The photographs of Japanese photographer Masao Yamamoto go against the grain of contemporary practices: They're small, intimate, delicate, and spiritual. In today's bigger-is-better world, Yamamoto's birdlike photos feel like tender anachronisms, even though there are few fine art precedents for his approach to photography.
Yamamoto's photographs are tiny: Their scale is closer to dominoes and playing cards than paintings. They draw you close—viewers must get within breathing distance to make them out. And unlike so much contemporary work born of the digital era, these photographs are treated as physical objects, rather than as two-dimensional images. Yamamoto's prints are well handled and weathered, enough so that they could easily be mistaken for anonymous, antique photographs. Where many artists would take this approach only to swerve the viewer with thoroughly modern subjects, Yamamoto has no interest in playing a witty game of "gotcha." His subjects have a deeply spiritual tone, and they are repeated throughout his career: birds, waterfalls, Buddhas, nudes, and other ethereal phenomena.
But most striking is his signature presentation: The artist mounts his prints directly to the wall, unframed, in sweeping clusters that often stretch from floor to ceiling, recalling flocks of birds, gusts of wind, or musical minuets. To see them all, the viewer must move his body as if he were looking at sculpture, engaged in a subtle dance with the art. Yamamoto's other preferred presentation triggers our memory senses: He piles dozens, if not hundreds, of his worn, palm-sized photographs into boxes, which we are invited to dig through. This act conjures countless evocations for the viewers—family photos, anonymous bins at antique stores—but little like what we typically associate with contemporary art galleries.
But it looks as if Yamamoto might be getting restless and eager to explore more traditional presentations: His current show features six framed prints. They bear Yamamoto's rich tones and silent stillness, but not his evocative presentation. Six is just enough to tease but not enough to explore: Yamamoto has made his way by cultivating a highly personal style that goes against most trends. Now he seems to be charting a different course—one that relies on the strength of the individual image rather than seductive presentation, all the while retaining his singular voice.