Framing Space in Japanese Photography

Essay by Marc Hohmann for Japan Exposures. Photos courtesy Shingo Wakagi for Famous Aspect.

For me as a Creative Director and Editor, visual creation is always about the formation of a new world. A “Gesamtkunstwerk”. Old harmony. New combination. What form should go with this image? Which sound should surround this product? What word is an extension of this shape? And so on. When I am working with a photograph it is about working with or against a context. It exists as personal art before type (a word or a price) is on it. Afterwards it is an art product and its success is measured by its universal rather than personal or regional appeal. As a designer, photography is one of the graphic ingredients at my disposal and I frequently utilise the work of Japanese photographers.

Japanese photography (and I believe a lot of Japanese 20th century art, architecture and music) has always been strongest when in a most direct reaction to a cultural, most often Western, current: The 60’s psychedelic era, the 70’s punk movement, 80’s post-modernism, the 90’s individual & technology changes, the 2000’s and still current authenticity vs. imitation trends and so on. All of these created peak examples of photographic brilliance everywhere in the world. However, the decades’ highlights in Japanese art photography (both personal and commercial) survived this better than most Western images because, a) emotionally their creators were never as invested in these Western currents as the ones in the originating countries; and, b) the Japanese are by nature more society-conscious and therefore more careful in execution; and finally, c) their creator’s tendency to replace emotional and fashionable advances with overly methodical, technical skills. Curiously from a modernist perspective, these ingredients (or, in minimalist terms “positive restrictions”) are major in creating a universal appeal.

Emotions are mostly expressed through contrast, focus or composition, rather than direct expressive attitude or subjective gestures.

Something specific that comes to mind here is the intentional, pragmatic and architectural use of space in Japanese photography and Japanese film since the 1920’s. Their use of negative space – mostly composed, controlled and open – is not as intimidating and less filled with expression than their Western counterparts. Emotions such as anger, for example, are mostly expressed through contrast, focus or composition, rather than direct expressive attitude or subjective gestures. To me, quintessential Japanese photography is strong because of its open, compositional distance and its emotional constraint and not because of its Western, in-your-face, “aggressive” spontaneity or directness.

I find these qualities very attractive and it is important as a (Western) designer to understand their artistic dimension as they can be treated as design statements in themselves. Personally for some time now, my work has been about a refined “more with less” approach which is rather about framing space than occupying it. This means finding the most elegant, non-forced position for a design element or message with the intention to elevate the total experience. When I’m working with great Japanese images I am attempting to create a strong field that supports the photo’s structural distance and openness which I find so modern. Instead of pushing a dominant message against the image to create tension, I am trying to work off of its inherent qualities. From the depth of a title, or the size of the type to the precision of the crop, it’s all about keeping nuances while creating a new context. A reference would be a Toru Takemitsu score (a Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory — Ed.) where the composer is carefully balancing his intention to support a scene with the goal of creating a totally new dimension whenever the film’s open, sparse architecture allows it.

The great NY architect Richard Gluckman once told me that in his work he is always considering the importance of space in relation to the object: It is both the object that defines the space and the space that defines the object. According to him, a space isn’t finished until it is occupied by an intention. My advice is the same when I’m reviewing young photographer’s portfolios or speaking to my design assistants: Before photographing or designing space try to remove yourself from it and look at it from a distance or from the outside. Gather information about its purpose and its inherent qualities. This will bring it closer to the attributes I admire in great Japanese photographic works.

An image that I like very much is a diptych story by Shingo Wakagi that was shot for my magazine Famous Aspect. The series is titled Tokyo Modern. One image shows a still life of beautiful weathered flowers, the other a girl in a kimono sitting on a bed in an apartment. There is an air of intimacy and distance that I really like and it reflects some of the ambiguities expressed above. Looking at it you have no sense of time. It is a fashion image yet there is no fashion there. It is sad yet beautiful. Close but unreachable.


Marc Hohmann is the owner and Creative Director of Kon/struktur, a design and branding firm in New York. He has been involved with the branding of fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto’s identity in Japan, the development of Zero+Maria Cornejo’s label and store, and the store branding for Edité, a new New York version of Colette. Other clients include Evian, Telephónica, Amtrak Acela, Swatch, City of London, Swiss Re, Dell and Johnson & Johnson. Marc is also the chief editor of a style / art magazine called Famous Aspect. His work is very well received in Europe, the US and Japan and has been featured in magazines such as IDEA, Elle, Vogue, Soen, Composite, Spur, +81, Print, Nylon and more.

Photos: Shingo Wakagi for Famous Aspect, Text: Marc Hohmann © 2010 — All Rights Reserved