(In)visible and (In)audible Temporalities in the Work of Daisuke Yokota

Daisuke Yokota (born in Saitama, Japan, in 1983) has quickly taken the international photography and photobook world by storm since his earliest self-published book/zine, Back Yard, appeared in 2012. His prodigious production includes scores of self-published books, zines, and posters, as well as books published by more formal publishers, photographic works on glass, traditional photographic prints, art installations, and performances. Early reception of his work quickly linked Yokota’s aesthetic to the are-bure-boke (“grainy, blurry, out-of-focus”) images of the generation of Japanese photographers associated with Provoke magazine (including Koki Taki, Takuma Nakahira, and Daido Moriyama, among others). In a recent interview, however, Yokota insists that “I had that idea once, but I do not now.” Explaining this, he adds that:

The situation is different now; there is no shared recognition or mainstream [notion] of ‘photography’ any more. Some images may look like Provoke but this is quite natural. Really, there is no philosophical meaning in making work in the same context. I believe it is time to reconsider photography detached from that understanding.¹

What Yokota most certainly does share with the Provoke generation is an almost obsessive interest in the photobook as a self-standing genre and context for the production of photographs. This means that “originals” of Yokota’s work in the form of signed and limited-edition photobooks, are relatively easy to find, despite the fact that he has developed something of a cult-following among photobook collectors and critics.

Yokota has already produced such a vast amount of work that any introduction to his oeuvre is bound to be partial and subject to revision. Three rather distinct photobooks, however, can give a sense of the issues engaged in Yokota’s photographs.

Vertigo (2014) stands, perhaps, as Yokota’s “signature” work to date.²

Vertigo 8–9, © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.
“Vertigo 21,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

This sampling quickly reveals some of the characteristic mysteries of Yokota’s work: the indexical or referential dimension of the photographs is often obscured, both by a generally dark palette and by a variety of techniques that introduce into the photographic image distortions, distractions, and other visual equivalents of noise. Is Vertigo8–9,” for example, an aerial shot of a mountainous massif or a study of clouds seen from below or equipment on a floor covered with a tarp or rumpled bed-sheets? Each of these referential possibilities would resonate with other images in Vertigo, but the image here is insufficient to make its referent unambiguous. This indexical indeterminacy, particularly in its mixing of macro- and micro-scale possibilities, is surely part of what lends the book its vertiginous title. Even when the photographic subject is tolerably clear, as in his nude studies like Vertigo21,” Yokota’s work relentlessly insists on being received as an object in its own right.³ Moreover, this object generally unfolds itself in a series of layers: the longer you examine the page or the print, the more you make out layers in the image, as though the three-dimensionality of that which is photographed were replaced by a multi-dimensionality of background pools of light, foreground scratches and pock-marks, and often uncanny scenes that can scan as simultaneously two- and three-dimensional.

“Toransupearento 11,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Toransupearento, courtesy of Newfave Books.

In another photobook from 2014, Toransupearento, a representative image seems to be built around the geometry of a claustrophobic concrete room, although the page is flooded with what could be a super-imposed image of clouds.⁴ At yet another level of the image, there are various pock-marks and even a pair of flowing horizontal forms that might be the paths of liquids poured across the scene. What is notable is that this multi-dimensionality remains strictly in the photographic image, since Yokota does not typically tamper with or distress the photograph itself on the book’s pages. Toransupearento itself is, moreover, a book in which all the photographic images are themselves printed on transparency film: hence its title, a loan-word from European languages which means “transparent” in Japanese, particularly in more technical contexts such as that of software design. Here the layering of each individual photograph is intensified by distortions introduced by the possibility of looking through multiple transparencies at the same time.

(from l-r): “Toransupearento 11” and “Toransupearento 12,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Toransupearento, courtesy of Newfave Books.

The subject of many interviews, Daisuke Yokota regularly invokes the influence of the musician, Aphex Twin, on his work, and this is a reference that is helpful in approaching the complexity of his images. In an interview from 2012 with Dan Abbe, Yokota says of Aphex Twin’s music:

. . . there’s a lot of experimentation with delay, reverb, and echo, which is playing with the way that you perceive time. Of course there’s no time in a photograph, but I thought about how to apply this kind of effect, or filter, to photography. I was definitely influenced by the idea of “ambience.” ⁵

In Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994), for example, Aphex Twin creates a series of temporal frames filled with largely banal and repetitive — apparently artificially synthesized — musical phrases, no two of which are quite the same.⁶ In place of the kind of melodic and harmonic development associated with traditional song-structures, these time-frames differentiate themselves by means of degrees of reverberation added to the musical phrases, effectively suggesting varying spaces of performance and listening. Within each time-frame, melodic motifs repeat but irregularly, with unpredictable delays and occasional echoes articulating their variable structures. In short, Aphex Twin creates a kind of sounding art that depends on the sonic effects of delay, reverb, and echo for its very structure and substance, while its musical materials remain utterly secondary to this evocation of ambience.

