Materia - Yoshihiko Ueda

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The Life of the Forest
by Christopher Phillips

In every age and in every culture, the tree has been regarded as one of the greatest symbols of life--a universal, elemental form. Because trees are the apogee of the plant world, as human beings are the most highly developed part of the animal world, it is always tempting to see a tree in terms of an equivalent human form. A treetop is like a head, brushing against the clouds. A tree trunk is as erect, or as gnarled, as a human torso. The tree’s branches extend like arms toward the heavens. The veins of a leaf resemble those of a hand. The roots suggest feet planted solidly in the earth.

Beyond these morphological parallels, trees hold an irresistible fascination for people who care to meditate on what has come before them, and what will come after. Trees stand for a concept of time extending far beyond the span of a single human life. A venerable, old-growth tree has seen countless human generations come and go. Such trees are more than just witnesses to the flow of time. Year after year, ring after ring, their physical substance slowly comes to embody the annual cycle of the seasons. Gazing upon a group of towering, ancient trees that have survived for centuries, every observer immediately feels their commanding presence, and the inner power that has enabled them to withstand the tumultuous uncertainties of time.

The photographs in this book were made by Yoshihiko Ueda on Yakushima, a small, circular, mountain-covered island lying to the southwest of Japan between Kyushu and Okinawa. Formed roughly 13 million years ago, Yakushima is recognized today as the site of one of our planet’s most heterogeneous mixtures of climatic zones, ranging from subtropical to subarctic. Yakushima’s abundant rainfall, as well as the rivers and waterfalls encountered at lower elevations, support an extraordinary variety of life-forms. Perhaps the most astonishing of these are found in the ancient woodlands that occupy the upper altitudes of the island’s mountains. These primeval forests are home to some of the oldest trees on earth, cypresses and Yakusugi (Japanese cedars) more than one thousand years old. One celebrated cedar, the Jomon Sugi, stands more than 25 meters tall and measures more than 16 meters around its trunk; its age has been estimated at considerably more than two millennia. In the spring of 2011, Yoshihiko Ueda traveled to Yakushima to photograph the ancient trees and forests there. He felt a compelling urge to finally carry out the photographic journey to Yakushima that had occupied his thoughts for almost two decades. His journey took place not long after a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, leaving more than 15,000 people dead. 

Ueda went to Yakushima expecting that his photographs would form a counterpart to the “Quinault” series that he had made in the early 1990s in the rain-shrouded Quinault forest in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. In this realm of permanent mist and drizzle live some of the world’s largest spruce, cedar, fir, and maple trees, as well as a profusion of mosses, wildflowers, and berries. Ueda’s initial reaction to the Quinault forest was one of awe. “I had discovered a realm of primordial chaos,” he wrote.“ I was witness to what was not for human eyes to see.” His photographs from that time portray a mysterious, almost submarine world that sunlight barely penetrates, where towering old-growth trees are packed together in claustrophobic proximity. Many trees are completely enveloped in phosphorescent moss and have only short, stubby limbs remaining; this lends them the eerie appearance of ghostlike figures walking with arms stiffly extended. Exquisitely rendering the dizzying profusion of life-forms that inhabit the dark Quinault forest, Ueda’s photographs also suggest the subtle interconnections of a hardy ecosystem that is slowly unfolding in time—a natural order that, with patience, we can gradually learn to understand.

When Ueda reached Yakushima in the spring of 2011 and set out with his 8 x 10-inch view camera, he knew that he wanted to concentrate on the power of nature—and specifically on the enduring life-force of the island’s ancient trees. He arrived with his earlier photographs of the Quinault forest clearly in mind. But as soon as he set up his camera in Yakushima's high-altitude forest and began to look at the images formed on the ground glass of his camera, he realized that he would have to find a completely new photographic approach. It occurred to him that much had changed in the years since he had photographed Quinault. At that time, he was in his 30s, and not yet a father; now he is in his 50s, with four children in his family. Then he was a relentless photographic perfectionist, determined to work out every visual element in advance; now he had come to appreciate the charm of photographic spontaneity, and to savor the unexpected sights that sometimes flickeringly presented themselves to his camera.

Ueda says that as he silently gazed upon the trees and forests of Yakushima, he distinctly felt the circulation of nature’s life-forms, and the presence of many layers of time. He saw not only the giant tree trunks--whose Latin name, materia, would provide the title for his new series of photographs--but also the old, yellowed leaves piled up on the forest floor and the new branches with their tiny green leaves. Everything had a purpose and a meaning, and everything was related; that, he understood, was the special joy of nature. To convey the rush of complex emotions that he felt, Ueda decided that he would have to take everything he knew about photography and somehow devise a new visual language, one especially suited to his experience on Yakushima.

