VISUAL VOICES: AN INTERVIEW WITH Michael k. yamaoka

Behind the Lens: The Artist's Voice...

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MICHAEL K. YAMAOKA was born in Japan, and studied at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was the first Japanese student to receive a photography degree from Art Center College of Design in California, and came to New York in the late sixties to begin his career as a commercial photographer.  He has since exhibited in one-man shows in New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, and in many cities in Germany, to great critical acclaim, and also at the German Consulate in New York in 2007. In 2008, he was honored when I.M. Pei requested one of his photographs for his personal collection. Michael continues to exhibit his fine art photography in galleries and institutions in New York and worldwide. Art Productions had the pleasure and honor to speak with the fine artist directly, gaining great insight into the photographer's process and visual voice. 

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The Origins of An Artist

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Growing up in Japan after WWII, it was a mess. My family was from a very old samurai tradition but we’d been living in China during the war because of my father’s profession. I had spent my very earliest childhood years in Shanghai, and remember seeing B-24s attack and demolish a building right across the street from where I lived. Soon after that we escaped to the countryside, and I became acquainted with Russian army personnel stationed there in Talien, due to my mother’s ability to speak Russian. When we came back to Japan at the end of the war, we were living in poverty—there was a lack of food, and everything was in ruins in many parts of Japan, especially in Tokyo. I think these early experiences made an indelible impression on me. 


Since I was tiny, I’ve loved art and drawing—flowers, birds, scenery, and people... that was my interest as a child. After I grew up, with the encouragement of my brother-in-law, I went to Los Angeles to study photography at Art Center College of Design, where I was the first student from Japan to graduate from the Photography department. This was my first big chance to explore the world and begin creating my future. I became a commercial photographer in Manhattan, where I met many good people who had a positive influence on my career. Among the earliest was an art director, Lou Figliola, who encouraged me to get out of the studio where I was the staff photographer at BBD&O, one of the premier ad agencies at the time, and explore Manhattan. He would almost kick me out at lunchtime, or whenever we had downtime—“go out and explore,” he’d tell me, so I did. I shot any subject in those days. Whenever I had a chance I grabbed my camera and walked around shooting NYC. Eventually I built up quite a body of personal work. 

I passed many years as a commercial photographer with my own studio, shooting for many of the Fortune 500 companies, enjoying my career and family life with my wife Audrey and two daughters, Natasha and Tiffany, who both grew up and went on to college at Johns Hopkins and my son, Kenneth, who attended Yale. 


I became a producer, creating a NYT special insert for the Tokyo/ NY Sister Cities program, and as an international businessman, acted as a liaison between Japanese and American companies, traveling the world, and shooting all the time. I had great clients, and won awards and recognition—including a Clio in 1983 for the Takasago Perfumery Calendar. 


Then, tragedy struck, and I entered the darkest period of my life.

In 1997 I lost my son in an automobile accident, and I felt as if I’d lost everything. I had no interest in doing commercial work anymore. I spent months going over all my old photographs, and decided to collect them and create a book in my son’s memory. Samuel Antupit, the Creative VP of the art book publisher Harry Abrams and a Pushpin Studio alumnus, was a mentor of my associate, and he graciously volunteered to write the introduction! I was thrilled, and we proceeded to publish the book, Odyssey—a 35 Year Photographic Journey, which helped nudge me back into the world.

What are the core and fundamental themes and concepts of your art?

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    I cry when I see the ruins that result from water, climate, time, or war...it’s heartache for me. I hope that we can keep the beautiful places of the world unspoiled, the beautiful scenery of nature, like the fjords of Norway—we need to protect them, and not spoil them through hate or our demands for instant gratification. We need to take care of them, and I’m trying to preserve the image of that beauty in my photography. I’m so aware of this because of the conditions I grew up in—my country was a mess, and I grew up in a tough time, but we never lost hope, or pride, or our family ties. As a result, I really feel for countries that are suffering and fighting poverty. But growing up in Japan, I also understood where art and sculpture came from. 