I have already called attention to the multi-dimensional layering so characteristic of Yokota’s photographs, layering that distresses, distorts, and otherwise overrides the indexical or documentary character of the photographic images. This layering is, to be sure, a manifestation of a complex photographic process, but particularly intriguing is the way Yokota himself describes this process in terms of temporality, as though the photographs themselves are essentially traces of invisible and inaudible processes.

In a 2014 article in the British Journal of Photography, Gemma Padley gives a quick overview of Yokota’s process:

Yokota . . . takes his images with a compact digital camera, and then re- photographs the printed images using medium format film. He then prints them again, making use of leaked light, overheated developer, and singeing the negatives. The prints are sometimes re-photographed up to 10 times, adding more distortion each time.

The reason for this process, Yokota indicates, is “to portray memory; what we remember, as well as what we don’t.” “I can visualize invisibleness, or things I don’t remember through those changes,” he adds, “and to visualize them, I have removed any details on a picture.”⁷ In an earlier interview with his colleague, Olivier Pin-Fat, Yokota links the temporality of memory to repeatability:

We recollect a single experience from the past again and again. But I don’t think these recollected memories are always the same. Memories are always brought out in relation to a present condition, and through this repeatable recollection of memories I believe a memory becomes influenced by — and therefore — a product of what is happening to us now. Although the physical experience of time is singular, I believe time at a conscious level can multiply every time one recollects a memory and the different experiences of times generated by these actions pass in parallel to a physical time.⁸

In a public interview from June 2015, Yokota elaborates his photographic process a bit more:

To submerge a print out of the copy machine in water for a long time, until it’s dripping and soft, then crumpling it up, stretching it straight again then drying it. I’m manipulating time. . . . As its final form, I take a copy of it again, but the past record has been messed up. To copy a damaged thing proves that there a time period has passed, a time period of it being damaged, before it was copied.⁹

Later in the same interview, he adds:

It’s more exciting to be betrayed by the result. Shooting or making work with the desire of wanting to see a result that betrays my expectations, that’s more attractive to me.

What we see in Yokota’s photographs is then the profoundly multi-layered trace of a rather non-traditional series of digital, analogue, and chemical photographic processes that inaudibly evoke the delay, reverb, and echo that effectively constitute the substance of Aphex Twin’s work. The pages of Yokota’s books offer inaudible and nearly invisible vibratory witness to the ceaseless repetition-in-difference that is temporal consciousness: the photographs do not represent the in-mixing of memory and repetition; they are the almost invisible evidence of inaudible temporalities.

Crucially, however, these temporalities are not essentially tied to “Daisuke Yokota” as a kind of transcendent subject, shaping his works of art. In his interview with Pin-Fat, Yokota insists on the kinds of dislocation that photography makes possible:

Realistically, the relation between humans and their surrounding environments is not a separable entity. Once things are photographed, they can become dislocated and isolated from this mutual relationship. In the creative process of my works, what is most important is that the photographed object is not only completely dislocated from the surrounding environment but importantly, from myself as well at the exact moment I took the photograph so it once again becomes an object of my interest. This attempt to dislocate an object from me, or to include elements of uncontrollable errors in a process of my creation usually brings out clues for the next idea or project.

In a 2013 interview with Kohei Oyama, Yokota stresses the importance of materiality in effecting these kinds of dislocations and relates this directly to the concept of noise:

I guess it is common to think that the documented image is what is real in photography, but by accentuating the materiality of the film, which by nature is more real than the documented image, the image actually becomes more abstract, and I’m interested in this reversed perspective. Emphasis on the physicality of the recording medium is considered a ‘noise’, an element disturbing the recorded image from the photo shoot.¹⁰

This observation leads Yokota to an explicit reflection on his own role as photographer: “I feel like I exist more like a selecting person. ‘I’ decide what to use and how to combine them, rather than ‘I’ make the image. Also, I think it’s important to intentionally bring out the imbalance and noise of each tool.”

The resulting imbalanced and noisy photographs are, then, not so much the products of the photographer’s eye as they are traces of a series of processes selected by him. Their inaudible evocations of delay, reverb, and echo open up an hallucinatory world, a world where the repetition-in-difference of past and present both finds its bearings and vertiginously loses them again, a world where transparency reveals itself to be a vertigo of ambiguity.

All of these effects, present in each individual photograph, are ramified when they are discovered in the context of Yokota’s photobooks, where the sequencing of photographs inevitably induces even more delay, reverb, and echo, since (as Yokota remarks to Pin-Fat) “a photograph does not exist on its own, but can connect with other photographs recalled by the photograph you are looking at now.” Consider, for example, the final suite of images from Vertigo:

“Vertigo 84,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.
Vertigo 85, © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

Images of a naked body (or maybe two bodies), images linked by a kind of delay, signified by their distribution across two adjacent pages.

