Strange Flowers

Gasho Yamamura

After he began photographing plants in 1974, there were two photobooks in which Gasho Yamamura (1939-1987) published the resulting unique images: “Plants” (1976) and “Botanical Planetarium” (1988).
Reading the words “plant photography”, you may visualize detailed, close-up images of individual plants as they may appear in botanical lexica or landscape photographs that convey a great sense of distance.

However, when Gasho Yamamura pointed his lens at plants and shrubbery, his subjects were within reach of his palm and at most only a few steps away.
Using flash, he showered plants with artificial light when the sun was still out, heightening the color contrast of petals and foliage and compressing the distance between the far background and close subjects. His technique gave birth to a visual effect that muddles the sense of scale between the plants and their surroundings. Caught in stroboscopic light, the plants stiffen momentarily; they emerge as strange shapes not seen in natural light, rising up and towering high as if by desire.

The Japanese title of his color photobook “Botanical Planetarium” can be translated as “Hunting Flowers”. In it, Yamamura focuses exclusively on blossoms, the plants’ reproductive organs. Each single image seems to tell a story of conflict, as if Yamamura attempted to face-off with the flowers in a grand showdown.

“Edible Amaranth” (date unknown) © Gasho Yamamura

Another particularity of “Botanical Planetarium” is the position from which Yamamura photographed the plants. The perspective is different to how we usually see flower beds and plants; there are no downwards, surveying gazes. Instead, many of Yamamura’s photographs employ an upwards angle, taken in close vicinity to the plants, the way a bug would see them. Here, even the tenderest of flowers appear as bold, towering structures. With this insectuous, un-human perspective, Yamamura carves out the strange and unfamiliar hiding in everyday reality and questions a way of looking that turns its subjects into mere trivialities.

“Purple Cornflower” (date unknown) © Gashō Yamamura

In the anthropocentric world-view, there is a tendency to think of plants only in relation to humans, as things to be cultivated, harvested, and eaten. Plants, however, have existed on this planet for far longer than us humans, and with their power of photosynthesis they are the sustainers of all life. By capturing photosynthetic organisms in photographs, using stroboscopic light, Yamamura scrutinizes his own act of facing the world through a camera.

“Indian Lotus” (date unknown) © Gashō Yamamura

The sights that Yamamura captured expose plants as strange entities that exist in indifference towards human life. At the same time, they let us imagine a world before the presence of human life, or perhaps the world after our disappearance from this earth.

While confronting the realities of our own world, the camera is able to envision new, different worlds and can occasionally bridge the gap between the inner and external world of the photographer.

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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