I wish I could influence humans to live up to their potential in the world, and I’d like to give the viewer a chance to go deeper and think more deeply about a subject rather than just looking at my work and seeing a pleasing image. In my photograph of a woman with a seagull, for instance, the title of the piece and the language came to me because it reminded me of when I was a young man in Japan, and heard the voice on the radio of the Russian woman astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, whose call sign was “Ya Chayka”—“I am a Seagull”. Another example is my image “Hope/Survival”, that shows a young woman about to climb a vine, which I think of as symbolically portraying women striving to claim their place in the world. I hope I can communicate some of this to the viewer. 


One of the things I look for is the “sublime,” a crystallization of light and subject. I know what I’m looking for, yet I’m still transfixed when I encounter it. In Venice, for example, the first couple of days I was there, I couldn’t stop clicking—the water, the old buildings, the reflections; all my life I’d been looking for a subject like Venice. I got a shock, visually—there were so many subjects, I couldn’t even be selective, because everywhere you looked—every camera angle—there was beauty. The same held true in Greece and Egypt—and the fjords of Norway, yet another example. There were ruins and nature all mixed together –the transient and the sublime. Sometimes you hit an unbelievable moment you never expect, so I continue to travel and shoot. 

How closely do these ideas relate to your creative process and the actual act of creating the art itself?

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  Roughly 5 years ago I began combining other objects and figures with these backgrounds. I wanted to combine imagery of beautiful women with depictions of time and ruin, to relate these locations to human beings. I intended the women to represent goddess figures, and suggest stories from mythology. This new direction came about gradually through collaboration with my long-term creative associate, art director Janet Doyle. From my travels I bring home the backgrounds, and later shoot the human element, since I’ll never have to chance to go back to the locations later with a model. I carefully calculate the angles and lighting to match in both locations so everything looks natural when the figure is added later. So these new images are a combination of the places I’ve been, where I’m inspired by feelings of solitude and solace, my philosophy from my ancestry and where I grew up, and some technical magic.


Way back in 1966 while I was working at BBD&O, I had already begun experimenting with adding the human figure to my work. In those days, before the invention of Photoshop, it was all done in the camera with a blue matte and double and triple exposures on one piece of film using large-format view cameras. So I already had the idea in the back of my mind when I began traveling the world and creating my “Wall” series, that someday I would return to my early figure themes and incorporate them into the backgrounds that I’d been shooting all along.


Wherever I traveled, I searched for this theme; from Greece to Morocco, to Moscow, Egypt, Rome, London, Portugal, China, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Japan. The full list of my travels to visit and shoot also includes Alaska, the Greek Islands of Santorini and Mykonos, the West Indies, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Azores! It even amazes me, sometimes! 

What are your primary influences- artists, designers, creators (past or present) are you inspired and influenced by?

 As a young man in Japan I had been very influenced by the writings of Baudelaire—I remember studying his philosophy, which was similar to my own way of thinking, coming from a Zen Buddhist family background and experiencing a world in ruins as a youngster. I feel there are parallels in my work, where there is an element of contingency and the accidental juxtaposition of things—those lucky chances. I shoot what’s already there, but maybe all broken up and in ruins. Everything is eventually destroyed by war, age, time. All is really impermanence and decay, as Baudelaire saw it. So my images of old buildings, peeling paint, and crumbling walls show my attitude—what I believe is what I shoot. I managed to accumulate many shots over the course of my travels…and many of them are of the remains of the ancient world.


In the early days in my New York studio, I admired the graphic advertising works of photographers like Art Kane, Bert Stern, Richard Avedon, and Pete Turner, and artists like Peter Max. After I closed the studio and decided to continue with my work as a fine arts photographer, it was with a new direction; I paid respect to the California landscape photographers like Ansel Adams, and the philosophy of Toyo Miyatake, who was famous in the Japanese community. But what I chose to shoot were old monuments and ruins in closeup. I wanted to portray transience. And I was inspired by the spirit of my son, who loved birds, especially raptors—so I, too, decided to “soar” in a different direction in my life and work. 

Which of your work/works stands out as a highlight, a favorite, or a significant point in your creative growth and development? and why?

    

When I think about my work as a whole there are certain pictures that stand out time and again as favorites of mine. They are all turning points of some kind. One of my earliest was the reflection of the Empire State Building in a puddle. It’s a New York cliché, but it’s a totally unexpected viewpoint. Another turning point in my latest series is “By a Roman Wall”.



 That image was the first time that I feel the combination transcended the individual elements with a feeling of mystery and also references to mythology, with all those little windows. 


