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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

A fractured state of photography

June 30, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

The principal theme in Masumi Hayashi's exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum -- spelled out repeatedly in the brochure and wall texts in case you happen to miss it in the work -- is the deceptive relationship between appearance and reality.

A long-standing preoccupation of photography in general, the issue emerges here primarily in Hayashi's choice of subjects: landscapes that appear benign, even picturesque, but are, in fact, freighted with great political, social or spiritual meaning. In an early series, dating from around 1990, she documents bucolic but invisibly toxic EPA Superfund sites. In another, which makes up the largest portion of the show, titled "Sights Unseen," she explores the all-but-disintegrated remains of Japanese American and Japanese Canadian WWII internment camps. In the most recent work, she looks at a variety of sacred sites in Japan and India.

Hayashi's technique involves taking dozens of photographs along several horizontal axes -- rotating the camera laterally on a tripod -- then assembling them to produce large, panoramic collages encompassing anywhere from 100 to 540 degrees of a particular view. The resulting images are spatially coherent but appear strangely warped and distorted, like a piece of plastic that's been left in a hot car.

The technique is promising but sadly short of illuminating. If, as the brochure asserts, Hayashi's approach underscores the insufficiency of a single photograph to capture complex experiences and realities, it inadvertently reveals similar limitations in the use of many, suggesting that the problem is not necessarily the number. Simply shifting the visual parameters by which one approaches a subject -- from one- to multi-point perspective, from a single print to many -- only goes so far in addressing the genuine inadequacies of the medium, and thus in broaching the gulf between what appears and what is.

On a purely aesthetic level, the works are notably constrained by their reliance on the snapshot as a basic unit. Since many of the compositions are extremely compelling -- with their bulging and receding planes, their splintering fragments of form and their wide, fractured skies -- their general adherence to a rectangular grid structure, with each component roughly equivalent in size, seems unnecessarily restrictive.

The prints, furthermore, have the nondescript texture that one might expect from a good one-hour photo lab but which is less than dazzling here, and a color spectrum that, while occasionally striking, never quite reaches a satisfying crescendo.

A similar lack of audacity characterizes Hayashi's approach to landscape. Although the use of collage does generate an intriguing degree of distortion -- the scattering of autumn leaves across a flat blue sky, the bending of walls into massive, crumbling arcs, the cathedral-like vaulting of an old root cellar's ceiling beams -- the artist seems unwilling to let go of spatial reality, which leaves the images feeling neither objectively reliable nor subjectively expressive, and thus weirdly neutral.

There is clearly a political edge to Hayashi's presentation of these spaces. The fact that she was born in one of the internment camps she profiles certainly lends a gravity to that series, as does the CD she's included of poignant (if awkwardly abridged) oral accounts by former residents. In her apparent reluctance to make an overt statement, however, she relies too heavily on the landscape to speak for itself, thus leaving that appearance/reality dichotomy essentially unchallenged.

The real impact of the work comes not from the dynamics of the images but from one's historical understanding of the places documented, which prompts one to wonder why the elaborate collage technique was necessary.

The inevitable comparison here is with the photographic work of David Hockney, which is characterized, in contrast, by an almost reckless sense of subjectivity. Hockney treats the surface of the photograph less as a reflection than a fragment of reality, from which one just might, with enough twisting, stretching and reshuffling, obtain some fragment of truth. While formally clever, the best of his collages are also suffused with human emotions and say a great deal about what it means to be in the world.

Hayashi approaches this more expressive mode in five portraits that are included among the show's landscapes. The artist strays from her rigid grid structure, forming asymmetrical blocks of images rather than rectangles, and experiments somewhat with spatial dynamics. The tone of these works is blandly benign -- the subjects are all World War II-generation Japanese Americans whom Hayashi clearly intends to honor with the work -- but they do capture charming flickers of character. Particularly memorable are the three gracious expressions Hayashi secures from artist Mine Okubo as she huddles beneath a lavender umbrella in the rain.

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