The Fog of Time
An Interview with Hara Hisaji
|The legacy of Showa Japan runs deep and is also evident in your photographs. What is your attraction to Showa?
The building that appears in the pictures was a privately-run clinic built in the Taisho era (1912-26) and actually used until Showa 40 (1960). Discovering this building was the direct catalyst for my having realized this series. If this series exudes the feeling of Showa at all, then I think that’s largely due to the atmosphere of the building itself. Of course, having been born in Showa 39, I think that the age carries a lot of meaning for me. The values of Showa have probably had no small effect on the formation of my character.
However, for an artist like me who expresses himself through photographs, Showa pretty much means the 20th century just as it was. Photographs that appeared in the 19th century define the way of life of that age, certainly for having spanned some 100 years, and those 100 years mostly overlap with Showa, too. Living now in the 21st century, I’m seeking new means of photographic expression and to that end I think it’s essential that I look back and consider the 20th century with a critical eye.
Your photographs deftly balance innocence and eroticism. Can you please comment on this?
Is there in fact an underlying concept of innocence pairing off with eroticism? I suspect that reading an antithesis between these two components in the series comes from a 20th century mode of photographic expression. In the original Balthus paintings that I chose to use as my motif, quite a bit of the young girl’s arms and thighs appear. While that might be deemed eroticism, at the same time, a sense of tranquility hangs about it, as in early Italian Renaissance religious paintings. Perhaps the reason why Balthus dared to paint the limbs of a young girl was that he was attempting to provoke narrow-minded 20th century notions of eroticism. And so in this photographic series the dual presence of innocence and eroticism points to the objectification of 20th century values, which is itself an important part of the work.
Can you talk a little about your work flow (art direction, setting up, development, etc)?
Vis-à-vis the thousands—we might even say tens of thousands—of years of painting history, photographic history is but 200 years old. And yet, you can consider photographic history in the same context as the history of the discovery of photosensitive materials. Assuming that photography is an expression born of our gazing at the world, then I believe that photography should be included in the long history of painting.
To recreate in this series the same feeling of depth that appears in the paintings, I used a smoke machine to artificially create fog. It was one of those huge smoke machines normally used in concert halls. While the rooms depicted in Balthus’ paintings have a kind of flat illumination, he still manages to provide a fitting context for his figures and backdrop. I found that it was necessary to fog my backdrop with the right amount of smoke in order to control this sense of depth.
Also, the perspective in the paintings is different from the optical perspective of a camera lens. When shooting this series, I intentionally impaired the authentic perspective of the lens, and to achieve that, I had to take various multiple exposures. I made a huge matte box to surround the camera and lens. I then attached a mask to it that would cover up part of the picture and took multiple exposure shots. Because I was shifting the focus as I took the multiple exposures, the optical perspective was impaired and I got a really attractive sense of space.
Taking multiple exposures also has another benefit. When you combine the various frames that you’ve taken, you can reproduce your trusted model and have her perform elsewhere in the picture. Artists would often use a model they liked and paint that figure multiple times into their picture.
You sometimes appear in your own photographs. Why?
I only appear once in this series. That piece is based on Balthus’ own self-portrait. Going by 20th century definitions, a photographic self-portrait is very different from a painted self-portrait. In an age where identification photographs can be forged because of digital technology, do meanings based on 20th century definitions hold any water? I think there is quite a bit of opportunity to investigate this notion. Of course, this isn’t confined to a discussion of self-portraits alone, but perhaps even all the modes of photographic expression.
Who are some photographers you admire and why?
It’s not really photographers whom I admire, but the incredibly accomplished Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. It seems to me that he was a director who created his own cinematic devices, rather than rely on the cinematic devices shared by most 20th century works. That’s why his work never seems to grow old.
Hara Hisaji is represented by: MEM INC. NADiff a/p/a/r/t 2F, 1-18-4 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0013 tel. 03-6459-3205 (gallery) tel/fax. 03-6425-9482 (office)
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