I walk. As I walk, the field of vision before me changes from moment to moment. My two eyeballs rapidly rotate, constantly registering the surroundings. Yet there is no change, no jump in my sight; all lights are smoothly connected. This smooth change that persists throughout my walk is accompanied by a sense of assurance that I am alive. While walking, I find a deep satisfaction in it.
Generally speaking, two kinds of thing exist in my field of vision: tatemono — buildings, or, literally translated, “things that are standing” — and “lying things.” The things that are standing frontally resist my vision while I walk. Most of them stand vertically, rising up from the ground. They include street signs, trees, other humans walking upright, and animals, as well as fences, walls and pillars, houses and buildings, forests and cliffs, hills and mountains, and thunderclouds towering against the sky.
In contrast, the things that are lying down — horizontal things — encompass floors and corridors, grounds and streets, and railroad tracks, as well as sporting fields and airport runways, the surfaces of deserts and great rivers, and the expanse of oceans. They do not resist my vision.
Standing things emerge as I walk. Gradually changing their shapes and sizes, they resist my vision. It is mostly those things that I photograph. I simply press the shutter when I feel I receive some sort of sign from them or when I sense the camera’s frame is filled. That is all there is to it. I have kept at such trivial acts for the past 35 years.
For persons like me who have become accustomed to this kind of behavior, architecture is a truly interesting visual object (or subject) that offers enough excitement and pleasure. I don’t know any other subject that is more complex or richer than architecture among those things rising vertically from the ground and posing a frontal resistance to my vision. In some cases, the architects’ intentions behind their designs may manifest themselves as photographic charms. In other cases, I can palpably feel that form follows function. In yet other cases, I may discover details that relate to history. Above all, it is thrilling and enjoyable to be able to change the balance between the walls and the depth and thereby modify the filled quotient of the frame, by merely shifting the position of my camera by a few centimeters.
The camera constitutes a closed internal space in relation to an open external space. As its etymology indicates, it is a small “room,” which has a window. In earlier times, this window was a mere opening, but a piece of glass called a lens was subsequently embedded into it. Suppose we put this small room on a tripod and look at the whole thing from the outside. What then do we have? Doesn’t it look like a small room or a “shed” with a window? Nobody objects if I characterize a shed as a type of architecture. If so, taking a photograph of architecture by using a camera is tantamount to placing a small architecture against another large architecture and having the small one swallow the larger one.
One architectural element faces another that will swallow its light; they echo each other’s structure.
Nowadays, it is rare to see a large-format camera with bellows, but in the old days, any photographer of architecture would use it. This type of camera allows “camera movements,” called aori in Japanese, wherein the lens plane and the film plane can be independently shifted up/down and left/right or tilted out of parallel with each other. These movements prevent the depth of field from being distorted, or the upper part of a structure from being excessively tapered off, when it is looked up at from below.
It is not pleasant to see an architectural photograph whose horizontal or vertical line is out of alignment. Not just because the architecture seems tilted, but also because our own room — that is, the camera — feels tilted. Today, all perspective control in photography can be done digitally through computer software. However, back in the days when the control could only be achieved through the manipulation of the camera, the camera had to be carefully placed on the tripod on the exact level — just as architecture must be watchfully constructed with exact horizontal-vertical coordinates.
A photographer stands in front of architecture: a building. He erects a tripod on the ground, and places his small “building” on it. One architectural element — the object of the photograph — faces another architectural element that will swallow its light; they echo each other’s structure. First and foremost, the photographer’s task must begin with deliberately listening to this echo.
In photographing “horizontal things,” a few techniques help us avoid turning them into mere triangular planes. For example, we may raise the viewpoint (by climbing on a high tower or flying over), or we may eliminate the sky above the field of vision. Through these manipulations, the horizontal things will rise and resist our vision. It then becomes possible to photograph “things that are lying down” as much as “things that are standing.”
It is important in my photography to discuss “standing things” and “lying things” that can be made to stand up. But why? One reason seems to be the changes in the modes of circulation and presentation that took place during my career.