Then there’s “Benediction/Malediction”—a foray into the totally surreal as an experiment with New York as the setting. Finally, “Spirit of the West” was a combination of a very old image of haystacks I took many years ago at a friend’s ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a still life I did recently, again with a surrealistic touch. 

An artist of powerful creative voice and message, what do you wish to communicate to your audience?

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I love my adopted country and I try to show my appreciation through my art, combining the past and the present. I’m one of the luckiest humans to be able to travel anywhere in the world, where I can challenge myself. Thanks to my family who make it possible for me, as long as I live I will keep trying. I appreciate every single day, and I try to be humble. For inspiration, I go to museums and I read books to enhance my travel experiences. Every day you have to have some inspiration. There’s no limit to inspiration, but my own limitations set me back sometimes. 


Another thing that inspires me is music. Whenever I hear music such as a symphony, I see the whole world and its history, and whenever I’m shooting I hear music in my head that fits the location—in Norway, I was “hearing” Solveig’s Song, in Germany, Beethoven and Schubert, and in Austria, Mozart. Many of the scenes I shoot are inspired by music, and give me the same sort of feeling as hearing music, so many of my images wind up having musical titles. 


Meeting and talking to people from other parts of the world has given me other windows on life. And on hearing people’s thoughts—especially when they relate to images from their home countries, as they did at my solo shows at the United Nations and the German Consulate as well as shows in Japan and Germany—I often learn details about the locations that I didn’t know before! And of course, I owe a great debt to many other people who have helped and encouraged me along the way, including Alan Peckolick, another Pushpin studio alumnus, who sponsored me as a member of my first gallery in New York, my dear friend Christl Pelikan Geismann who enabled me to stage many exhibitions in Germany, plus many other friends who helped arrange exhibitions at a number of other locales in Japan and New York.

Creatively, professionally and in all aspects of being an artist, what are your goals for your upcoming works and art?

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There are still places I hope to visit and shoot and images I’ve wanted to create for a very long time. and I’d also love to explore some traditional locales in Africa while I still have my energy! I still have so much to do, to create...and to experiment with! New techniques, new materials to print on, new horizons...and new inspirations to share, my vision of the world.

You touched on what is integral to your work as an artist- can you elaborate further on how has your practice changed over time in relation to this?

    

As I had the opportunity to talk with more people over the years, I’d sometimes hear comments that gave me a deeper insight into what others were getting out of my pictures. For instance, someone might mention a visual motif I was using—like a window—that would cause me to reflect more deeply on its meaning or symbolism, and I’d incorporate it again in new work, but maybe with a twist. It wouldn’t necessarily change my basic visual vocabulary, but I would explore or expand on something I was already interested in. And sometimes I’ve gone back and changed an image a couple of years later. I don’t think my work has to be static—it can change as my philosophy develops. 

What has been your scariest experience as a creative?

    

In 1983 I was shooting with my assistant on the pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge on assignment for the Takasago Perfumery Calendar when I was approached by a group of five young thugs, who surrounded me. I could see the leaders eyes, that were cold and dead like a snake’s. He attacked without warning, with the intent to steal my cameras, but without even thinking, my years of martial arts training kicked in and I fought back. The other gang members jumped in. I told them, “You might take me, but I’ll take two of you with me!” The savage fight lasted less than a minute, but the commotion attracted the attention of other bystanders. The defeated thugs split up and staggered off, though I strongly suspect two of them will never walk again without pain. I myself got 46 stitches—but I kept my cameras! 

What wouldnít you do without (creatively)?

    

Nowadays, I confess it would be very difficult to get along without Photoshop! And the skill of my technical help.... When I first started making composite images, I used a large-format view camera, and the images were composed upside-down on the ground glass back, and consisted of double and triple exposures, lined up with acetate tracings. The process was difficult to control, and surprises weren’t always welcome. 

The next stage was the Scitex, an Israeli development that cost millions of dollars and could only be afforded by large printing companies—but we photographers were certainly envious of its ability to manipulate images! 

Now I can see multiple variations of an image in Photoshop and try things out, have changes made in scale or color, and make it conform to exactly what I see in my mind’s eye. This has literally opened up new worlds for me. 

