“Hiroshi Osaka:

Atmospheric Landscape”

At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to Dec. 1

Hiroshi Osaka photographs Japanese landscapes in a panoramic format that suggests East Asian scroll paintings and in a style that, if not exactly austere, is at least devoid of color. So it would seem reasonable to assert—as does a brief statement from the Kathleen Ewing Gallery—that Osaka’s prints are “reminiscent of traditional Japanese paintings.” Yet in some significant ways, the 18 images on display at the gallery are not very Japanese, or at least not very traditional.

It could be argued, of course, that Japan itself is no longer very Japanese; such major cities as Tokyo and the artist’s namesake have little patience for delicacy and understatement. But the richly detailed pictures in this exhibition have nothing to do with the speedy, syncretistic culture that has developed in urban Japan since World War II. They depict a world almost untouched by humankind, an untrammeled nature that some people would be surprised to learn still exists in a country where highways, dams, tunnels, and canals—built partially in a dubious attempt to stimulate the economy—have scarred so much of the landscape. These photos (identified only by number) include just one bit of evidence of human existence: a boat that can be glimpsed in the left midground of #33.

This absence isn’t very Japanese, either. Or rather it isn’t very Chinese—China is the original source of Japanese painting. Frequently, a Chinese scroll landscape will include a small hut or smaller figure, often a reclusive monk, to provide a human presence. The classic Chinese style of landscape painting—rendered in loose, monochromatic brushwork—was widely emulated in Japan. In the Muromachi period (1338-1573), Japanese artists stripped the genre to the essentials, suggesting expansive views with only a few squiggles and splashes of ink.

Several centuries later, a new form of landscape art developed in Japan as part of ukiyo-e, the “pictures of the floating world” that are the country’s best-known visual tradition. Designed not for monks or poets but for a burgeoning new middle class, these prints were crowded with human activity and handiwork. Bridges, boats, buildings, and umbrellas competed colorfully with—and often framed—the scenery. In Katsushika Hokusai’s famed series of prints, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Japan’s sacred mountain is an omnipresent but distant landmark, not the centerpiece.

This is the way nature has long been presented in Japan: through framed vistas of unreachable scenery, along carefully manicured trails, and in tiny tsubo-niwa, the “gardens in a bottle” that can hide in both public and private courtyards. Osaka works in a very different tradition, one of mighty peaks, extraordinary weather, and vast panoramas. The horizontal sweep of his photographs recalls the enthusiasm of Japanese film directors such as Kurosawa, Ichikawa, and Oshima for widescreen composition (which has also been linked to the scroll-painting tradition). But the dramatic lighting, epic subjects, and metallic sheen of Osaka’s prints bring to mind Ansel Adams sooner than any film director—except perhaps Cecil B. DeMille, who would have appreciated the impossibly enchanted #33, in which fairy-tale mists swirl around a handful of swans that stand or swim in a glittering lake before a mountainous backdrop. This photo, which is both the show’s most beautiful and most brazen image, is half Zen, half Pre-Raphaelite.

None of the other pictures are as voluptuously romantic as that one, but they’re all grand in a way that traditional Japanese art is not. Osaka plays by some of the rules of wabi, the Japanese aesthetic principle that favors rough, humble, and unfinished work: He uses a handmade camera and makes his own prints on hand-toned paper, thus establishing himself as a simple craftsman who knows and respects his tools. He often locates simple objects—rocks, bare trees, aquatic grasses—in the foreground, thus framing the great amid the small. And he seeks to capture what the gallery calls the “decisive moment” of natural radiance, thus emphasizing the transience of beauty—and life. (Not every one of these photographs freezes a single instant, however: The streaks of moon and stars in #25 indicate that it’s a time exposure.)

The epic locations and vivid incandescence—it seems always to be dawn or twilight in Osaka’s pictures—evoke not only Adams but also his pre-photographic predecessors, jumbo-canvas painters such as Albert Bierstadt. Yet those artists were explorers, tour guides, and even real estate agents for the American West: They named the spots they memorialized, implicitly encouraging others to follow. (Indeed, subsequent artists have often attempted to set up their easels or tripods in the exact locations of their predecessors’.) Osaka, however, keeps his sites incognito. A stirring scene such as #20 is only, well, #20.

Perhaps this is to protect his sources of inspiration. After all, no famous spot in Japan can long exist without attracting banks of vending machines and rows of food and souvenir stalls. And the country’s infamous Construction Ministry would probably build scenic overlooks at the photographer’s locations if it could identify them. Only one thing prevents snowy mountain scenes such as #5, #7, or #15 from being color postcards: They’re not in color.

Osaka’s pictures don’t look like potential guidebook discoveries, though. They seem to depict territory that only the photographer could ever find again, that he, in a sense, has actually invented. With its exacting composition and exquisite indirect lighting, an image such as #29—a tree, a lake, a complement of rocks—suggests a ready-made Zen garden, or even a piece of elegant exterior decoration. Osaka designs tsubo-niwa as big as all outdoors.

Occasionally, Osaka upsets his own formula. #27 is a snarl of trunks and leafless branches, all but obscuring the gauzy light behind them. Neatly bisected by a tree, #26 has a dim foreground and a bright background. More typical, though, is #1, with its heroic alpine setting, CinemaScope aspect ratio, and clouds-in-my-coffee sky. Stark yet luxurious, organic yet stagey, it’s the vision of a minimalist whose work is a little much. CP