“Leaf of Electric Light” & “Plane Tree Observation”

Wataru Yamamoto
“Chrysanthemum leaf 8”, from Wataru Yamamoto’s “Leaf of Electric Light” series (2012 / negative created around 2007).
Gelatin silver print, variable size
© Wataru Yamamoto, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

White spots scattered across a black background. The photographs look like astral photography or images transmitted to us from a satellite; perhaps aerial photography of flickering city lights in the dark. But what is actually captured in these images are leaves of trees. Japanese photographer Wataru Yamamoto (b. 1986) has used a technique called Kirlian photography to create his series entitled “Leaf of Electric Light.” Kirlian photography was invented by Semyon and Valentina Kirlian in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s. It works by applying high voltage to an object, which causes a corona discharge to occur. Ionization processes and light photon emissions that occur in that moment then expose film or photographic paper. Common subjects of Kirlian photography are human hands or parts of plants. In the images they appear as if encompassed by a strange light – which is why for a long time Kirlian photography had a reputation as mysterious technique capable of capturing invisible auras.

“unknown 1” from Wataru Yamamoto’s “Leaf of Electric Light” series (2012 / negative created around 2007)
Gelatin silver print, variable size
© Wataru Yamamoto, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

Yamamoto’s images capture the water evaporating from the pores of the leaves as white dots.
Their shapes are transformed, their veins become visible; outlines are blurred, and some parts of the leaves even turn invisible. The dots form an indistinctness which on first look might be impossible to understand as foliage.
Photographs whose subjects may not be understood by looking – even being unable to understand what was captured – may be seen as failed photographs. However, it is doubtlessly true that these images faithfully capture their subjects’ natural conditions and photosensitive characteristics. To compare these images to clearer photographs and define the blurrier pictures a failure would be a judgment centered purely on the human vision of the world.

But by capturing the corona discharge images of countless leaves, Yamamoto did not merely capture foliage as objects within nature, he attempts to treat them in an altered state or occurrence and includes the process of altering their state in the creation of his images.
We could also say that Yamamoto’s unique way of photographing foliage goes beyond merely capturing “nature” as an entity in the world; rather, it is rooted in an all-encompassing view of nature – as opposed to a human/nature dichotomy – as a natural, unconditioned state of constant becoming.

“Plane Tree Observations p.3”, from Wataru Yamamoto’s “Plane Tree Observations” series (2013) 36×25cm(Unique)
Materials: paper, plane tree, gelatin silver print, pencil, color pencil
© Wataru Yamamoto, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

In addition to his photographs of foliage, Yamamoto also draws images that comes to his mind on his finished Kirlian images and creates drawings with words associated with the photograph.

And real leaves, Yamamoto’s otherworldly captures, as well as the images that begin to occur in your mind by looking at them all start to overlap. Then, as the images start to resonate inside your head, they continue their process of constant becoming, all by themselves.

Mika Kobayashi

Photography researcher / Visiting research scholar at Tokyo Museum of Modern Art

Active in many fields including conducting lectures and workshops on Japanese and international photography, planning exhibitions and contributing to magazines.

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