“Many photographers will know that moment when they cross the path of the sun beaming down from a fifth story window-some will not even see it, they will feel the change of luminescence on their cheek, their hair will feel warmer as they pace”
The is a debilitating moment for many photographers when they are attempting to maneuver a place with their camera in hand, the strap of which oscillates between states of annoyance as it catches on inanimate objects and a totem of singular use as ballast around their neck or tightly woven against the back of their hand as it is raised to capture a pulsing beam of light bouncing off a reflective surface on a sunny day. Many photographers will know that moment when they cross the path of the sun beaming down from a fifth story window-some will not even see it, they will feel the change of luminescence on their cheek, their hair will feel warmer as they pace-a strong flicker invades their senses. This light is predatory in some ways. It seeks to harness the observer and lure them in with offers of a transcending quality. And yet, this quality and its magnificent possibility remain semi-illusive for the photographer. Its direct glare often casts what would normally be permissible by way of capture into a crescendo of implausible exposure.
For artists using film, these moments of high luminosity create a schism in which the will to observe light and its flexible qualities towards the extreme requires that its observation come with doubts about its ability to be transcribed. Formally, the glare or sudden high refraction of light blows out nearly everything else in its path, unless it is considered for long moments and the technology is at hand to work the camera’s mechanism of exposure to capture its brilliance. If this is the case, though many of these image or scenarios preclude an ability to work with fast shutter speeds, the act of taking too much time to consider it means invariably the light source may shift, become unrecognizable and may fail to hold interest once it passes over the edge of a pane of glass, from the basking signage, or a shard of broken mirror propped along a wall.
The second problem with these moments of irrefutable momentum comes with taking the picture itself. In order to fully adjust for the correct exposure, angle of lens or placement of artist him or herself, it is imperative that the operator considers their proximity to danger. Once that has been concluded favorably, the operator looks directly into the ground glass or viewing glass of the camera where a shrill (if shrill were a visual word) award awaits their intention. Eye pressed firmly to viewing glass, other eye shuttered in defiance and focus orientation, the operator pivots their eye into a diffuse and blinding provocation of high intensity glare, the kind of glare in which the operator’s retina will indeed suffer minor burns. These burns heal fast in the present and yet in the long term, perhaps looking into distant suns, shrill mirrors or illuminated windows is a reminder of our physical self and its proximity to decay and cosmos alike.
“These burns heal fast in the present and yet in the long term, perhaps looking into distant suns, shrill mirrors or illuminated windows is a reminder of our physical self and its proximity to decay and cosmos alike”
The effect of working so closely to direct illumination carries these physical blinding traits to the operator and is subsequently considered in presentation formulas when editing the material into a usable format for printing. The white of the light is often hard to print or regulate against the other material in the frame. If you will remember UN Chien Andalou-the famous Luis Buñuel film (1929) in which a straight razor glides saliently across the retina of young woman, you will approximate the blind gaze of which I speak in metaphor. You may find similar historical referents in the city works of Ray Metzger and his teacher Harry Callahan. They regarded contrast and the cavernous reaches of the city as something of a flicker in which shadow and piercing light metaphorically considered the condition, rhythm and undulations of the urban environment set against the characters found within. Each character may be considered an actor on a pulsating stage of dancing and radiating light.
Japan is no stranger to radiating and piercing light. Though I make no critical overtures towards understanding its photographic output as singular, my general associations with the country begin in the late 19th Century, but are overshadowed by the events of 1945 and the atomic bomb. I chose the words overshadowed, radiating and piercing carefully as they exhibit a tendency to be understood in metaphor which circulates a very unnerving an indecent historical trauma perpetuated by mid-century human beings upon one another. The Americans, “my people” were the perpetuators of this crime and yet, my grandfather also watched his friends killed in the Pacific. There is no way to angle and right from so many wrongs, but the intense gravity of the American actions of the Enola Gay in 1945 signalled the singular most profound awareness of human capacity to ferment a technology that vastly exceeds their control and good will to horrendous ends.
In the work of Daisuke Morishita, the virtue of shadow and the nearly catatonic perplexity of his use of direct glare creates an aura of binary fusion in which the observations of the poetic subject matter of Morishita are conversely provoked by a seething insistence of the aforementioned glare and its opposite; the nebulous shadow. The glare in his work creates an uncanny environment in which foreground details are forsaken by the tentacles of shadow and capitulate the frame towards a series of miasmatic reminders of the ghosts that can pervade the history of a nation through its most disastrous of moments.
Morishita is a young artist, so the reach of atrocity that I am projecting upon his work comes from my own lack of involvement with Japanese photography, which a few generations previous certainly labored under the pathos or conditions inspired by the bomb itself. This has been widely documented and the apocalyptic trauma that the bomb delivered would certainly be a difficult shadow to shake. In Morishita’s work, beginning with his first book Asterisk (2017) and his second book Shadows of Light (2018), Morishita is crafting something of a trilogy thus far with his new book Dance With Blanks. The fundamental approach to the shadow and glare is covered throughout all three, but there are subtle narrative shifts pervading all three enough to make them different in approach.
