Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hara Hisaji / An Interview

Fotografía de Hisaji Hara
Estudio de "La víctima", 2009
Hisaji Hara

Selected articles

Ko-e magazine Sep-Oct 2010, “The Fog of Time”


Hisaji Hara, A Study of ‘Therese’, 2009 and Balthus, Therese, 1938

The legacy of Showa Japan runs deep and is also evident in your photographs. What is your attraction to Showa?

The building that appears in the pictures was a privately-run clinic built in the Taisho era (1912-26) and actually used until Showa 40 (1960). Discovering this building was the direct catalyst for my having realized this series. If this series exudes the feeling of Showa at all, then I think that’s largely due to the atmosphere of the building itself. Of course, having been born in Showa 39, I think that the age carries a lot of meaning for me. The values of Showa have probably had no small effect on the formation of my character.
However, for an artist like me who expresses himself through photographs, Showa pretty much means the 20th century just as it was. Photographs that appeared in the 19th century define the way of life of that age, certainly for having spanned some 100 years, and those 100 years mostly overlap with Showa, too. Living now in the 21st century, I’m seeking new means of photographic expression and to that end I think it’s essential that I look back and consider the 20th century with a critical eye.

Your photographs deftly balance innocence and eroticism. Can you please comment on this?
Is there in fact an underlying concept of innocence pairing off with eroticism? I suspect that reading an antithesis between these two components in the series comes from a 20th century mode of photographic expression. In the original Balthus paintings that I chose to use as my motif, quite a bit of the young girl’s arms and thighs appear. While that might be deemed eroticism, at the same time, a sense of tranquility hangs about it, as in early Italian Renaissance religious paintings. Perhaps the reason why Balthus dared to paint the limbs of a young girl was that he was attempting to provoke narrow-minded 20th century notions of eroticism. And so in this photographic series the dual presence of innocence and eroticism points to the objectification of 20th century values, which is itself an important part of the work.

Can you talk a little about your work flow (art direction, setting up, development, etc)?
Vis-à-vis the thousands—we might even say tens of thousands—of years of painting history, photographic history is but 200 years old. And yet, you can consider photographic history in the same context as the history of the discovery of photosensitive materials. Assuming that photography is an expression born of our gazing at the world, then I believe that photography should be included in the long history of painting.
To recreate in this series the same feeling of depth that appears in the paintings, I used a smoke machine to artificially create fog. It was one of those huge smoke machines normally used in concert halls. While the rooms depicted in Balthus’ paintings have a kind of flat illumination, he still manages to provide a fitting context for his figures and backdrop. I found that it was necessary to fog my backdrop with the right amount of smoke in order to control this sense of depth.
Also, the perspective in the paintings is different from the optical perspective of a camera lens. When shooting this series, I intentionally impaired the authentic perspective of the lens, and to achieve that, I had to take various multiple exposures. I made a huge matte box to surround the camera and lens. I then attached a mask to it that would cover up part of the picture and took multiple exposure shots. Because I was shifting the focus as I took the multiple exposures, the optical perspective was impaired and I got a really attractive sense of space.

Taking multiple exposures also has another benefit. When you combine the various frames that you’ve taken, you can reproduce your trusted model and have her perform elsewhere in the picture. Artists would often use a model they liked and paint that figure multiple times into their picture.

You sometimes appear in your own photographs. Why?
I only appear once in this series. That piece is based on Balthus’ own self-portrait. Going by 20th century definitions, a photographic self-portrait is very different from a painted self-portrait. In an age where identification photographs can be forged because of digital technology, do meanings based on 20th century definitions hold any water? I think there is quite a bit of opportunity to investigate this notion. Of course, this isn’t confined to a discussion of self-portraits alone, but perhaps even all the modes of photographic expression.

Who are some photographers you admire and why?
It’s not really photographers whom I admire, but the incredibly accomplished Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. It seems to me that he was a director who created his own cinematic devices, rather than rely on the cinematic devices shared by most 20th century works. That’s why his work never seems to grow old.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hisaji Hara at the Michael Hoppen Gallery

In Review

Hisaji Hara at the Michael Hoppen Gallery

In February the Michael Hoppen Gallery unveiled the first European solo show of works by Hisaji Hara. The show demonstrated Hara’s studious approach and meticulous technique in a display of beautiful, if disquieting, works.
Hara painstakingly recreates works by the painter Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, commonly known as Balthus. Born in 1908, Balthus painted controversial and disturbing works, in a figurative, classically influenced style. Preoccupied with themes of childhood and innocence, his scenes are marked by a troubling sexuality, particularly in portraying young girls.

© Hisaji Hara, 'A Study of 'Katia Reading'', 2009. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Though Hara avoids Balthus’ more explicitly controversial works, his photographs are unsettling. Hara captures the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. His teenage subjects are seen dressed in school and cadet uniforms; adolescent in body but childish in dress. In one a boy and girl pose together; the girl uses a magnifying glass to examine a book, the boy leans on a table behind her. It is a study of Balthus’ Because Cathy Taught Him What She Learnt, in which the playful world of childhood learning is darkly contrasted with concepts of maturity, knowledge and loss of innocence.

