Uncommon Vision 

Yasuhiro Ishimoto's outwardly simple photographs contain a depth of meaning.

"Snow," by Yasuhiro Ishimoto, gelatin silver print.
  • "Snow," by Yasuhiro Ishimoto, gelatin silver print.
Crushed Coca-Cola cans and footprints in the snow are the refuse of everyday life. You might look at them differently, though, after seeing Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Traces of Memory, an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Ishimoto, a 79-year-old Japanese photographer with a talent for spotting artistic potential in the commonplace, finds a subdued melancholy in crushed cans and a breathtaking sense of balance in those footprints.

Tom Hinson, the museum's curator of photography, is taking a risk in showing Cleveland this exhibit of 30 photographs. Why? Even photography enthusiasts may find such austerely contemplative work tough to grasp. The quiet tone, the preference for common subject matter, and the emotional restraint may cause some people to ask, "Okay, but what's so special about this?" Stay with it, though, and you'll be rewarded. While Ishimoto's work places a premium on patience and creativity, the effort required in slowing down one's thoughts to better appreciate his subtleties is worth it.

Born in San Francisco, Ishimoto went back to Japan with his parents when he was three, but life threw him a curve when he returned to the States in the late '30s to study agriculture. Following the United States's declaration of war on Japan in 1941, Ishimoto was imprisoned because the government feared that Japanese Americans would support the enemy and, in doing so, subvert the war effort. Ishimoto sought and found significance in the detour: He learned photography at the Amachi Internment Camp in Colorado. Following further art studies in the States after the war, Ishimoto returned to Japan, where he built his reputation as a documentary photographer of Japanese life. During this time, he also became known for his architectural photography and for his shots of Japanese artworks. Hinson says that, in the last decade, he has returned to more "transitory subjects," and these are featured in the present exhibit.

Many contemporary Japanese photographers have specialized in searching for significance in mundane subject matter. Ishimoto's work is indebted to that of Shomei Tomatsu, an early leader in this type of photography. Tomatsu shot rocks, walls, and graffiti and specialized in capturing objects like fish, berries, and twigs. These are elegant collages of varied lines and textures. In an essay called "Japan and Photography," photography historian Chihiro Minato notes that the work of mid-century pioneers like Tomatsu was not just about pretty shapes. These artists were keenly aware of how World War II "had transformed Tokyo into a wasteland." Theirs was a calm and meditative art, but it also occasionally assumed a "bleak attitude to post-war prosperity." Ishimoto, too, is ambivalent about modern life. There is balance and order in his work, but disorder, or the suggestion of disorder, is seldom far off.

In a typical Ishimoto photograph, little is obvious. Evocation is all. Take a shot like "Leaves" from 1991. One leaf is plastered onto a slick, rain-soaked pavement, practically indistinguishable from the asphalt. Another leaf adjacent to it retains its shape despite the rain. The asphalt has tiny stones mixed into it, and the rain creates unusual arabesques as it falls among the irregularly textured surfaces. The sharp focus of the shot is conspicuous. However, it's not easy to get an emotional reading on it. There are no dramatic highs or lows, just a sense of calmness. There is implicit drama in the contrast between the dissolved leaf and the resilient one, but Ishimoto is content to suggest rather than state. So, this unassuming photo can be read two ways: as a still life of two leaves after a rainfall and as a meditation on nature, the seasons, and the brevity of life.

The photographs of crushed soft-drink cans and footprints in the snow are also strong. Ishimoto is a master at capturing diverse textures and then creating a unified mood with them. Sometimes, he even seems to be hinting at broader social and political concerns. Ishimoto's photograph of a crushed Coca-Cola can, with its dented aluminum, Japanese lettering, and rough-textured soil in the background, seems to say something about Japanese life since World War II. The American influences (the Coca-Cola trademark) in the postwar economic boom, he seems to suggest, are always tempered by memories of the twisted remains of Japanese cities in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Most of the time, though, Ishimoto dispenses with social commentary. Shots of cloud formations and footprints in the snow are particularly concise and subtle. The effect here is of extreme purification. There are several shades of gray in these meditative works, but there are recognizable shapes that seem in the process of forming. There is a feeling of hopefulness in these images. By contrast, the photographs of footprints are melancholic. They remind us that a human being, now absent, made those marks. In one called "Snow" from 1994, the footprints, as photographed, evoke ancient Japanese calligraphy. It's a revealing touch because, unlike the ancient scholar-artists who controlled the thickness and color of each calligraphic stroke, Ishimoto is more discoverer than creator. The shapes here were inscribed in the snow entirely by accident; the photographer came on the scene later and saw their artistic potential. Viewing these six shots as a group, one develops an awareness of the depth of this apparently simple subject matter.

Ishimoto will not win prizes for the visceral impact of his art. However, this quietly compelling exhibit can be rewarding. Ishimoto's work is paradoxical in a satisfying way: complex without being complicated.

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