birds on the brain

so happenstance, structures and strategies began as an attempt to understand an artist that i had admired very deeply since i was introduced to his work. masao yamamoto is a japanese photographer that works quietly, quirkily, and, i’d like to believe, quite happily. his work fulfills many aesthetic “musts” for me: it is personal without being preachy; it meditates on itself and outside of itself; it is idiosyncratic; it is intimate; it often makes me wish i made it myself. he does not title his images; he makes many prints of each and each is printed differently; he intentionally distresses them–but not too much–corners are often bent or rounded; they are stained in tea, they are little. and they are legion. this is one of my favorites of his:

swans

i first saw his work at the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, georgia. probably in 1997 or 1998. i was moronically mesmerized walking from one surprising image to another. they vary in subject matter, but maintain a tone, a way of seeing, that remains consistent. his consistent vision is what surprised me. that it was so constant, so there, in every image. there are photographers who have a “style” or a gimmick that singles their images out as theirs again and again, and if prompted it could probably be argued that yamamoto’s images are all small and tea-stained. but i would argue that his is a singular way of perceiving what he would like to show us, as if plucking something out of the world and depositing it into a mason jar, and then putting that mason jar on a shelf next to dozens of other mason jars with equally baffling and/or beautiful contents.

at the time that i saw these images, i was convinced i was going to be a famous documentary photographer (oh youth! oh youthful indescretions!). i was going to one day work for magnum photo, i was going to be a war correspondent, i was going to bear witness to the various sins and graces of which humanity was capable. i didn’t know what to do with these tea-stained jewels. but they stuck in my craw.

and one day in my last year of graduate school, with a documentary project going badly, my professor paul d’amato suggested a different tack. “why don’t you do a master’s study?” he suggested. i looked at him sideways. “isn’t that what i’m doing now?” “no, no: a master’s study, in the painting sense. pick a master, someone that you consider as such–someone you’ve always loved and not known why. find out all you can about how they worked, their technique and materials, and try to make some images in their spirit. at first it may look like imitation, but then you might discover something about your own vision that you would never have arrived at.” he said that, and i realized what he was giving me: the chance to make images i would never make otherwise, freed from the impending sense that i had to finish the uninspiring project i was undertaking. this was an opportunity to stretch, and see if i could see a fraction of the way that this little old japanese man did, bowling me over as he did so. i knew immediately who my “master” was. masao yamamoto.

i came back a week later sticking these tiny little tea-stained pictures to the wall. in repeating series, each a little varied in exposure, staining or size. photographs without any people in them. photographs of a city of 8.5 million people that looks like everyone just left the party. a hose wrapped around an iron fence. plastic hanging from a lamp post, flying in the wind. birds in a bare tree, looking like ornaments that had been carefully placed there. paul didn’t believe i took them, at first. “you?” he kept saying incredulously. “the same person who was photographing civil war re-enactments, you took these?” and then he straightened up. “these were always there in you, waiting to be made. this should be the work you do the rest of the time you are here.” and he was right and it was and i have never enjoyed photographs that i have made more, or the making of them.

making them in chicago was almost easy. a place with landmarks both easily recognizable and then others that become almost oddly personal. i had a rule: i only photographed in the area that was one mile in radius to my home or my school, the places where i spent most of my time. i wanted to learn to see what i saw everyday in new ways. in ways that were respectful and quiet and made mine. i photographed through the seasons, from fall into winter when the snow changed the shape and landscape of everything. i realized that my images would never be imitations of yamamoto, if only because i was not an old japanese man making images in japan, but me, myself, making images from the spaces in my head and in my own country, making my own particular sense of self and place. and that it would by necessity be different, unique and uniquely personal.

but moving to the south has daunted this body of work, and i have only made a few pictures that would begin to approach what i tried to do in chicago. i am afraid that the landscape–both regionally and city-wide–makes these images almost saccharine. the south is dilapidated, in that appealing, falling-down sort of way that makes photographers get all misty-eyed. and i’ve been worried about looking like a bad, tea-stained post card.

but, as the title of this post suggests, i’ve been thinking about birds lately. about the way they appeared in yamamoto’s pictures and in mine. how they suggest delicacy and autonomy; how their movements can’t be directed in a photo and are always out of my controlling nature’s control; and how birds will do what birds will do whether they are birds in chicago or birds in savannah. so i’ve been looking at the bird pictures i’ve made:

birds_in_tree

and then looking again at some more of yamamoto’s:

hands

and then even looking at some others:

birds

(the last was one from Masahisa Fukase)

and then thinking: i can do this here. and: i need a longer lens. and i need to be looking at some more birds. hopefully, in a week or so, some bird pictures will follow. in the spirit of them, and of me.