeling of intimacy and favour the image’s appropriation by its viewer. Physically testing the need to approach the work as closely as possible, the viewer strives to correctly apprehend the subject. If the shot’s content appears to hold relatively little information, it is through their accumulation and their relationship to each other that the artist gives to the body of small prints their meaning, so fragmentary at first view, but which, in the end, succeeds in resounding in the viewer’s imagination.

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]

(1) Japanese names are given according to common usage in East Asia: surname -followed by first name.
(2) Other Japanese artists, like Sugimoto Hiroshi in Time’s Arrow (1987) or Nomura Hiroshi and his Dora Byu (Images of Doraemon) series (1992) also made this sort of metal object containing photos, provoking a confrontation between the viewer and the image.
(3) Kristina Lowis, “Yamamoto Masa. Photographien,” A Box of Ku: Nakazora KAWA (exhibition catalogue) (Freiburg: Galerie Albert Baumgarten, 2009), n.p.
(4) Tanizaki Junichiro, In Praise of Shadows (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), 11.
(5) Sara Maso, “Seeing and Experiencing: The Suggestive Work of Masao Yamamoto,” Foam Magazine, no. 14 (Spring 2008): 134.
(6) No author indicated, “Masao Yamamoto,” Du sel au pixel, no. 28 (November 2006): 14. (Du sel au pixel is a magazine published by the students of the École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière in Paris.) [free trans.]
(7) One may consult the work of Lee O-Young on this subject which, despite the shortcuts and stereotypes it contains, takes on the tradition of miniaturization in Japan from the middle ages to the recent interest in miniscule electronic devices: Lee O-Young, Chijimi shikô no Nihonjin [The Japanese and their Taste for Miniaturization] (Tokyo: Gakuseisha, 1992). (The work also appeared in a bilingual Japanese/English edition under the title Small is Better [Tokyo: Kenshodo, 1998].)
(8) Augustin Berque and Maurice Sauzet, Le sens de l’espace au Japon. Vivre, penser, bâtir (Paris : Arguments, 2004), 37-40.
(9) Didier Brousse, “Japon. La passion du livre d’auteur à travers trois générations. Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Masao Yamamoto,” Réponses Photo, special issue no. 3 (Fall-Winter 2006) : 74. [free trans.]
(10) Maso, “Seeing and Experiencing,” 134.
(11) Corinne Atlan and Bianu Zéno, “Le Sublime au ras de l’expérience,” Haiku. Anthologie du poème court japonais (Paris : Gallimard, 2002), 11.

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