Restoring Ishimoto’s Vision of Katsura

The Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, Japan uses a “rich architectural language” that “is more resplendent than restrained, [though] its geometric sensibility…easily aligned with the ideals of 20th-century modernists,” notes Dwell magazine in its September issue. Katsura’s architecture certainly aligned with the modernists’ ideas—sometimes too much so. The seventeenth-century imperial residence has fomented debate among architects, photographers, and even publishers at least since Western modernists first “discovered” Katsura. Discussions about its architecture as well as photographic representations of the villa often tend to align with or at least relate to the analyst’s own directions.

Perhaps none of the debates had such long-lasting consequences as the one described in Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture, Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro, edited by Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curator Yasufumi Nakamori. A Japanese-American who later re-immigrated to the US around the outbreak of World War II, Yasuhiro Ishimoto combined New Bauhaus and Neue Sachlichkeit stylistic strategies in his photographs of the gardens and aristocratic dwellings at Katsura. But the first book of photography he published did not reflect his original artistic intentions.

When Ishimoto asked modernist architect Tange Kenzō to write an essay for his book of Katsura photographs, he inadvertently pitted architectural and photographic approaches against each other. Kenzō’s enthusiastic reaction was akin to Dad “helping” with his child’s science fair by reshaping the vision of the project; instead of merely contributing an essay, he cropped, resized, and reorganized the pictures into the landmark work, Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture, published by Yale University Press in 1960. Kenzō saw in Ishimoto’s photographs a modernism that reflected his own ideas about architecture. Ishimoto later related that he believed Kenzō presented his own agenda rather than introduce a new artist’s work. Fifty years later, Ishimoto’s work finds “new” direction, with this volume restoring Ishimoto’s vision within the context of his own art.

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