Until the mid-1970s, the word photography conjured up photojournalism, reportage photos, and advertisement photos. Photographers at the time elected to present their works primarily through print media. However, thereafter, partly because museums and art galleries started actively exhibiting and collecting photography, photographers increasingly began to create their works primarily for exhibition. For the purposes of exhibition, a photographic print may be framed, if necessary, and placed on the vertical interior wall, to be seen horizontally by the viewer. Simply put, through this scheme, a photograph is turned into a work of art to be viewed and considered aesthetically.
It is important in my photography to discuss ‘standing things’ and ‘lying things’ that can be made to stand up.
As a result, photography has become inseparable from spatial and gravitational issues that encompass such architectural elements as the floor, walls, ceiling, and lighting of a gallery, as well as the body of the viewer and the scale of a print. In addition to being an image, photography becomes self-conscious of its status as an object that occupies a certain place in space. Consequently, some contemporary photographers, especially those of us who focus on architecture and the urbanscape, even if unconsciously, tend to conceptualize photography as “works on the wall,” that is, “standing things.” In this sense, photography once again assumes the state of painting, although, unlike the Pictorialism of the past that imitated the quality of paintbrush strokes, it simulates the format of a traditional easel painting that hangs on the wall.
I see the history of late-modernist painting resonating in the kind of recent photography in which horizontal things rise up — shot from the sky or framed with the sky eliminated. In the mid-20th century, Jackson Pollock created his paintings on the floor. That is to say, the horizontal things in his studio rose up onto the gallery walls. Therein his actions were revealed, or at least an illusion of dimensional changes, not only in such details as lines and colors, but also in the entire picture plane, together with a certain physicality. The all-over character of his centerless picture is reminiscent of the appearance resulting from the framing of such horizontal things as the surface of the Earth or the ocean with the camera’s eye, as exemplified in aerial photographs.
Architecture is a tatemono — a standing thing. The camera is a standing thing. Photography is a standing thing. “Architectural photography” undertaken with a clear understanding of the relationship among these three must incorporate the reality of late modernism.
When we examine the relationship between a photographer and architecture, there is one more thing to take into consideration, other than things that stand and things that lie down. Namely, “holes.”
I began to think frequently about holes some ten years ago, when I photographed the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan, designed by Tadao Andō. Recently, I had an opportunity to photograph the National Taichung Theater in Taiwan, designed by Toyo Ito and completed in 2016. Since then, the idea of holes has stayed with me all the time.
This theater in the city of Taichung has a structure unprecedented in the history of architecture; it may be called the “architecture of holes.” The floor of each story rises in curves, turning into the wall, which then arcs up to become the ceiling. It feels like its chambers, large or small, are continuously connected to each other with a membrane of the same thickness, like a foamy mass of soap bubbles. While inside, we may feel as though we are standing in a cave. But we also feel like we’re floating in the air, as we imagine the floor on which we stand curving down and becoming the ceiling one story below. Are we inside or outside?
Each chamber is assigned a function — for example, theater, restaurant, and shop — but no hierarchy exists among the chambers, just as there is no hierarchy among foaming soap bubbles. This amorphous feeling leads to an atmosphere in which we can equally enjoy theater, dining, and shopping, while engendering a sense of unity for the building.
A hole is a horizontal depression made in a standing thing or a vertical (downward) depression made in a lying thing. In some instances, a hole may be completely hollow, reaching to the other end. Caves, tunnels, manholes, craters. Certainly, these holes consist of two kinds of surface, standing things and lying things. Yet the essence of holes does not lie in these surfaces. The empty space surrounded by these surfaces, or the void therein, is what we call a hole.
At the National Taichung Theater, I constantly felt that I was in a hole while photographing. This building has only insides. Beyond any wall or floor exists not an outside but another inside. This relationship repeats unendingly — until the required capacity is met and it ends abruptly, as though being cut short by a knife. The resulting slice or facet reveals the trace of membranes, making me think of a living body whose movement is forcibly cut short. It also keeps me from applying the conventional architectural term facade to this facet.
