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Book Review: Small Things in Silence


Book Review Small Things in Silence By Masao Yamamoto Reviewed by Blake Andrews Seen in person, Yamamoto Masao's photographs make a strong impression. He creates small silver gelatin prints in a darkroom, then proceeds to beat them up. Through a combination of toning, dyes (sometimes in tea or coffee), tearing, folding, and general rough treatment he confers on them a worn quality.

Small Things in Silence. By Yamamoto Masao.
RM/Seigensha, 2015.
 
Small Things in Silence
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Small Things in Silence
Photographs by Yamamoto Masao. Text by Jacobo Siruela and Yamamoto Masao.
RM/Seigensha, 2015. 144 pp., 9¾x12¼x¾".

Seen in person, Yamamoto Masao's photographs make a strong impression. He creates small silver gelatin prints in a darkroom, then proceeds to beat them up. Through a combination of toning, dyes (sometimes in tea or coffee), tearing, folding, and general rough treatment he confers on them a worn quality. Anyone who collected baseball cards as a kid, stacked in a rubber band, left in the rain, and then stuffed in the back pocket, will find the effects familiar. If a photograph can smile through age wrinkles, Yamamoto's do.

From this imperfect base, Yamamoto then mounts his photos directly to the gallery wall here and there. He follows no obvious pattern. Sometimes they are positioned alone, sometimes in clumps, often eschewing frames, glass, and conventional layout. Like his photographs, each layout is unique. The effect is often quite pleasing, but it's very different than a typical photography exhibition. It's closer to an art installation than a photo show. If you didn't know better, you might guess Yamamoto spent many years as a painter, which he did, before becoming a photographer.

Small Things in Silence. By Yamamoto MasaoRM/Seigensha, 2015.

His photography seems tailor-made for site-specific exhibitions. But translating the vision to other platforms is a fraught process. On the web, for example, his photographs flatten into the screen without a fight. He's had better luck with books, working with Nazreali to produce a strong run of publications in the early 2000s. Box of Ku, Nakazora, Omizuao, and é replicated the scattered display effect as well as the medium allowed. Images in these books reproduced shadows, dog-eared corners, and imperfections, conveying the physicality and chance of loose prints laid on a page. Readers got the idea that Yamamoto cared not just about the graphic content of his photographs but about their physical presence.

Small Things in Silence. By Yamamoto MasaoRM/Seigensha, 2015.

The recent retrospective Small Things In Silence, published by RM out of Spain, is a slight step in the other direction (beginning with his name, reversed to the traditional Japanese order). Photos fall one to a page. The layout is generally uniform, with most images centered or bled to the page edge. And although they vary in toning and treatment, the photographs occupy their role without a fuss. In other words, they look more like reproductions in a book than loose prints on a page. This effect increases throughout the book. The early prints sometimes show drop shadow or frayed edge. But by the latter half, they've been cropped to even lines.

Small Things in Silence. By Yamamoto MasaoRM/Seigensha, 2015.

Small Things In Silence is the first retrospective overview of Yamamoto's 20+ year photo career, with selections from each of his earlier books, plus a few other projects. In one sense the chore of summation might be considered easy, since Yamamoto's style has not shifted much since the beginning. Photographically he has always been a transcendentalist in the Minor White mold, capturing poetic slices of domesticity and nature, desaturating for abstract effect (usually, but not always in b/w), then mining the resulting photographs for emotional resonance cued to zen awakening. "I try to capture the moments you do not see and take a picture with them," he says. "When I see them printed, a new story appears." If he hadn't pursued photography, Yamamoto might have become a monk in a mountain cave. Of course there is still time for that.

Small Things in Silence. By Yamamoto MasaoRM/Seigensha, 2015.

The same sharp beautiful style has carried through all of his projects, and an outside observer might have difficulty putting this or that photo into, for example, Box of Ku or Kawa=Flow. If you care about specific projects, the new book is problematic. But if you're just happy to be swept up in a train of incredible images, Small Things In Silence is quite enjoyable.

The sequence seems to be roughly chronological, progressing from early beat up prints to Shizuka=Cleanse, his recent study of rocks and roots against black backdrops. Where does he find material? I have no idea. It's seemingly taken from every odd environment imaginable. Rocks and roots are just a taste. We also see animals, clouds, figures, water, pots. The material is mundane, even stocky. But Yamamoto's treatment is exceptional. Whatever the subject is, he finds its visual essence. Taken as a whole, his photographs offer evidence of an artist finely tuned to ephemeral moments, and with an innate visual sense for chiaroscuro.

Small Things in Silence. By Yamamoto MasaoRM/Seigensha, 2015.

The book comes with an introductory essay, but it's not particularly helpful. It's a rambling tract about the death of beauty by Jicobo Siruela. Since the publisher is from Spain, the text is repeated in a Spanish pamphlet insert. Yamamoto Masao's own brief foreword is more succinct and fitting.

In any case, all of the texts are overshadowed by the photographs. The reproductions are outstanding, approaching the quality of original prints. With bright blue cloth binding, gold stamped title, and gold endpapers, the book feels quite regal. I'm guessing it will age well, even if stacked in a rubber band, left in the rain, and stuffed into a pocket.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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