Yoshiyuki Okuyama, Windows

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Akaaka (here). Hardcover (194×205 mm), 752 pages, with several hundred color reproductions. Includes a foreword by the artist and essays by Toshiyuki Horie and Taro Igarashi (all in Japanese/English). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: During the years of the pandemic, the Japanese photographer Yoshiyuki Okuyama wandered the streets of Tokyo and made photographs of the semi-opaque frosted glass windows commonly found in Japanese houses and apartment buildings. With few people out and about (and travel abroad impossible), he began to imagine the lives taking place behind these anonymous windows, turning the partially seen gatherings of objects in the windows into something akin to indirect portraits, or even silent, one-sided conversations with strangers. Between April 2020 and November 2022, Okuyama made nearly 100,000 photographs of these kinds of windows, grasping at this dual idea of separation and connection with more tenacity than he likely ever imagined possible. Weighing in at more than 750 pages, Windows offers a massive subset of his visual findings, the page turns replicating a drifting feeling of roaming the urban streets and having arms-length encounters here and there, every few blocks.

Given the population density of places like Tokyo, it isn’t entirely surprising that the architectural desire for light, ventilation, and a view outside would need to be balanced by a degree of privacy, particularly for bathrooms and other ground floor spaces. As seen here, the glass engineers in Japan have been busy, creating various forms of pebbled, swirled, and gridded glass products, along with a dizzying array of glazes, filters, and films to cover ordinary transparent glass with decorative patterns, veils, and clouded effects. Add other technologies like louvers, paned blocks, and security grates/bars to the glass options, and the partially covered window possibilities seem to expand exponentially.

In contrast to Arne Svenson’s through-the-window photographs of coffee shop patrons and his neighbors in New York, which all feature people (although somewhat anonymously), Okuyama’s pictures restrict themselves to largely inanimate subjects, as seen behind the privacy glass – essentially no people and no pets, some potted plants and flowers, and plenty of kitchens, laundry areas, storage rooms, shelving units, and more haphazard clumps and arrangements of possessions on the sills. Each picture is cropped to the dimensions of the window itself, leaving out any framing, moldings, or surroundings nearby, creating the feeling of looking directly through the glass. The windows are variously tall and thin, short and wide, and vaguely rectangular or square, and the pictures are scattered across the spreads in different locations on the pages, as though we are looking up, down, and around the facades of the buildings, scanning for frosted windows.

The opaque glass interruptions Okuyama has discovered around town distort the everyday objects arranged on the inside, variously softening and blurring the visible forms into approximations. Aesthetically, depending on the specific filtering of any given window, these surface effects can seem like the equivalents of gauzy Pictorialism, dotted Pointillism, or gestural painted brushstrokes, the interior still life arrangements rendered vaguely abstract, like hazy memories or interrupted thoughts.

Many of Okuyama’s strongest compositions feature flowers and plants found on the window sills, their forms and colors made almost watery and Impressionistic by the opaque glass. Set against darkened backgrounds, the colors pop and dissolve, and in a few cases, Okyuama has captured a blossom in a tall narrow window, giving the resulting photograph the misty mood of a scroll. The further the plants are away from the glass, the more fogged and indistinct they become, turning an orchid or geranium into a hint or splash of something elemental, like an echo across time. The same can be said for small arrangements of random objects along the sills, the frosted windows approximating the forms of boxes, bottles, and rounded fruits and vegetables into softer hovering shapes, almost like Giorgio Morandi’s pared down still life paintings.

In other photographs, Okuyama revels in the all-over clutter smashed up against the glass, particularly in kitchens and laundry rooms, where clothing hung to dry, stacked plates, spray bottles, mops, stored bicycles, and piles of bins, plastic baskets, and other accumulated stuff all tussle for visual dominance. In some cases, Okuyama plays with geometric angles and patterns, pushing close to abstraction; in others, he seems to see personalities and imagined stories, a particular gathering of umbrellas, toys, books, or meticulously ordered cleaning supplies perhaps telling us something about their owners. Singular objects fleetingly glimpsed here and there, like a soccer jersey, a rooster-shaped pitcher, a fishing net, a wooden temple, and a cluster of notes taped to the window, seem to introduce us to individuals, with their personalities and possible life stories implied by a lineup of quirky figurines or a step-wise arrangement of nesting dolls.

In a number of cases, the dappling or patterning of the window is so strong that the objects inside are turned into shifting color studies, their forms becoming essentially unrecognizable and the scenes reduced to swaths and fogs of drifting color. Spots and lines in various hues become their own compositional elements, the squinting blur washing away detail and leaving behind faint areas of uncertainty. As hard as we might try to resolve some of these puzzles, they stubbornly resist identification, wandering back into hazy trance-like states and faintly heard melodies.

Window is an extra thick photobook, its intimately blocky form well matched to the hundreds of images collected inside. In a certain way, a trip through its contents is exhausting, with a more economical edit of half as many pictures (or less) likely having made the essential point with similar effectiveness. But perhaps the answer to why so many images have been included lies in Okuyama’s patient commitment to this subject, and to the feeling of persistent repetition and comparison that comes from looking at window after window after window. There is resulting scale effect to this photobook experience, a bigness and heft applied to an almost private subject that allows some quiet commonalities between the windows (and by extension, their owners) to slowly emerge.

In this way, Windows not only functions as a precise (and often lyrical) aesthetic study, but also as an aggregate portrait of a large number of people or a local way of life – if most every neighbor on the block has his or her frosted back window photographed by Okuyama and then included in this compendium, then the sum gives us an indirect survey of nearly the entire community. The thickness of this photobook is therefore seemingly less an edit process left unchecked but a deliberate decision to explore ideas of size and weight in the context of a photographic series. It is a democratic approach to photographic vision, where “more” actually expands knowledge and clarity rather than muddying it.

Collector’s POV: While Yoshiyuki Okuyama has participated in a number of gallery shows and published many photobooks, he does not appear to have consistent gallery representation. As a result interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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