Of People and Buildings
by Chas Bowie
A Tale of Two Cities is a quiet exhibition that museum-goers might pass through quickly, pausing at certain images, thinking that perhaps they recognized one of the 70-odd black-and-white prints in the show, and deciding that they were familiarwith a different, similar photograph. The show is unassuming almost by definition: classic post-war street photography, architectural portraiture and meditative spiritual abstractions by a nearly unknown Japanese-American photographer. Looking closely at the work in the show, however, one finds a 5o-year career on display, created by a photographic craftsman with razor-sharp eyes, whose nationalistic duality is subtly evidenced in his photographs of Chicago and Tokyo, his home cities.
Ishimoto's biography, an amalgam of influences and contradictions, is a good place to begin to understand his work. Most of the artist's life was divided (as is this exhibit) between Japan and the United States. Born in San Francisco in 1921 to Japanese parents, the Ishimoto family moved to Japan when Yasuhiro was three years old. As a young adult, Ishimoto returned to the U.S. and studied architecture and photography before being detained in a World War II internment camp for four years. In 1948, Ishimoto moved to Chicago to study photography with Harry Callahan at the Art Institute of Design, the state-side Bauhaus established by Laszlo Maholy Nagy, whose writings had deeply influenced Ishimoto as a student. This period in Chicago was a uniquely intellectual American scene, as Russian and European Bauhaus and International Style design and architecture minimally streamed its way into Chicago, influencing people such as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and Frank Lloyd Wright.
At this point, we have a young, American-born Japanese man whose primary interests are architecture and photography. Fresh out of American de-tainment, he is studying in an American hotbed of unadorned intelligentsia recently imported from behind the Iron Curtain. This is where A Tale of Two Cities picks up.
The opening suite of black-and-white photographs — three shadowy black and whites from Chicago, 1950, starts the showoff right by simply and harmoniously incorporating the major photographic styles and themes that Ishimoto would pursue throughout his career: social document; human/architectural interaction; and a concentrated, meditative working style. The photographs record an ordinary, dreary city wall pieced together from wood panels that repeat upon themselves as they line the sidewalk. The wall runs at head level and is divided every three feet or so, creating a flat, modernistabstraction of perpendicular lines and blank urban rectangles. The shadows from the lampposts and street signs cast thick,blocky lines against the wall, crossing and countering the rigid formality of the wall's right angles. Ishimoto returns to the wall often, sometimes in the breaking morning sun, at other times after the day is nearly done; the shadows of the street life look heavy, resigned and flat against the grid-ded wall. People pass by this shadow theater — pedestrians moving by quickly, leaving transient shadows that overlap and invade the static wall. Men walk by, triangular in their trench coats, legs pacing in sharp 45-degree angles. Their shadows mimic those of the signs and poles. They appear to have become harmonized with the landscape, to have assumed its structure and to have become assimilated to the structure of the street. Like the lampposts, the humans throw shadows that snap and break into perpendicular segments, and even the bird that flies across the scene is mirrored in the blotchy sidewalk stain below. Ishimoto returns to this wall repeatedly, watching the city and light change before him, slowly capturing the differences photographically.
The formal harmonies among the men, architecture and shadows in these images look like things that we as viewers have learned from modern dance, as if the Chicago pedestrians were reacting to and interpreting the modern angularity of their surroundings. The strong shadowy black lines that transverse the pictures are notably calligraphic and predate Franz Kline's canvases by a number of years. Ishimoto has pinpointed the dichotomy of the city in these images — the individual within a larger structure, an organic creation in a crafted container. For Ishimoto, the shadows of lampposts become paintings on the walls of an urban cave.
Most of Ishimoto's street photography from the 19505 and 19608 are familiar to us, even if we have not seen his specific images before. They are exemplars of post-war American street photography that was being practiced in New York by Bernice Abbott, Robert Frank and, to a lesser degree, by Harry Callahan in Chicago. Most of the photography of this genre shows street life as a desolate urban experience in which individuals interact without ever connecting, a place whereindividuality is dwarfed by metropolitan crowds, pavement and automobiles. The themes generally run along the lines of alienation, form, disjunction and irony. To produce this sort of work requires an intuitive sense of action and eyes andreflexes quick enough to capture the formal harmonies of human alienation. Like the 19TH century Parisian flaneur, the street photographer is both coolly observant and deeply perceptive.
Having spent so many years photographing the streets of Chicago and Tokyo, Ishimoto produced an incredible body of work in this genre, which unfortunately falls a bit flat by virtue of its collective familiarity. In Chicago, 1960, for instance, a young black girl in a white dress clutches an American flag in each hand, smiling at a trio of elderly women who glance at her disgustedly. As masterfully produced as this image is, it is difficult to remain surprised by these ironies of ugliness, no matter how well preserved on film. Logically, crowds are great fodder for this type of photography, and Ishimoto has worked the crowds as well, thrusting his wide angle lens into waves of people who brush shoulders without ever making eye contact. There are some fantastic images in this large chunk of Ishimoto's work; but to me, Ishimoto makes his best photographs when exploring the symbiosis of humans and buildings. Ishimoto's city portraiture is best defined by the relationship of structures and inhabitants.
In 1954, with the help of Edward Steichen, Ishimoto was the first person allowed to photograph Katsura Riky, a 17thcentury Japanese villa. For an entire month, Ishimoto shot daily in this bare, geometric classical Japanese structure.Ishimoto focused on the spare lines in the architecture, the simple horizontal and vertical lines and the harmony of the building with the Japanese land. The absence of any decorative detail in the design and the spareness of its functional aspects were astonishingly similar to the goals and practices of Western architects Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. The layers of cross-influences in this scenario are numbing, as the Chicagoans are influenced by the Europeans, who looked to the ancient Japanese structures. To have Chicago-based Japanese Ishimoto interpret the relationships between these ideologies produced one of the most famous architecture studies of all time. For the past 20 years, Ishimoto has been looking at the ground more, creating close-up photographs of the surface of the earth, streets, snow and water. These photographs are exercises in harmony, and the concentration and meditation evidenced in the photographs lead me to refer to them as spiritual abstractions. Although some photographs near complete abstraction, as in the light reflecting off water,others are more referential and retain his concerns of the interaction of people and the street, nature and structure. InTokyo, 1988, a leaf lies on street stones, so wet that it seems to have melted into the street. Only the ghost of the leaf is visible, having assimilated with the stones. In Ishimoto's photograph, there is no street without the leaf, and the leaf does not exist as its own entity. As the cities are co-habitations of people and buildings, the leaf and the stony street combine tocreate a new entity, and the accumulation of history and experience piles upon itself — a transposition of time and a layering of the past. If the leaves then represent all the natural things that have come before and since the man-made structures, Ishimoto's images of footprints in the snow implicate us all in his cyclical history. The slushy footprints become pathways, and like the leaf, they become consumed by the ground, so that they are the pathways of all the people who have treaded there before. The street does not exist without the traces of the lives led upon them. These lives have no place to be lived but on the streets and within the walls they create. The dynamics between the two create a unique push-and-pull relationship between men and walls, and eventually, the two become almost inseparable. •
Chas Bowie is a writer and artist living in Houston.