The most surprising aspect of Ueda's “Materia” series is the way that he intentionally turns what more conventional photographers would call technical mistakes into controllable, expressive means; these he uses to visually suggest the ever-changing and unpredictable life of the forest. To take one example: in “Quinault,” Ueda went to great lengths to achieve a clear, unobstructed view of his woodland scenes; in “Materia,” however, he often places his camera so that our view of a central majestic tree is partially blocked, as by the thick diagonal line of a fallen tree that stretches across the frame. Another: in the “Quinault” photographs, the entire scene is always in sharp focus, from the near foreground to the distant background; in “Materia,” Ueda employs a much more idiosyncratic approach, focusing on a single object or plane and allowing everything else in the photograph to drift out of focus. Finally, where in “Quinault” the murky depths of the rainforest are rendered in a host of dark, submerged blues and greens, the photographs in “Materia” are relentlessly sun-dazed. Sections of many pictures appear to be purposely overexposed, leaving the details blasted away as if by a sudden explosion of light. Ultimately, these startling photographic “mistakes” help us to imagine in vivid and unexpected ways how the passage of time must appear to a thousand-year-old tree, whose existence slowly unfolds amid the buzz and blur of more transient life-forms such as ferns, flowers, insects, and birds.

On occasion, Ueda's camera pulls back to an unobstructed view, usually to show us a scene in which one ancient tree is accompanied by a troupe of young saplings hoping to find a place for themselves in the dense forest. There are repeated glimpses of fallen trees, often surrounded by broken branches and other natural debris; these scenes recall the purposeful decay that enriches the soil and prepares the way for the next generation of growth. While meditating upon these sometimes somber images, a profound vision of the endlessly recurring life-cycle of nature slowly takes shape in the viewer's mind.

Since photography’s beginnings in the nineteenth century, images of trees and forests have shown how much can be accomplished by the photographic medium when it is employed by a sophisticated visual artist. Notable instances that spring to mind include the silhouettes of bare-branched winter trees made by William Henry Fox Talbot in England in the 1840s; the portraits of proud Sequoia trees made by Carleton Watkins in California’s Yosemite Valley in the 1860s; the delicate patterns of leaves and branches that can be discovered in the 1920s photographs of Shinzo Fukuhara; and the blissfully erotic tree forms found in Edward Weston’s photographs of 1930s. In this line of remarkable achievements, the “Materia” photographs made by Yoshihiko Ueda on Yakushima can rightly take their place.

Christopher Phillips is the curator at the International Center of Photography in New York.

more info


Yoshihiko Ueda

Born 1957, Hyogo, Japan. Graduated Visual Arts College Osaka. After assistant works for Masanobu Fukuda and Taiji Arita, goes independent since 1982. Editorial commissions for fashion magazine Ryuko-Tsushin led him work in the various fields of advertising stills and commercial film productions. Major clients include Suntory, Shiseido and Muji. Award achievements include the Tokyo Art Directors Club Grand Prize, the New York Art Directors Club Photography Award, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity Graphic Design Silver Prize and the Asahi Advertising Award. Ueda also continues to be a productive artist. As of 2010, he has published 21 collections of photographs. Among his most noted monographs are Quinalt (Kyoto Shoin, 1993), a brooding mediation on a sacred Indian forest in the American Northwest; Amagatsu (Korinsha, 1995), a backstage document of Sankaijuku dancer-choreographer Ushio Amagatsu; Portrait(Littlemore, 2003), portraying 39 honorable Japanese such as Takaaki Yoshimoto and Shotaro Yasuoka; At Home (Littlemore, 2006), the intimate family album of the artist; Yume (Seigensha, 2010), timeless images from a Buddhist monastery in Mandalay; Frank Lloyd Wright (X-Knowledge, 2003), Frank Lloyd Wright architecture collections rendered with a Leica. Since 2008, he has exhibited at Paris Photo and many other art fairs, and in 2010 also held solo-exhibitions of his Quinalt images at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London and TAI Gallery, Santa Fe. His works are in the collections of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Permanent Public Art Collection of New Mexico Arts, Santa Fe, Hermés International, Paris and the Stichting Art & Theatre, Amsterdam.

book information

Materia, the book A new photo book published by Kyuryudo and featuring book design by Hideki Nakajima. The photographs are “new forest photographs” arising out of a dialogue with nature by Yoshihiko Ueda, who after the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 in northeastern Japan fulfilled a long-held desire to travel to Yakushima. In 1991, Ueda unveiled the “Quinault” series, a masterpiece that brought people in touch with the primordial power of forests and continues to captivate collectors and curators the world over. Now, in 2012, comes this completely new collection of forest photographs.

Yoshihiko Ueda:Materia
Published by Kyuryudo


Yoshihiko Ueda

Date : 10 Febrary, 2012 - 10 April, 2012
Time : Weekday 11:00 - 20:00 / Saturdays and Holidays 11:00 - 18:00
Closed : Sundays and Mondays

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