Hisaji Hara's A Study of 'The Salon', 2009. Photograph: Courtesy of the Michael Hoppen Gallery
In 1949, Albert Camus provided an introductory essay for an exhibition of paintings by his friend, enigmatic Polish-French artist Balthus. "We do not know how to see reality," wrote Camus of Balthus's strange and sometimes sexually suggestive paintings of adolescent girls, "and all the disturbing things our apartments, our loved ones and our streets conceal."
Balthus, who died in 2001, aged 92, made paintings that managed to be both naive and slightly sinister, and his precise figurative style only emphasises the general air of dark fairytale mystery in his paintings, the hidden disturbing things that Camus picked up on. Balthus said that he painted little girls because "women, even my own daughter, belong to the present world, to fashion". He was aiming, he said, for the timeless quality that Poussin's paintings possessed.
Balthus's studies of girls in often stilted poses are certainly timeless in their strangeness, their evocation of a pre-adult world of dark childhood reverie. Now, Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara has made a series of images that meticulously recreate some of Balthus's most famous paintings. Made between 2006 and 2011, they are beautiful in a quiet way, and give off not so much a sense of timelessness as of time stilled. Interestingly, given that they are photographs of a real young girl, they do not exude the same sinister suggestiveness of the originals. (Hara has, perhaps wisely, chosen not to recreate Balthus's most wilfully shocking painting, The Guitar Lesson, in which an older woman seems to be playing a young girl, who is naked below the waist, like an instrument.)
Hara, like Balthus, would seem to be an obsessive, so familiar and painstakingly composed are his photographs. On closer inspection, though, all is not what it seems. Shooting in black and white, Hara has created a world that nods to Balthus, but does not attempt to recreate the slightly surreal oddness of the originals. Instead, the photographs often look like stills from a lost Japanese formalist film in which the characters exist in a netherworld between waking and dreaming.
The actual setting for the interiors is a Japanese medical clinic Hara discovered. It had been built in 1912, but had remained unused and untouched since its closure in 1960. The furniture and found props all suggest an earlier time in Japan's history, and the recreated tableaux a harking back to childhood, or, more precisely, to the period between childhood and adulthood.
In one photograph, "A Study of 'The Passage du Commerce-Saint-André'", the girl stands in a leafy garden lost in thought, while a young man, possibly in uniform, strides purposefully away. Everything about the photograph is painterly, from its composition to the soft light and shadows and the blurry leafiness of the trees. There is a strangeness here, too, but it is not the strangeness of a Balthus painting, rather the heightened formality and unrealness of a staged photograph. And even in the most instantly recognisable compositions – the young woman at her most languorously suggestive, gazing into a mirror or draped on a chair before a window – the dark suggestiveness of the paintings is replaced by something else, a mood that is altogether less provocative and, at times, almost serene in its calmness.
Part of this is undoubtedly to do with Hara's technique, his craft and patience as a photographer of staged tableaux. In an age of digital post-production manipulation, he prefers to use more old-fashioned, labour-intensive methods, including multiple exposures and the use of a huge smoke machine to create the opaque quality that many of his prints possess. In some photographs you can see the slight blurring between one exposure and the next, usually when he has placed the girl in two different positions in the photograph. The blur, like the opaqueness, only adds to the otherworldly atmosphere of the prints.
For the technically minded, Hara made a huge box to surround his large-format camera so that he could mask part of the picture, then shot multiple exposures while shifting the focus. He also built the table that appears in the pictures and hand-painted the tablecloth to achieve an unreal perspective in which the lines and squares do not converge as they recede into the background. One photograph, simply called "A Study of Oil On Canvas", even replicates the yellowish tone of the original half-finished work. As I say, this is a distinctly obsessive imagination at work.
What, though, does it all add up to? These photographs work for me not because they are postmodern nods to Balthus but because they relocate his world to a Japanese setting and, in doing so, reimagine the atmosphere of his paintings. They are also beautiful photographs in and of themselves. In one entitled "A Study of 'The King of Cats'", which is based on a Balthus self-portrait, Hisaji Hara stares calmly and enigmatically out at the viewer from his own photograph. He is wearing a suit that looks like a uniform and a hat that could belong to a train driver or a soldier. His expression is blank, unreadable. The pose and the props are all Balthus, but the photograph has a life all its own. This is Hara's great gift: to imbue the familiar with new meaning, new mystery and a new form of strange beauty. Balthus, one suspects, would have approved.