JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 black and white and color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. 5 of the works on view are c-prints, made in 1981-1982 and printed in 2003; these prints are sized roughly 18×14 (or reverse). Another 4 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 1954 and printed in the 1980s; these smaller prints are sized between roughly 8×10 to 9×11 (or reverse). The remaining 6 gelatin silver prints were made between 1953 and 1982 and were printed in 1989 as part of a portfolio of 15 prints; these prints are each sized roughly 20×16 (or reverse). The portfolio box and one additional print are on view in a vitrine. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When a photographer revisits a signature subject with decades of elapsed time between the two engagements, we have a unique opportunity to track how that artist’s eye has changed in the intervening years and how his or her broader approach to the subject has evolved. This show follows Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s paired trips to the 17th century Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, the first in 1953 and a second in 1981-1982, offering a selection of images (in black and white and color) from both photographic studies. And while the exhibit misses the chance to crisply delineate the before/after comparison in both the prints on the walls and the many related photobooks that have been published since, the key visual ideas that support an investigation of Ishimoto’s changing aesthetic are here to be found for those who are willing to look closely.
Coming out of his training under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design in Chicago, it isn’t surprising that Ishimoto’s early images of the traditional Japanese villa feature a pared down, almost elemental, set of lines. His framing is deliberate and careful in these pictures, turning the wooden pillars, paper screens, and stone walls of the architecture and gardens into perfectly balanced geometric exercises, full of squared off views and textural symmetry. Using the flattening power of the camera, Ishimoto collapses the space again and again, highlighting grids of squares and rectangles and bisecting the images into perfect halves. His view is rigorous and abstract, leveraging the unadorned simplicity and elegance of the villa’s design and cropping fragments of its moods down to their basic components. Whether he was consciously applying a Modernist or Minimalist aesthetic to the centuries old grass, stone, moss, and wood isn’t entirely important; the pictures speak for themselves via their patient, ordered thinking.
When Ishimoto returned in the early 1980s, his larger photographs took a conscious step back from the up close patterning he had gravitated toward during his first visit. While his sense of spatial proportion and order is still very much in evidence, his pictures look through the now-restored villa rather than at it, taking in the depth of multiple rooms at once rather than closing in on intricacies of found geometry. Rows of tatami mats and interlocked paper partition screens provide the repetitions this time, with the bright contrast of black lines on white ground creating gridlines that angle off from different perspectives. And many of the images ultimately open to the gardens, bringing nature into the compositions, softening the rigidity of the forms, and allowing variations of light and shadow to add nuance to the setting. Compared with his smaller flattened pictures from the 1950s, these photographs are more interested in the wider architectural definition of the space, reveling in its harmonious openness and handsome dimensions.
During his second visit, Ishimoto also took photographs in color, and the addition of tonal nuance brings a layer of nuanced warmth to the monochrome contrasts of his other pictures. Brown, green, yellow, grey, and one small splash of red (all muted colors from nature) transform his set back views of the villa, softening their insistent lines and peeking through windows. Similar views of a low stone wall, one in black and white, the other in color, show how his aesthetic pressure points changed. In the 1950s picture, the strict lines of the wall create a horizontal stripe, balanced by the curves of the rounded stones, with the contrasting greys creating an abstract push and pull of light and dark. In the 1980s image, green grass hugs the wall on both sides, and the perspective now looks up the wall, creating a slow convergence of receding lines; hints of blue from smaller stones decorate the wall, and dappled light rests on the scene, its quiet meditativeness forcing us to notice the natural variation found within the controlled system. In nearly every case, Ishimoto’s color pictures are less stark and reductionist than his black and white studies, offering a kind of worn human-scaled humility that celebrates the engagement of the villa with its beautiful surroundings.
The organization of this show doesn’t set up enough side-by-side pairings of like subjects to really examine Ishimoto’s choices and follow his thinking in detail. But as a sampler of his process of using the traditional architecture of Katsura as a springboard for his own photographic experiments, it does provide some intriguing examples of the fluid ripening and development of Ishimoto’s approach. With passing time, Ishimoto seems to have been more content to let the villa tell its own stories with less overt intervention, walking back from the active cherry-picking a particular vision from its component parts found in the earlier pictures. It’s these subtle and perhaps overlooked artistic trade-offs between brash compression and calmer wandering that make these photographs worth discovering.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The c-prints are $13000 each, while the loose gelatin silver prints are $19000 each; the 15 print portfolio is available for $37000. Ishimoto’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years; his well regarded book Chicago, Chicago is often found in photobook sales. Recent print prices have generally ranged between roughly $2000 and $12000.