When Katsushika Hokusai set out to produce what would become one of the most well known art works originating from Japan, a woodblock print entitled The Great Wave off Kanagawa, his ideas had nothing to do with creating a precious artifact that would hang in art museums. Of course, such museums did not exist in the 1830s in Japan. But if I’m imagining bringing the man with a time machine to see his work in such a setting, he would be bewildered. Instead, he might enjoy seeing the motif printed on, say, a t-shirt in the museum’s gift shop.
Ukiyo-e prints were produced as a form of mass entertainment, and they formed a large part of the visual culture of Japan’s Edo period (the time between the wave of wars that would result in Japan’s unification and the opening to the West). As that, they conformed to the very same principles that still dominate mass entertainment today. They were affordable — a print would cost a little bit more than a bowl of soup (according to this article), and they were mass produced. They were in no way seen as precious. In fact, some of the prints reached Europe because they had been used as wrapping paper for traded items.
Ukiyo-e prints are thus extremely interesting, because historical artifacts made for the masses — as opposed to the wealthy and powerful — often are inaccessible to us. Here, we have access to them. Furthermore, there were genuinely great artists behind their making. And lastly, the ukiyo-e industry offers insight for today’s world of photography.
It would be straightforward to argue that the photobook has some similarities to those prints. Photobooks are relatively affordable (of course, you won’t be able to buy most books for a little bit more than the price of a burger or a döner kebap). They’re mass produced (even as “mass” here is much more limited). And the way they are conceived both by their artists and publishers could be compared with how artists such as Hokusai made their series.
The Great Wave was one print out of the 36 contained in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. In fact, you might remember the print mostly for the wave that crests in such a dramatic fashion over the volcano that is set far in the back. If Mount Fuji plays a minor role in the image, so do the sailors that cling to dear life in the boats that are tossed around by the stormy sea. For a large number of reasons, the image is incredible, down to the way the turbulence of the water is rendered.
If you look through the prints that comprise Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, you obviously find the volcano in all of them. While Fine Wind, Clear Morning is a breathtaking rendering of Mount Fuji, many of the other prints focus on specific settings in Edo Japan. For example, there is an image of Nihonbashi Bridge, which depending on your travel direction formed the starting or ending point of the important Tōkaidō road.
It would be straightforward to argue that as a series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is not really centered on the volcano. Instead, it’s a depiction of a number of important, well known, and much talked about locations in Edo Japan. Mount Fuji serves as the visual device to link these images together.
But the volcano is not just some volcano. It did play an outsized role for Japanese people, and it does that today as well. To begin with, it’s stunningly beautiful, especially if the top of the very symmetric cone is covered with snow. It’s a dormant volcano. While it’s not clear when it will erupt, experts agree that it will at some stage in the future, which might in fact be near. Nobody knows. An eruption would cause considerable damage, especially given that the volcano is located only 100 km (62 mi) from Tokyo.
Much like during Hokusai’s times, you can see Mount Fuji from Tokyo, the weather and built environment permitting. What this might look like, you encounter in some of the photographs in Takashi Homma‘s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (please note that in the following, the title will always refer to this artist’s work). As the title implies, much like the Edo period woodblock artist before him, the contemporary photographer uses the volcano as a device to make work around the parts of Japan’s Honshu island that offer a view of the volcano.
But it is the differences in the approaches used by these two artists that make the new work so good. I suppose that a photographic re-creation of Hokusai’s portfolio might be interesting. Someone might seek out the locations (or possibly their contemporary equivalents) and produce photographs of the land and cityscapes with Mount Fuji somewhere in the frame.
Homma had something different in mind. He employed a range of different processes to create his photographs. The very first picture in the book centers on Mount Fuji and its iconic snow-covered top. But the volcano is shown upside down, and the depiction lacks the crisp clarity one would be able to achieve with the latest generation of cameras. Instead, the image almost dissolves into bands of colour and some texture, conveying a faint echo of a Rothko painting.
You would arrive at such an image were you to construct a camera obscura, which inverts the scene and displays it upside down. That there indeed must be similar processes at play becomes clear in the second photograph, which is black and white and comprised of three parts. Each part betrays traces of developing fluids. Thankfully, the book withholds that kind of information (sadly, too often the world of photography becomes bogged down in pointless discussions around craft and process).
The third photograph, set right next to the forth, again dissolves the landscape into bands of colour (assuming you want to accept black as one). Set far into the distance, Mount Fuji merges with the landscape, which in the light of the setting sun lacks all definition. The final remaining rays of sunlight illuminate a few clouds in a sky that appears oddly greenish-blue. The high contrast and the gaudy colours have me think of digital camera sensors.
Following this approach, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji moves through what it announces in its title. While Mount Fuji can be found in each image, much like in Hokusai’s case it often is not very prominent at all. However, unlike in the Edo artist’s work, the landscape itself — much like the cityscapes — often also are not clearly visible.
As a largely mechanical or photo-optical device, the camera is unable to hallucinate. But for sure the combination of all of these photographs evoke this very effect.
With Mount Fuji having such an important place in Japan’s collective consciousness and with Japan itself — what it might mean to be Japanese — still being such a contest topic, portraying the most well known and potent symbol of the country in such a hallucinatory manner opens up a new way of looking not at the volcano or the country, but at the act of looking itself (whether literally or metaphorically).
It’s probably a fair assumption to think that the work will be seen differently in Japan than in the West. But it’s also equally fair to say that challenging the way the country is seen for any number of reasons is a good idea. After all, isn’t it a contemporary artist’s task to make us see anew?
How do you see something anew that has been seen so many times before? Takashi Homma shows us.
Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji; photographs by Takashi Homma; essay by Pico Iyer; MACK; 2023
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