A Tree, A Blade of Grass by Shinzo Maeda


Shinzo Maeda (1922 – 1998) was a Japanese photographer known for his landscapes images. The poet Kenkichi Kusumoto introduces the book and the photographer by stating:

I am a poet not a photographer, but I feel that photography and haiku have the same origins, and I am deeply touched by each of the photos of the four seasons in this book; it is as if every photo is a single haiku, a complete and substantial work of art.

Kenkichi Kusumoto

My tendency is to look at a work as a whole, with each image as a word or sentence of the narrative. This of course shifts the pressure away from finding that perfect image — the decisive moment — towards the complete work itself. But this approach can lead to sloppiness and Maeda’s work reminds me of the importance of the individual image.

Kusumoto explains what he means by the haiku:

[the purpose] is to observe the subject, to scrutinize and feel it until we are able to penetrate to its true nature. When we do so we find truth is different than reality. The truth is not reality; it is instead, what we find when we break through the husk of external form and pierce the essence of a thing.   To put it in another way, finding the truth means shaking up the reality that lies behind the actuality of the subject.

There is a lot to unpack in that quote, but in essence Kusumoto is saying you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is the essence of documentary photography and the challenge observed by Barthes and Berger.

Wikipedia offers another perspective on haiku that helped me understand its manifestation in the photograph, as the “juxtaposition of two images or ideas…” This insight resonates when going through Maeda’s photography; each image contains one or more juxtapositions of two things, such as: light and dark; focus and blur; colour and not; cold and warm; solid and liquid; smooth and rough, among many more opposites. This conceptual form of composition annotates the usual physical relationships found in western composition theory. As such, it creates another dimension of contrast between physical and concept; may be a means to connect a physical thing with meaning or the relationship between husk and essence.

Each photograph in the collection is beautiful, and while beauty in the documentary style is often rejected as it is thought to detract from the substance of the work, Robert Adams submits in Art Can Help, “Beauty implies hope.” I like hope.


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