“Vertigo 87,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

An image of a mirror, reflecting a bare wooden wall with a stripe of shadow at the mirror’s left edge, the shadow evoking the fact that this image is the image of an image, a kind of visual echo.

“Vertigo 88–89,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

An image (or maybe two images) of what might be a path in the night with trees on either side, reverberating.

“Vertigo 91,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

An image of a naked back, reclining, echoing earlier images.

“Vertigo 92–93,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

A double-page spread of an unrecognizable image, the top half reminiscent of a night sky, the bottom half almost completely black, the emphasis on the binary of light and dark offering a kind of delay or reverb of the mirroring encounters featured throughout the book.

“Vertigo 95,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2014, from Vertigo, courtesy of Newfave Books.

An image of a naked body (or maybe two bodies) from an oblique angle, again echoing much that has come before.

What is striking about the experience of Vertigo’s final pages is that whatever narrative or chronology might be suggested by the sequencing of the images seems much less significant than the delay, reverb, and echo present in each image and enhanced by their sequence.

While Vertigo is representative of much of Yokota’s work, he has also produced a significant body of completely abstract work, photographs that effectively discard the optical mechanism of the camera and exploit processes of chemical manipulation inherent in the very nature of photography. The images in Calx 2 (2017), for example, dispense with any suggestion of the indexical or referential dimension of most photography, existing simply as scans of “the corroded and rusty portions of photographic paper” (according to the Newfave Books website).¹¹

(from l-r) “13,” “14,” and “24” © Daisuke Yokota, from Calx, 2017, courtesy of Newfave Books.

We are, rather, in a domain of nothing but the delay, reverb, and echo of various shapes, forms, and colors, and the only path towards “processing” the sequence of the images is by letting them reverberate in any and every way possible. Michael Grieve has suggested that Yokota has taken photography “on a journey to the extreme,” “driven by a desire to constantly record, destroy, and then recreate.”¹² There is surely something utterly extreme about the images of Calx 2, but I would suggest that what Yokota has done in these “abstractions” is to destroy photography as a matter of representation and recreate it as something akin to matter itself.¹³ In this way, what might seem abstract is actually utterly concrete: the invisible is made visible; the inaudible is made audible.¹⁴

(from l-r): “25,” and “26,” © Daisuke Yokota, 2017, from Calx 2, courtesy of Newfave Books.

[1] Michael Grieve, “Daisuke Yokota (sometimes literally) blazing a trail through photography,” British Journal of Photography (9 October 2017). http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/10/yokota-roman-road/

[2] Daisuke Yokota, Vertigo (Tokyo: Newfave Books, 2014).

[3] See also Daisuke Yokota, Corpus (Tokyo: Artbeat, 2014).

[4] Daisuke Yokota, Toransupearento (Berlin/Tokyo: Kominek Books/Newfave Books, 2014).

[5] Dan Abbe, “Shoot, Print, Repeat: An Interview with Daisuke Yokota,” American Photo. http://www.americanphotomag.com/shoot-print-repeat-interview-daisuke-yokota

[6] Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Sire/Warner Brothers 9 45482–2).

[7] Gemma Padley, “Rising Star Daisuke Yokota Releases New Book and Performs Book-Making Event,” British Journal of Photography (19 May 2014) http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/05/rising-star-daisuke-yokota-releases-new-book-and-performs-book-making-event/

[8] “Daisuke Yokota Interviewed by Olivier Pin-Fat,” Gomma. http://www.gommamag.com/v5/gm_int.php?id=39

[9] “Event Report: AM Projects, Abstracts, Book Launch Artist Talk & Demonstration by Daisuke Yokota,” Twelve Books. http://twelvebooks.tumblr.com/post/125414979858/event-report-am-projectsabstractsbook-launch

[10] “Daisuke Yokota, Interviewed by Kohei Oyama,” Parapera. http://parapera.net/interview/interview-vol15daisuke-yokotai.html

[11] Daisuke Yokota, Calx 2 (Tokyo: Self-published, 2017).

[12] Grieve, “Daisuke Yokota (sometimes literally blazing a trail through photography.”

[13] For further examples, see Daisuke Yokota, Matter/Burn Out (Tokyo: Artbeat, 2016) and Scum (Tokyo: Self-published, 2018).

[14] Many thanks to Kohei Oyama, to Sebastian Roberts, and (as always) to Stacy J. Platt for their invaluable assistance.


Image provided by author.

Jonathan Scott Lee teaches philosophy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A specialist in recent French philosophy, he also writes about contemporary music, art, and photography. Current projects include an extended essay on photographer Daisuke Yokota and a series of musical compositions for small chamber ensembles.


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