Zen, the Universe, and Birds
Japanese photographer Masao Yamamoto rarely gives titles to his photographs. Most are numbered for identification purposes and that is all. There is only the photography, and the context in which we experience it.
The photograph above is known only as #1275. It’s from Yamamoto’s series ‘Nakazora’. The word nakazora derives from Buddhism and describes varied states of in-betweenness, emptiness, floating, a liminal zone between sky and earth “where the birds fly”, indecision.
#1275 is a small, exquisite photograph of a snow monkey sitting chest-deep in a hot spring. Around her is empty space, with only a few subtle ripples and her reflection to suggest the water.
Her face is captured in three-quarter profile. Ice frosts and spikes her fur. Her eyes are closed and her expression is one of serenity and grace.
And so the snow monkey sits in this elusive state of nakazora — in water and in air, in the steamy warmth of the hot spring and in the wintry mountain cold, between sleep and wakefulness, between the gravity of her body and the ethereal shimmer of her reflection.
It’s been almost a decade since I saw #1275 for the first time.
It still takes my breath away.
The Spiritual in Photography
Much has been written about the spiritual in art, poetry, and music. But there’s surprisingly little about the spiritual in photography.
Perhaps it’s because photography employs a more machinic technology than other art forms. Or because it’s traditionally been regarded as a realist, documentary medium.
But there are, and have always been, photographers whose work has powerful, complex, and challenging spiritual elements — Sally Mann’s beautiful and tough visual missives from the brink of life and death; Susan Burnstine’s ethereal photographic explorations of her dreams; Hiroshi Sugimoto’s contemplative seascapes that confront us with the vastness and mystery of time and space.
Yamamoto’s photography is suffused with sensibilities that derive from Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, Daoism, and Japanese aesthetic traditions. It is impossible to fully understand or discuss his work without reference to spiritual and aesthetic concepts such as emptiness, wabi-sabi, haiku, yûgen.
Yet to Yamamoto himself, this connection wasn’t always obvious. In a public lecture at the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, he spoke of how he became aware of the Zen sensibility that suffuses his work only when European and American critics started remarking on it.
“I had never studied the Way of Zen and had no awareness of the spirit of Zen within me … I realised the need to relearn the traditional Japanese culture. As I gained more knowledge … there were ‘aha’ moments where I discovered why I think and behave the way I do.”
In the end, perhaps it is this element of discovery and wonder in his work that I find most captivating. Through his photography, Yamamoto isn’t only showing us the universe as he understands it but also inviting us along on a journey in which we may make our own discoveries, find our own moments of inspiration, joy and awe.
A Box of Ku (Emptiness)
Masao Yamamoto was born in 1957 in the small, semi-rural Gamagori City in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. He studied fine art and oil painting under artist Goro Saito before turning to photography in his 20s. Nowadays, he lives in the countryside near Mount Fuji, an area of lakes and mountains, ancient forests, shrines and meadows.
He draws most of his subjects from nature — landscapes, birds, trees, blossom, insects, animals, flowers, leaves, rocks, bodies of water, clouds, birds’ nests. He is a wandering photographer, one who walks, observes, takes his time, photographs whatever interests him, whatever moves him.
Sometimes he collects small found objects — pebbles, perhaps, or gnarly twists of roots— that he might later use in still life shots.
He also photographs nudes, and human figures with their faces turned away, hidden, or lost to distance. Hands are a recurring theme of his work — hands reaching upwards or outwards, hands that cradle, caress, release, or offer themselves as perches to birds or butterflies.
“When I photograph, I start out with an open mind. If I start out with a precise idea of what I want to photograph, I might miss an interesting event or object. So, I begin with an open mind and try to photograph all kinds of objects.” — Masao Yamamoto, LensCulture
Yamamoto uses a Nikon F100 camera, with black and white (or occasionally colour) 35mm film. From this, he produces silver gelatin prints in his own darkroom, making 20–40 versions of selected images.
Most of Yamamoto’s photographs are small enough to lie across your open hand. The smallest are only the size of passport photographs.
Often he ages his prints, staining or toning them with tea, smudging them with his own tears, sometimes painting on them. He carries them around, rubbing them in his hands and pushing them into his pockets until they become patinated, creased, dog-eared, scratched, torn and worn-looking. Each print is unique in terms of its size, individual processing, toning, and wear.
This accelerated ageing recalls the wabi-sabi aesthetic tradition, in which objects are prized for their imperfections, weathering, and authenticity. Yamamoto’s aged prints take on the aura of old family snapshots that have spent decades in boxes, drawers, and albums and which, through the passage of time, develop a floating, elusive relationship to memory.
‘There’s a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.’
— Leonard Cohen, Anthem
Here, though, the photographs are aged but not old and the memories they record are not those of the audience. His purpose, perhaps, is to create an intimacy, familiarity and suggested ‘shared history’ between his photographs and their audience that, by its very existence, makes us re-examine relationships between photography and memory.
“This is called the process of forgetting or the production of memory. Because in old photos the memories are completely manipulated and it’s this that interests me and this is the reason that I do this work.” LensCulture
Yamamoto’s work is grouped into series — A Box of Ku, Nakazora, KAWA=FLOW, Shizuka=Cleanse, Small Things in Silence, Tori (bird) — but these series are not projects with clear beginnings and endings.
Each series has its installations and exhibitions, its publications, and its evolving catalogue of numbered prints. Most extend over several years, stages along a flow of work that gradually shifts direction and form — from A Box of Ku, with its dreamy emphasis on intimacy, time and memory, to Nakazora, with its delicate explorations of in-betweenness and emptiness, to Shizuka with its esoteric treasure-hunt for the soft-lit essence of the forest that surrounds Yamamoto’s home.
This idea of flow also shapes how Yamamoto exhibits his work. He arranges his small unframed photographs on gallery walls, selecting one as a starting point more by intuition than by design then unspooling a story in images. From a distance, these arrangements themselves form a flow around the exhibition space, as if a breeze left them behind, or as if the photographs behave like migrating birds, scattering across empty sky towards a far-off destination.
There is a particular poem that Yamamoto greatly admires, written by the Soto Zen monk Ryokan (1758–1831). It is this:
A Japanese maple leaf
It turns to show its back
It turns to show its front
Before it is time to fall
“This poem can be interpreted in several ways,” the artist explains. “From this simple natural phenomenon he [Ryokan] speaks of much deeper things. I find this remarkable. I would like to take these kinds of photos.” (from an interview published in LensCulture)
This quality is known as yûgen, an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. Yûgen has no direct English translation but broadly it means ‘mystery’, ‘unknowable depth’, ‘a profound, mysterious awareness of the beauty of the universe’, with qualities of grace and subtlety.
In his KAWA=FLOW exhibitions, Yamamoto broke with the display format he used for previous series and instead had his photographs individually mounted and framed. They were hung at regular height with regular spacing between them, in the orthodox manner of gallery photography exhibitions.
Why this format for this series? The answer lies in the idea of the photograph as haiku — each small image an exquisite capture of a moment, each moment one tiny part of life’s endless flow, our ceaseless movement from a now to a now to a now.
Yamamoto’s most recent series is titled Tori — the Japanese word for bird and the root of the word Torii (‘bird abode’) which is the name for the traditional gates through which one enters a Shinto shrine and which mark the transition from the profane to the sacred.
Tori brings together many of the bird photographs that Yamamoto has taken over the course of his career from 1994 to the present date.
And so here we are once more, between the earth and the sky, where the birds fly.