Asterisk is the first if Morishita’s offerings and it is a declarative gesture. It sets the tone for the two volumes that follow. Morishita’s exhibits his skill set and technical interests and couples it throughout with soft and poetic rumination about his feelings on photography. When I allude to “feelings” I mean to imply that Morishita speaks directly and poetically to the viewer about what excites him about light, shadow and the making of images. It is direct, somewhat and approvingly innocent and categorically states his interest in form as opposed to the overly complicated fishing for an academic framework. This kind of humility in practice is quite rare in the West where attention is often sough through the enabling of a critical dialogue that borders on vacuous and obtuse art speak. It is a difficulty that I share with many who do not wish their work (photographic) to be limited by the reaches of theoretical constructs which damage an otherwise pervasive flow of thought and primary experience relying instead on a roster of box-ticking citations and bibliographies or secondary experiences. In any event, these images with their technical considerations of blur, raking light and metaphorical potential remind one of Masao Yamamato’s search for inner truth through the pure expression of feeling. The first book sets the stage for the following books, though something more concretized begins to form.
“Morishita’s exhibits his skill set and technical interests and couples it throughout with soft and poetic rumination about his feelings on photography”
Returning to Morishita’s Shadows of Light from 2018 (Asterisk) we see a turn towards abstraction and the rhythm of line that distinguished the work from the previous offering. Whereas Asterisk may be seen as a genesis, with Morishita’s ability to make beautiful photographs as the foremost architecture of the work, Shadows of Light begins the process of fragmentizing bodies and places. Within the book you find a partial image of a shaved head cloaked in a veil of shadows, a sleeper on a park bench, an oddly luminous mist of light approaching on a path and a shared anima with studies of clouds. There are smudges on glass captured; a reminder of a presence not found within the frame. There is also a move to think more in line and composition as evinced by the studies of architecture and ALL are importantly catalogued by a reference number suggesting a move towards thinking about indexicality and the finitude of a moment. It is a rally against the wall of death while holding grave considerations for its ultimate position for life. Design-wise, this is where the author has made more considerations to format and the book itself. It is a bit slicker with its plastinated see-through dust jacket and the aforementioned concentration of index. In some ways, it is my favorite of the trilogy as it acts as an opposition to the first book. Morishita’s vision has coalesced. Whereas Asterisk has some subtle cliché’s of Japanese photography embedded within (this is not a bad remark), Shadows of Light begins Morishita’s vision in full autonomous mode.
Dance With Blanks is the third book of the annual offerings of Morishita. All are published with Asterisk, which is a self-publishing venture. Dance With Blanks concretizes the former two-books in a more refined and mature way. Morishita is comfortable with what he is aiming for-his choices of subject matter from high contrast raking light to an optical obfuscation by way of short focal length and close objects materialize in a pensive and reflective assembly of images that compress and refine potential narratives about the history of perspective. Further, the architectural element found in his second book Shadows of Light becomes more prominent. The consideration of architectural line is now a repeating value that has strong undercurrents through the book promoting the idea that the built environment and its ability to harness light or be defeated by it offers a different narrative to the flat compressed nature of how we view photographs. Morishita studies shadows with more precision in Dance with Blanks and efficacy of their use creates a strong thread throughout.
A final consideration for Dance With Banks is how Morishita has begun to think through the use of images within images-or effigies within frame. This is generally conducted through the use of frames such as mirrors or the use of windows and architecture to ensnare bodies within. A notable image is that of a post mortem photograph of an elderly woman held aloft and captured in a harsh light with the frame behind held in darkness. The image floats and is slightly unusual. Japanese portraiture related to death are generally seen when the subject is still alive. This direct confrontation of death is slightly unusual, but marks a move from tradition.
“The image floats and is slightly unusual. Japanese portraiture related to death are generally seen when the subject is still alive. This direct confrontation of death is slightly unusual, but marks a move from tradition”
Of note on his framing is how Morishita uses the wave of a mirror to entrap casual pedestrians in frame. It’s particularly interesting as the image does not look to have been made in Japan or was perhaps produced in a tourist environment. This distorts the “Japanese-ness” of the book and helps to produce a more universal image. Morishita also uses shadow to cage pedestrian in what appears to be a train station and in doing so combines his interest in architectural line with the framing of human subject to a dramatic degree (see Above).
Though I purport to know very little about Japanese photography in its entirety, somehow I find myself understanding Morishita’s eye much easier than I do with some of his predecessors. Perhaps that is due to the age of which the images are made or perhaps even that the books themselves somehow feel, in their edit, less chaotic than many books that I have seen come out of Japan. I tend to embrace chaos when possible, but the caveat to that is that there is less to draw from on the whole. This trilogy represents an enigmatic, yet easily digestible and profoundly honest body of work. It feels impassioned and it is perhaps the beginning of a brilliant career that at once considers tradition as worthy of challenge, but is also unashamed to look outside of the nationalist tendencies to make images that look overly “Japanese”. In any event, all three volumes are highly recommended for their clarity alone. The bonus is that the images are solid and make me want to see 2020’s volume-where will Morishita go in during a time of sweeping plague?