Amidst blankness

Tori, photo book by Masao Yamamoto






I was in Matsumoto in May to visit the photography exhibition that celebrated the launching of Tori, Masao Yamamoto’s new book. However, up to this moment, I am still in doubt if it can be considered a photography exhibition? Some photos were printed at the size of a stamp and stacked together in a small box, some photos of beaches are mounted in small frames, and pebbles collected by Yamamoto were placed in front of some photos of pebbles… Masao Yamamoto is not merely a photographer, but also an installation artist.

The works showcased in the recent exhibition were chosen based on the curator’s request. Yamamoto has seldom done any art installation since 2008; along with the fading presence of his art installation, Yamamoto began to work on photography of large formats. Regardless of the shift in his creative direction, Tori still vividly shows Yamamoto’s dedication to the presentation of his work, as well as his ability to utilize space as a medium of storytelling.

“Bird” in Japanese is pronounced as “tori”. All the photos featured in Tori are related to birds. Yamamoto could have used Bird as the book title since it was published in the United States. I guess, on one hand, Yamamoto would like to stress on the Japanese vibe; on the other hand, driven by his love for language, he wanted to retain the multiple meaning connected to the pronunciation “tori” — a pronunciation that can also mean “photography” and “to take”. Yamamoto used to focus on making small sized images that can be easily held in a hand. Unlike the majority of photographers, he does not see photography as a window to another world; it is to him an object that records the past, or can even disguise as the past.

The concept of time is never quite traceable in the work of Yamamoto. By deliberately soaking the printed photos in tea and wringing them carefully, the images transcend time and can be easily mistaken as historical photo prints. Yamamoto does not see image as a mean for documentation, but merely as one of the elements that help to narrate the stories that he yearns to tell — these are the stories that do not unfold themselves for the audience, but invite audience to delve into the photos to actively explore with their own imagination.

The book Tori adapted the style of Yamamoto’s exhibition to deliberately leave a good amount of empty space. Quite often a photo only occupies a tiny space at the corner of an almost blank page. Flipping open the book, image of a bird is on the page to the left, to the right is supposedly the hand of a Buddha statue. The bird is looking up to a piece of emptiness, can this be the uncertainties and aspiration the bird has towards the world it exists? The empty space — the very part that deeply moves me — is essential to Yamamoto’s narrative, as it contains numerous stories waiting to be unfolded by readers’ imagination.