Over the past three decades, Japanese photographer Masao Yamamoto has produced a deeply cohesive oeuvre of highly autonomous, stand-alone images. The same could be said of other masters of the medium, but in Yamamoto’s work the tension between the artist’s instantly recognizable style and its singular, independent expressions invites special consideration, most notably because of each ensuing project’s titular reference to Zen Buddhist philosophy—for which such coexistences are an inexaustible subject—and because of the subtly profound evolution of his work.
Until KAWA=FLOW (2008–2015), Yamamoto’s approach to both photographic practice and its presentation explicitly prioritized assemblage. In a 2009 artist statement, he explains: “what overflow[ed] from one photograph would flow into the next piece, and in twos and threes the groups would create a combined effect, like the layered notes of an orchestra.” The unusual ways the artist chose to exhibit his earlier projects further illustrate this combinatory tendency. Those who encountered A Box of Kū in galleries were often presented with a literal box through which they were encouraged to rummage. Visitors could hold the small-scale silver gelatin prints—intentionally distressed, dipped in tea, and frequently torn—shuffle them at will, and interact with each one within the context of a larger tactile experience. Elsewhere, when the photographs were instead displayed on gallery walls, the prints appeared contiguously without frames, suggesting a single work rather than a selection of discrete (though associated) images. The latter arrangement was articulated anew in Yamamoto’s series Nakazora, when he produced an eighteen-foot scroll of the completed project for publication. In the printed version, his self-described symphonic approach might be better likened to poetic composition, wherein each image functions as a word or phrase, a grouping forms a line, and the total accumulation produces the poem.
If A Box of Kū and Nakazora explore the photographic instance as it relates to a broader vision, KAWA=FLOW demonstrates such comprehensiveness as seeded within the instance itself. The photographs in this series are thus larger than the palm-size prints of previous projects, and while signature elements of his style remain present—a depopulated frame, natural subject matter, a taste for stark contrasts, monochromatic subtleties, and geometric precision—the argument in each image between movement and stillness, and by extension the experience of time, receives new treatment: with incredible delicacy, a single line of surf expresses a perfection that will not last and yet endures; above an outstretched hand, a ball hangs in mid-air as if it has done so and will do so forever. Gone is the invocation of the past in A Box of Kū, where photographs are subjected to artificial aging and the wear and tear of ongoing handling. The unfolding of linear time, most fully expressed in the Nakazora scroll, is also notably absent. Instead, the images that constitute KAWA=FLOW, evocative of many moods, revere a simultaneous and eternal present in which visual echoes reveal oneness in ways that are at once powerful and subdued.
The Japanese kanji for kawa (川) most literally translates to river; its meaning, which also implies flow, is a central figure in Zen teachings. In the well-known book for Western audiences, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970), Shunryu Suzuki describes a visit to Niagara Falls, offering one interpretation of kawa by means of a visual analogy: “It is as if the water does not have any feeling when it is one whole river. Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling.” According to Suzuki, our experience of existence is that of the droplet suspended, momentarily disrupted from the larger reality to which we belong. In KAWA=FLOW, Yamamoto offers a similar vision, one with great tenderness for the solitary droplet in its exhilarating and often terrifying descent.
Editor’s note: We are pleased to announce that six prints from KAWA=FLOW will appear in our 70th anniversary art exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art on the University of Georgia Campus, 5 November 2016 to 29 January 2017. Many thanks to Masao Yamamoto and Jackson Fine Art for this honor.