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Naoya Hatakeyama's camera views humanity's reshaping of nature

A photographer with a fascination for altered landscapes receives an exhibition, 'Natural Stories,' at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

September 02, 2012|By Liesl Bradner
  • A 1990 image from Naoya Hatakeyama's "Lime Hills" series.
A 1990 image from Naoya Hatakeyama's "Lime Hills" series. (Naoya Hatakeyama, Tokyo…)

Naoya Hatakeyama, well known in Japan for his large-scale photographs of man's impact on natural settings, can trace his fascination with altered landscapes to his childhood growing up around limestone quarries in the town of Rikuzentakata, where his father worked in a cement factory.

"He is drawn to places in flux, where some sort of industrial situation is happening," noted Lisa Sutcliffe, assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where Hatakeyama's first solo exhibition in the U.S., "Natural Stories," runs through Nov. 4. Organized in conjunction with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the photos span his career during the last three decades.

Hatakeyama, 54, studied at the School of Art and Design and at the University of Tsukuba before undertaking his first series, "Lime Hills." The striking, bold images of dug-out mountains make it tough to look past the beauty to the intrusion.

"I try to create works which need no explanations, no stories, no words," he said in an email from the Venice Biennale, where he was installing a large 360-degree mural panorama for the Japanese pavilion. "I believe the work can be independent and mysterious but also attractive."

"He makes us reconsider our perceptions," said Sutcliffe of certain images that draw on the tradition of 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. "He's not political, he's thinking about the sublime."

The "Blast" series evolved from his numerous quarry visits across Japan. Hatakeyama spent a great deal of time with engineers at the locations, and every day there'd be one or two moments when the engineers would have to clear out to dynamite the cliffs to free the limestone. He started to think about how violent the process was and wanted to capture it all on film. He worked with the engineers to determine exactly how close he could place his camera to the explosion without its being hit. Hatakeyama was impressed by how the engineers knew exactly where the rock would break. He used a motor drive and remote control to start the sequence of pictures.

"He wasn't interested in using a telephoto lens, he wanted to give us the experience of being in the moment so close to this powerful event," said Sutcliffe.

For his series "Ciel Tombé," Hatakeyama traveled to France in 2007 to explore and capture the tunnels, catacombs and fallen ceilings of old quarries beneath the Forest of Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. The 2003 "Atmos" series documents the vapors and ethereal steam clouds emanating from Camargue's steel plant set against the serene French countryside.

It's sadly ironic that Hatakeyama's most extraordinary and personal photographs are not of man's doing but of nature's wrath. "Rikuzentakata" is a collection of photographs of the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which wiped out his entire hometown and killed his mother.

On a facing wall is a digital slide show of 60 contrasting photographs he took of his hometown 10 years before the catastrophe. "It's not just homes that were lost," said Sutcliffe, "but a sense of community and personal memories."

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