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Hatakeyama’s Pictorial-topical Blast at SFMOMA

originally posted by the SF Gate, 08-10-2012

“Land use photography,” as Sandra Phillips calls it, has long preoccupied the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator. So has the work of Japanese photographers who she believes are not well known or fully appreciated by the American art public.

These two interests converge in “Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories” now at SFMOMA, although assistant curator Lisa Sutcliffe presided over its installation here.

Probably fewer visitors will know Hatakeyama’s name than those of Shomei Tomatsu or Daido Moriyama when SFMOMA presented their work here in depth. But the pictorial and conceptual reach of Hatakeyama’s work impresses immediately.

Among an early series devoted to mountains – which Japanese folklore associates with deities – an image appears that stops the eye. It seems to show a mountain range sliced along one side as if by a sawmill.

The title provides the needed clue: “Schweizerisches Alpines Museum, Bern, #06201″ (2005). Look again and the subject begins to come clear: a landscape model, scale indeterminate, but definitely not alpine.

Pale vertical bands in the picture’s background emerge, striping a wall whose pallor at first glance makes it look like featureless overcast sky.

Plainly Hatakeyama has more on his mind than aesthetics or travelogue.

Related works take the form of drawings, one in graphite on paper and another made on a negative, done with the aid of a camera obscura. “That’s how I discovered what a fantastic medium photography is,” Hatakeyama said with a grin in conversation when I asked him why he troubled to make the drawings. He also acknowledged his interest in probing all the forms that representation can take.

Much of the work in “Natural Stories” prizes the pictorial and the topical above the conceptual. Hatakeyama devoted an early series to the lime mining industry, limestone being the only natural resource in which Japan is self-sufficient, leavening the cronyism in its highway and building construction industries.

Anyone who knows Edward Burtynsky’s images of quarries will notice echoes of them in the “Lime Hills” pictures. But Hatakeyama’s views of terrain scoured by mining have closer complements among his own images of “terrils,” the startlingly huge conical mounds of slag produced by smelting that form implausibly perfect synthetic mountains.

Hatakeyama has shot some of his most arresting images underground, in the sewers of Tokyo and a disused subterranean quarry in France now utilized for mushroom cultivation.
One of the Tokyo pictures, “Underground #6109″ (1999), shows light streaming through a big cylindrical culvert, a strikingly exact mimicry of the passageway to salvation in “The Ascent of the Blessed” by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

Hatakeyama was born in Iwate prefecture, the region most devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the exhibition devotes a room to dozens of pictures – artless in the best sense – that he took of his hometown reduced to splinters and mud.

It comes almost as a relief to turn to the series that follow, focused on controlled demolition and earth blasting.

Here perhaps Hatakeyama’s work veers closest to Phillips’ provocative 1996 survey of land use photography “Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present.” That show included an unattributed 1935 print identified as “Hoover Dam, Side of Canyon for Blasting.” It showed a rock face marked for dynamiting with white painted border and crosshairs.

Hatakeyama’s “Blast” pictures – printed frames from a very brief film – record the next step: detonation.

With expert help, he placed his automated camera as close as feasible to quarry blasts’ sites and captured them as they happened.

The chilling photo documents of nuclear weapons tests may be more powerful images of humankind’s ingenuity backfiring on nature, but they lack the intimate violence and richness of Hatakeyama’s pictures.

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