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

    




A few years back, I noticed a quiet, well-dressed, elderly gentleman who sat quietly every day, contemplating my work in the gallery where I was having a solo exhibition. I finally approached him and introduced myself, and he proceeded to tell me something he felt about my work that had a distinct impact at the time, and has stayed with me ever since. 

  

After a long pause, he said to me, “Your pictures have openings in them, holes and windows—that’s very important. The viewer has space to move around in them and behind them—they don’t get choked up. Your pictures allow the viewer to breathe.” 


I was profoundly struck by his observation, though I never saw him again after that.... I’ve since often used the window motif and expanded upon it, and I believe that gentleman’s remark encouraged me to consciously explore another dimension in my work. 

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Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?

   My artistic life is so integrated with my life in general, that I never even think about it as being lonely. Of course, I’m alone as I turn over and plan out ideas in my private thoughts. But of necessity, my pictures are the result of a combination of the efforts of other people, too. When I travel to shoot new locales, it’s with the welcome help and companionship of my family. The studio shots with models require input from many other talented professionals. My partner provides the technical expertise to bring my visions to life. And the interaction with other artists through gallery membership, friendships and representation provides encouragement and inspiration. The original creative impulse might be solitary, but the final result is companionable. 

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given (that relates to your art)?

It wasn’t a piece of verbal advice, but powerful visual suggestions from a book that made a huge impression on me—the published “Helga” paintings of Andrew Wyeth that were unveiled in the 1980’s in a book designed, coincidentally, by Samuel Antupit, who was later to write the introduction to my own book. I was struck by the variety of moods expressed, and the sparse surroundings of the simple, decrepit shack and landscapes—and the incredible design sense of each of the drawings and paintings. And the sensitivity in the way he portrayed the woman. I was so impressed with Wyeth’s attitude and philosophy, and his unconventional depiction of beauty. 


Another concept that derived from a book was the idea of “juxtapositions” that my partner introduced when we were producing my book Odyssey. I’d been struggling with how to organize the material, and she simplified the task by pointing out that images on facing pages played off each other, and that thinking in visual pairings was a way to begin. I’ve since applied that simple concept in other areas. 

Do you feel pressure or a need to comply with visual trends and market demands at all- if so how do you handle this?

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I never consider trends—I’m never even particularly aware of them—and I never pay attention to so-called market “demands”. I do what I do to the best of my ability, in my own way. My esthetic sense was shaped by my childhood in Japan and by years of study and exposure to the best examples of all the visual arts in museums and books, and I have a very clear sense of what I want to express and how, based on classical ideals of both east and west. Of course I hope people respond favorably to my work, but I feel certain it would be because of something in my pictures that speaks to them personally, beyond trends or fads.

What research to you do for your pieces?

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I usually have an idea of what a finished image will contain before I begin shooting, but the details aren’t fully worked out at first. If I’m traveling internationally there are the logistics and itinerary to consider, and sometimes I have an idea of what a place will offer visually, but there are always surprises. I’m also always on the lookout for my favorite themes of decaying walls and buildings, and I often find them in back streets and alleys—but that can’t be foreseen, isn’t possible to research beforehand, and is usually off the beaten path of the regular tours. And I always keep in mind how to frame a shot, so it could contain a figure. 


I’m always thinking ahead to what kind of objects might enhance the impact of a shot, or the kind of action that might work, and I consult with my partner to come up with suitable elements, for example; evocative wardrobe pieces like a cloak or a skirt with movement, or a historically or visually suggestive prop such as a sword, or an action like the ballet-like dance poses I’ve used in front of a waterfall. Or even the weeds we draped on a model to suggest she just emerged from the water. 

What is your dream project?

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I’ve always wanted to bring to life the world of the fantasy writer Lafcadio Hearn, the westerner who famously translated and wrote about Japanese myths, legends, and ghost stories. I hope to also shoot a falconer the next time I visit my homeland. Because of my own early experience of capturing a baby falcon 

  in Japan when I was a boy, I want to show in photographs the unspoken relationship between the falcon and its trainer. 

    

I was also profoundly moved by the majesty of Kegon Falls and Nikko that I recently shot in Japan. That such an incredible, powerful phenomenon as those falls has existed and awed people for eons, expanded an idea that was first in my mind when I saw the waterfalls in the fjords of Norway. I have dreams of creating some future images with that as a theme! 

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