Rather than seeing architecture as mere ‘buildings,’ we must reimagine that architecture is built in order to create holes.
Holes are like valleys formed by mountains. They are made by things but are not things themselves, representing the absence of things. What I feel as an actuality of being “inside a hole” is an indescribable sensation brought about by not vision alone but all the five senses. This sensation cannot be captured if one sees the Taichung theater as a mere “standing thing” or an “interesting visual object” — that is, a building. Indeed, at the National Taichung Theater, I often felt helpless because I found that what my camera captured was totally dissociated from the actuality of this architecture.
Speaking of which, I recall that among the earliest human abodes were holes under cliffs. In these holes, people took refuge from the rain and the cold, made fire, conversed, and managed their households. Holes were surely “space” in themselves that prompted humans to act. Accordingly, architecture was supposed to be an act of erecting something in order to create such space artificially. Rather than seeing architecture as mere “buildings,” we must reimagine that architecture is built in order to create holes.
Now, I see my camera atop a tripod again. I imagine it not as a “shed with a window” but envision its interior space as a dark hole.
In the 19th century, when the camera obscura was made into a photographic apparatus called the camera, it required new mechanisms. The inside of the traditional camera obscura is certainly “obscure” (dark), but not completely so, with some light seeping in from the lens. However, with the modern camera, it becomes necessary to keep any light from reaching the interior; after installing photosensitive material, the camera’s inside must be kept completely dark while a photographer carries it to an appropriate location and waits for a suitable timing. Thus, the modern camera is equipped with a shutter.
Light and space certainly exist and we surely sense them. Yet it is difficult to extract them alone and show them to others.
In the early cameras, the shutter was no more than a lid that covered the lens. Taking a photograph meant removing this lid at a certain location and a certain moment in order to let a necessary amount of light into the camera. Subsequently, the advance of photosensitive materials was accompanied by substantial changes in the shape and position of the shutter. Still, its function is the same: to shut out the light, except for the moment of taking a photograph.
When the shutter is released, light passes through the dark hole and creates an image on the rear wall. Still, the light that passes through the hole is invisible to our eye; the light only becomes visible when it hits something. In his drama Faust, Goethe had the Devil, Mephistopheles, say:
That supercilious light which lately durst
Dispute her ancient rank and realm to Mother Night;
And yet to no avail, for strive as it may,
It cleaves in bondage to corporeal clay.
It streams from bodies, bodies it lends sheen,
A body can impede its thrust,
And so it should not be too long, I trust,
Before with bodies it departs the scene. 1
Light is in bondage to things. If these words in Faust are correct, then it may follow that an image engendered by light is also in bondage to things, as is the photography that deploys light to record this image. It seems similar to the fact that holes as architectural space can only be formed in relation to walls and floors. Will I be wrong if I say, after Mephistopheles, “Space is in bondage to things”?
Light and space certainly exist and we surely sense them. Yet it is difficult to extract them alone and show them to others. Light is the reason that a photograph can be taken and, more fundamentally, that things are visible to our eyes. Likewise, space reveals the very fact that we are moving — that is, we are alive.
We need the body to receive light and space. True enough. Yet I don’t want to call it bondage à la Mephistopheles. Even if photography can handle merely things, if we apply to it a human device that is art — even though the result is illusory — we should be able to communicate with each other. It should become possible to discuss a new light, a new space. This does not constitute “bondage.” It constitutes some kind of “release” — that is, freedom.
I walk. As usual, there are things in the field of vision before me. As I walk, they change in size and shape. Light and space, as sensation, not only exists before me, but also envelops me, moves me, and makes me happy. Then, important faces and words suddenly come back to me from the past. I put my camera on a tripod, direct the lens toward a thing, and think, “There are so many things in the world that cannot be photographed.” Yet I release the shutter, because if I didn’t take a photograph, I would not have known this very fact. Photography is like a ship carrying light and space and heading toward the future.