Photographing Japanese gardens and architecture with a touch of New Bauhaus

text: Taka Kawachi


With the ‘Katsura Imperial Villa’ (1954) series, Yasuhiro Ishimoto (1921-2012) created a photographic masterpiece, a Japanese national treasure that has remained in publication and which continues to receive praise today. However, when you look closer, you are bound to be awed by their bold compositions at the images in this collection – a villa that Japanese photographers at the time avoided or were unable to photograph – you are bound to be awed by a simplicity and bold sense of composition that other Japanese photographers at the time perhaps did not dare to attempt or maybe were unable to achieve.

You’re almost bound to wonder if Ishimoto perhaps wasn’t Japanese, and in actuality he was born in San Francisco, moved to his parents’ hometown in Kochi Prefecture when he was three years old and returned to the USA, to Chicago, at the age of 18. Then, as the war in the Pacific progressed, he was locked up in an internment camp in Colorado, despite holding American citizenship. It was during this time that he developed an interest in photography. Soon, he studied at the Chicago Institute of Design, under the tutelage of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskin. The predecessor to that school was founded by a certain László Moholy-Nagi, who also taught at Bauhaus in Germany — a school famous for its classes on progressive photography.

Returning to Ishimoto’s photographs of the Katsura Imperial Villa, it was originally a project commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Even for Ishimoto, who had also studied architecture, photographing Japanese architecture, with its unadorned style, had seemed rather challenging. At first, he photographed only the gardens and its stones. It took him many frequent visits to the estate before he finally began photographing its exteriors and interiors.

The Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto was built in the 17th century as a villa for the Hachijō-no-miya family. It was an imperial villa, with a tea rooms, drawing rooms, a garden and a large pond in its center. Famous German architect Bruno Taut, who emigrated to Japan after fleeing the Nazis, was effusive in his praise for the villa, calling it ‘so beautiful that I could cry’. Ishimoto too understood the orderly beauty of the villa, not unlike that of modernist architecture, and tried to photograph its elements according to his own ideas.

Ishimoto’s own words: “The white wall of the drawing room and the feeble shadows on the white shoji screens instantly caught my eye, and for some reason I was reminded of the Lake Shore Drive Apartments of Mies van de Rohe (a German architect representative of Modernist architecture). Rather than old architecture, I may have recognized the modern style of Mies van der Rohe within the building right from the start.”
Perhaps as a result of this, he rejected any Japanese sensibilities and instead devoted his efforts towards the objective approach he had learned in Chicago.

I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Ishimoto in Tokyo, shortly before he passed away, during what became his final solo exhibition “Mandalas of the Two Worlds”. That I was able to briefly discuss the Katsura photographs with the artist himself remains a wonderful memory to me. But I have not yet had the chance to visit the “essence of Japan”, the Katsura Imperial Villa itself. In the near future, I hope to take a slow stroll around this building and examine it from a New Bauhaus point of view.

Taka Kawachi

Studied at San Francisco Art College after high school, moved to New York and curated exhibitions and edited photography collections. He returned to Japan in 2011. He has recently published two books with writings about art and photography in Europe and America (not yet available in English).

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