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Naoya Hatakeyama 1st U.S. show at SFMOMA

originally posted by the SF Gate, 08-02-2012

Naoya Hatakeyama, 54, ranks among the foremost photographic artists working in Japan, yet, apart from curators and collectors, few in the United States know of his work. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has begun to change that by hosting “Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories,” the first American museum survey of his work.

Born in Rikuzentakata, a city wiped out by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that fatally undermined the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Hatakeyama has long focused on landscape imagery, especially of places where natural and industrial formations collide. He recently devoted a series, which fills a room at SFMOMA, to his devastated hometown.

The exhibition culminates in a projected stop-motion video, from which Hatakeyama extracted images to print, that records 24 earth-moving explosions of the sort common in quarry and mining industry. I spoke with him during his recent visit to San Francisco and took “Twenty Four Blasts” (2011) as a starting point. Yuko Fukami assisted with translation.

Q: The blast video reminds me of two things in American art, Abstract Expressionist painting and earthworks. How much interest do you have in art that is not photography?

A: In college, they talked a lot about Pop Art and beyond – people like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson were included in that. I was very aware of them. They’re well known in Japan. Of course, I knew about Jackson Pollock, too, but that was taught in connection to painting. I had not thought about that connection before making this work. But the tendency in photography of the past 20 years has been to exclude horizons, so pictures tended to become more flat, without a center. Some of my photographs are like that also.

Q: In the Rikuzentakata pictures, the devastation is so great, how did you choose points of view?

A: In style and content I have been talking about the meeting of nature and human society. To all the rooms here other than the Rikuzentakata series, that applies. But Rikuzentakata is where I was born and where my mother lived, so it was very difficult for me to separate myself from it and see it as an artist, with a calm mind … to make a composition of it. Among the photos you see, there is a school I attended, there are roads I passed frequently. In many of them there is a lot of memory. … And for me, there was no need to connect it to the history of art.

Q: When you’re preparing to make a picture, how much are you thinking ahead to how the print will look?

A: This has a strong connection to how I got interested in photography in the first place. How do you make something fortuitous into an artistic expression? What taught me that first was American photographers. They did a lot of exploration of that … how you take something that just happens to be in a picture as expressing the photographer’s values. … In the “Blast” pictures, I only find out what’s in the picture after the print is made.

Q: The exception seems to be the “Underground” pictures, where you lighted them, is that true?

A: At first I had a light attached to the camera, and I got photos where there was light around the camera, but ahead it was very dark, like a doughnut shape. So then I separated the light from the camera and put it in different places. After experimenting … I decided that to have the light out in front of me showed the space in the way closest to what I was experiencing.

Q: Do you think differently when you’re working in Europe or elsewhere outside Japan?

A: I do think differently. The air in Japan is rather stale right now, it’s not moving. Since March of 2011, because of what happened, Japan feels very dark. When I’m away from Japan I feel a little bit lighter, more animated. I do different things in that very dark situation.

Q: When you were shooting the pictures in Rikuzentakata, were you in the radiation zone?

A: Rikuzentakata is about 200 kilometers from the Fukushima plant. Right after the explosion there were some measurements made at Rikuzentakata, and it was determined there was nothing to worry about.

Q: I notice very few people in your pictures or they are very distant from the camera. Why is that?

A: For one thing, there are no people in places like blast sites. Another reason is that when you take photos of people, there’s always some kind of quick movement and you have to react very quickly. My pictures are like fishing, whereas taking pictures with people is more like hunting. Also, when there are people in a picture, you immediately develop some relationship to them. Because people have eyes, and they’re looking out at you – or not – you immediately relate to them as subjects. … With these pictures, you can be alone. It’s better that way.

Q: Does the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher matter to you?

A: Yes, they are very influential of my work. I saw their retrospective in Düsseldorf in 2005 – it was fantastic. Their work is so strong I think that no artists today can say they are not influenced by it. {xbox}

Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories: Through Nov. 4. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. (415) 357-4000.

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