Osamu Yokonami, After Children

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Milk Magazine Japon (here). Softcover, 245 × 220 mm, 96 pages, with 84 color photographs. Includes a foldout thumbnail sheet (with ages) and a foreword (in English/Japanese) by Seiko Ito. In an edition of 800 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sometimes it takes an artist a decade or more of patient experimentation to find the right formula for presenting a set of original ideas. For the Japanese photographer Osamu Yokonami, his journey began in 2009, with a visit to Thailand on a commission for a children’s magazine. It was there that he had a rather unconventional portraiture idea – to pose each child with a piece of fruit, and in particular, with the fruit held by the sitter on one side, scrunched between his or her head and shoulder.

At first glance, such a pose seems altogether odd and deliberately uncomfortable. It causes the subject to both shrug up and tilt down in a slightly awkward way. But what Yokonami had discovered with this strange setup was an example of what portrait photographers since the invention of the medium have been trying to encourage – it was an unexpected way to get a sitter to stop posing, to take his or her guard down, and to show us a truer version of him or herself. By making the portrait process intentionally tricky (it takes some coordination to hold a piece of fruit that way for more than a moment), his sitters couldn’t focus their attention on playing a role for the camera.

Yokonami’s first iteration of this approach took form in 2009 as the photobook 100 Children. As its name implies, it was a selection of 100 portraits, each of an elementary school aged girl in her black and white school uniform holding a piece of fruit (or a vegetable as it turned out) with her shoulder. What Yokonami learned with this initial effort was twofold – the simple setup (with a blank white backdrop) worked well, as it helped to harmonize the common look of the pictures, and the results captured an unexpected sense of endearing childhood innocence as well as a strong feeling of individual personality, even in the youngest subjects. (A second photobook effort from that same year, which Yokonami titled Primal, used closer in framing to capture the reactions on faces, many of which had burst into tears because of having to hold the fruit.)

Over the next few years, Yokonami followed up and expanded on the themes of sameness and individuality that had emerged from his first efforts. Inspired by the one thousand gilded statues of Buddha in the Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto, Yokonami pushed his project out to more and more children, reaching the desired 1000 Children in 2014. The resulting photobook was laid out in dense grids, with crisp visual uniformity giving way to personal individuality as the viewer tunneled in toward any single picture.

After Children is the next installment in Yokonami’s project, and while it continues along with the very same elemental fruit under the chin format, the artist has now introduced the concept of passing time to the proceedings. The photobook is laid out as a series of straightforward diptychs, with each pairing set across a single spread. On the left side is the original image Yokonami took when the girl was in primary school (aged 3 to 5), and on the right is a more recent image of the same girl now in junior high (aged 11 to 16). Both photographs feature the same black and white uniform setup, and the same type of fruit under the shoulder (generally apple, orange, or peach, with a cabbage, tomato, or eggplant thrown in here or there).

So what we have now in After Children is not only Yokonami’s unconventional portraiture innovation, but also the introduction of time as compositional force. Like Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” or William Christenberry’s photographs of barns and buildings in Hale County, Alabama, Yokonami’s pairings show us passing time with conceptual rigor and formality. Of course, most of us can replicate this idea with our own family albums, with our daughter here in one picture at age 5, and there in another at age 14, and look how she’s grown! But Yokonami’s project puts a more rigid linear structure around this unwieldy growing up process, allowing us to observe, measure, and compare with exacting precision.

But let’s not get distracted by the artistic scaffolding holding this project together, however innovative or clarifying as it may be. The enduring charm of After Children is to be found in the minute changes and transformations we can see happening in each and every girl. The changes in hair styles and the growing bodies catch our attention first, but what sticks is how we can imagine the personalities are developing, from the timid beginnings of self on the left to the blossoming of individuals on the right. The “before and after” restaging encourages us to see both similarities and differences, from pudgy faces that have grown thinner to uniquely personal expressions that seem to defy the passing of the years, but also to acknowledge that these kids have always been amazing, the two versions of themselves at different moments connected but somehow also independent of each other. The human richness to be uncovered within these portraits is quietly engrossing, the mannered oddity of the fruit on the shoulder portraiture device overwhelmed by the power of the time-lapsed personal development taking place right before our eyes.

There will be those that might want to dismiss this project (and its earlier iterations) as a kind of photographic gimmick or joke, but one look at the seriousness of the faces in After Children should dispel any thought that this is a silly game of some kind. Yokonami’s cricked-neck fruit holders should rightfully join Philippe Halsman’s jumpers, Irving Penn’s tight cornered sitters, and Don Herron’s bathtub loungers (among others) in the annals of creative photographic portraiture specifically designed to capture people when they are off guard. In each case, we might say there is a bit of clever misdirection taking place, which creates the space needed for elusive truths to emerge.

Collector’s POV: Osamu Yokonami does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As as result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the photographer via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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