JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 black and white photographs, framed in dark wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. 22 of the works are toned gelatin silver prints, some with added gold paint, inked edges, and powdered pigments; 1 other work is a platinum print. The works were made between 1990 and 2016. Physical sizes range from roughly 3×5 to 9×13 (or reverse), and the prints are available in editions of 20 or 40 (with the platinum print in an edition of 70). (Installation shots below).
The show also includes 7 additional photographic works that are displayed as hanging scrolls in the smaller side gallery. These works are pigment prints on handmade washi paper mounted on Kakejiku scrolls, all made in 2016. The works range in size from 40×7 to 47×12 and are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work is forthcoming from Radius Books (here).
Comments/Context: For more than two decades, Masao Yamamoto has thoughtfully used photography to explore the essences of Japanese aesthetics. While we might normally associate other artistic disciplines like ceramics, ink painting, wood block printing, or even architecture with certain elemental characteristics that combine elusive spirituality with a reverence for the natural world, photography brings its own strengths to this artistic exploration, particularly in its ability capture the shifting qualities of light. Disregarding many Western photographic conventions, Yamamoto’s intimate, hand crafted photographs have consistently worked to capture the subtle mystery and tranquil grace that emerge from a world in attentive balance. His pictures are often astonishingly small, deliberately imperfect, and profoundly simple, forcing the viewer to commune with the ephemeral beauty of his observations.
Tori (the Japanese word for bird) brings together an entire show (and accompanying monograph) of Yamamoto’s images of birds, but few are either nature studies or “portraits” in the usual sense. Instead, Yamamoto uses his birds as compositional anchors or as central characters that represent something more abstract than just flying or perching. In his world, a bird is nearly always a conduit for something deeper, at one moment the essence of soaring freedom, and at the next, the embodiment of subdued elegance.
Given the diversity of aviary examples on view here, Yamamoto has clearly returned to birds again and again as the raw material for his metaphorical images. Eagles and hawks dominate their surroundings with power and authority. Egrets and herons stand with more vulnerability, their spindly vertical lines often set against the simple horizontals of the land. Owls (both snowy and dappled) are treated with the respect offered to taciturn elders who will give up their knowledge only sparingly. Swans cluster in slow, gentle motion, their long necks entangled in overlapping white arcs. Crows and ravens perch in dark crowds, with a touch of menacing squawking to break up the silence. And pigeons and other sea birds flutter and dance across the small bushes and ponds, searching and pecking with quiet determination. Each one has its own nuances of personality and behavior that have offered Yamamoto an aesthetic path into the hidden truths of life.
While pared down compositions are the norm for Yamamoto, his creative process certainly doesn’t end with the shutter click. Many of the prints have been toned and then spackled with tiny droplets of gold paint, or torn along the edges and covered in subtle dashes of ink. This hand crafting reinforces the personal feeling of his works – by consciously exposing his own touches, he’s bringing us in closer for a more intimate conversation.
A side room of additional bird images have been presented with even more Japanese aesthetic subtlety, the prints mounted on special papers and carefully displayed as scrolls. Here, deliberate compositional imbalance leads to elemental, almost timeless outcomes, each scene offered with ritualistic reverence, the hawks and egrets recalling a similar natural classicism from centuries gone by. In a sense, these works are hybrids, merging the modernity of photography with the patient reserve of tradition, the best of the works making that unlikely intermingling of styles seamless and natural.
In the end, a few too many of Yamamoto’s photographs wander into a saccharine zone, where their meticulous preciousness seems too forced to be entirely believable to my eyes – perhaps my innate critical distrust isn’t entirely tuned to their consistently empathetic world view. But that said, there are still enough works that find the sweet spot to keep me looking, where the aesthetics resolve into a gorgeous harmony that feels sublimely on pitch. When Yamamoto gets it right, his pictures seem to release something powerfully elemental, as if he’s found the hidden alignment of the universe that no one else can see.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The toned gelatin silver prints range from $1700 to $6500, with the pigment print priced at $6000. The scrolls are priced at either $8000 or $9000. Yamamoto’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices for single images ranging from roughly $1000 to $4000.