Jesse’s Book Review – Katsura by Yasuhiro Ishimoto
Jesse has been discovering all sorts of interesting books lately. This time he pours over the work of Yasuhiro Ishimoto. Check it out.
Katsura is one of those books that was on my Amazon wish list for ever and over the years has tripled in value and is now out print. Realizing the impossibility of myself purchasing this book has now become quite dim, so I decided to check it out and review at the TOP Museum’s library in Tokyo.

This project came about quite as fluke. Ishimoto was a student at the Chicago Institute of Design (a school whose precursor was the New Bauhaus) where he was given a letter of introduction to Edward Steichan who was working on the now historic photo exhibit “The Family of Man” at MoMA. Steichan selected two of his photographs for the exhibition then requested some more from Japan while at the same time loosely mentioning a Japanese architectural project.
Skipping ahead, Ishimoto became enamored by the Katsura Imperial Village and shot some early photos that caught the eye of a architectural critic who introduced him to the likes of Kenzo Tange and was published in both the US and Japan under respective publishers.

From his other books like Chicago, Chicago, you will notice that Yasuhiro Ishimoto is primarily a Leica (i.e. 35mm) photographer. This project when compared is a bit of an outlier using 4×5 Linhof, which is easy to understand when considering the nature of this project and its results. The emphasis on line and texture could have only been fully expressed in this format in 1953 when it was shot. For a bit of additional camera information (for the geeks out there) he only used a 90mm, 120mm, and 210mm.

Immediately, you will notice the approach the photographer applies to Katsura after the first several pages. When shooting such a project, a photographer would typically shoot the building, the garden from within the building, and then finally the garden as this would be the understood order of importance. Ishimoto reverses this process shooting the garden, the building, and then the garden from the building which comes off more natural because this is the way we would experience as if we were entering Katsura ourselves.
Then from there, there is a meticulous capturing of details to where we don’t even reach the building till a third of the way though…that has the literal effect of building our anticipation.

The details then build off the editing. The nuances of the stone paths being slightly asymmetrical to the textural comparisons of the stone and moss. The nothingness of the rooms to the frame within frame compositions created by the gateways in the gardens. His ability to capture what few can even perceive is touching.
Myself, being classically trained in ikebana, developed an acute sensitivity to space, line, and form and so often I look at photos, I cant help but feel, “oh if this was a mm over to the right, then the reflection of this tree wouldn’t touch that rock in the water etc.…” and with each photo everything is in its perfect space…obsessive compulsively. And all of this is in the context of ancient Japanese architecture, a subject that living in Japan your social media gets jammed with. Weekly it is a barrage of the same shots of similar looking temples from similar angles and he makes this fresh despite doing it a half century ago.

When speaking on classic Japanese architecture (and I know I have mentioned it in other reviews for JCH) Tanazaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows becomes mentioned. I actually was reminded of this book (as it had falling to page 4 on my Amazon wish list) through someone’s Instagram that likened the beauty of Ishimoto’s photos to Tanazaki’s aesthetic…which is incorrect and makes up the only angle I think this subject could be improved upon.
For those unfamiliar, Tanazaki’s book explores the importance of dimly lit interiors to suggest more. Then he goes through all the things in the house down to the dark lacquer bowls that support this idea. All the interiors in Katsura are shot during the day (obviously to show the details) but do nothing to support Tanazaki’s concept.
With digital ISOs as they are it would be interesting to see these interior captured by candle light working in Tanazaki’s concept…something that it isn’t too farfetched since the photographer was already asked to reshoot Katsura in color to fully utilize modern technology. Wouldn’t this then be logically the next step?

Such an amazing work. I don’t think one even has to be into architecture to appreciate this as the plays on line and texture are enough to please most. The interior shots are almost surreal because of the precision of the lines. This book has been reprinted several times with alternating prefaces that has had everyone from Walter Gropius to Arata Isozaki. Because of this I would choose your version according to the editorial design and/or preface though the prefaces can easily be Googled. Check it out!

Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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