Hisaji Hara, A Study of Because Cathy Taught Him What She Learnt, 2010

There is something of August Sander in the photographs too. At times Hara employs a portrait style reminiscent of Sander’s series People of the Twentieth Century. In this, Sander titled his subjects after their vocation or position in life: The Farmer, The Bohemian, The Actor. Uniforms and costumes neatly match the titles; The Boxers seen in their shorts and gloves for instance. The archetypal uniforms in Hara’s work likens it to Sander’s. It would be unsurprising to see Hara’s subjects labelled The Schoolgirls or The Students.
Technically Hara is masterful, carefully reconstructing the warped perspective of Balthus’ paintings. Using multiple exposures and focuses, he creates unusual depths of field by partially blocking the lens. Staging his scenes in an abandoned medical clinic, he leaves little to chance. Smoke machines help skew the perspective, and costumes are built with a deliberate angularity, exacerbating the strangeness of the figures.

© Hisaji Hara, 'A Study of 'The Room'', 2009. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The exhibition was small, filling just one room, and it would have been good to see more of Hara’s work. Yet this is a minor criticism, and the Gallery should be congratulated for bringing Hara’s work to a bigger audience. Hara’s works are poignant, beguiling and thought-provoking. Minutely detailed and laboriously created, they delicately draw the uncertain lines between childhood and maturity, innocence and knowing.

For more information on the exhibition or Hisaji Hara visit and

My best shot / Lawrence Schiller / Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe in 1962 … Lawrence Schiller's best shot.

Lawrence Schiller's best photograph: Marilyn Monroe

Interview by Sarah Phillips
Wed 30 May 2012

first photographed Marilyn Monroe in 1960. I was 23 and not yet a very good photographer. By 1962, when Paris Match magazine asked me to shoot her again, I had won awards and was better – but I had a bigger ego, too.

She was filming what would be her last movie, Something's Got to Give. I read the screenplay in advance, and discovered that in one scene she would jump into a swimming pool and then pretend to have no clothes on. I saw Marilyn before the shoot and she was upset that she was getting $100,000 for the movie while Elizabeth Taylor was getting more from the same studio. She said something like: "What would happen if I jumped in with a bathing suit on, and actually came out with nothing on?" Her press agent said: "You're kidding." She wasn't. I was cocky in those days and said: "You're already famous – now you're going to make me famous." "Photographers can always be replaced, Larry," she said.

When she jumped into the water with her bathing suit on, I looked at her as if she were an athlete. My adrenaline was going. She was moving so quickly there wasn't time to focus the camera, so I had to anticipate what she would do next. In a lot of my pictures of Marilyn, her body is always to one side, because I needed to have room for what she might do with the rest of the shot. This was always my favourite. I still get a little laugh inside me when I look at it.
When the shoot was over, I rang the magazine and it hit me: wow, she did it! I realised at the same moment how desperate she was. When she had nothing left, to prove that she could still get more publicity than anybody else, out came the birthday suit again.
Marilyn approved certain pictures, and they went all over the world. I had no ethical qualms about that; she could have changed her mind. But I had no sense of history and threw the rest away.
She was fired from the film and died several months later. I couldn't believe it. I rushed to her house, then the mortuary and went into journalistic mode. I was there to capture events. A photographer owes it to history not to get emotionally involved. My 10-year-old daughter said of this picture, "It says everything but shows nothing." Even a child could work out the innocence and desperation it captures.


Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1936.
Studied: Studied architecture and business in California. Self-taught photographer
High point: Becoming a filmmaker. I directed The Executioner's Song, based on my interaction with a murder.
Low point: In 1990, I gambled all my money on a film about Chernobyl and lost everything, including my wife.
Top tip: Don't be like all the other monkeys. Find a way of expressing your own personality.



Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sean O'Hagan / Hisaji Hara

Hisaji Hara – review
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.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hisaji Hara / A Photographic Portrayal of The Paintings of Balthus

A Study of The Happy Days
Hisaji Hara

Using medium-format film and meticulous in-camera methods, Hisaji Hara reinvents the legendary and provocative paintings of highly revered 20th century figurative painter, Balthus (1908-2001). In his staged tableaux, Hara appropriates the adolescent subjects featured in Balthus’ canvases, paying particular attention to details in posture and expression. The setting as well as the costuming, however, are uniquely Japanese. Thus, the artist culls from the suggestive vocabulary of the originals – paintings simultaneously youthful and erotic – while playing with strict architectural formalism and Lolitaesque obsessions that anchor the work in Japanese cultural traditions.
       On view now at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles, the American debut of Hisaji Hara’s “A photographic portrayal of the paintings of Balthus.” Black and white prints from this acclaimed series will be on view until July 7, 2012.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Alice Munro / Friend of My Youth


by Alice Munro

I read books by Alice Munro in no particular order, whenever one comes to hand. I usually comment, most recently on The View from Castle Rock.
         The short stories in Friend of My Youthare set in Canada, many in the town of Wally, where of course everyone knows everyone else — even after many years. The themes here are of return, return to a place and time one knew at an earlier stage of life; confidences, women tell each other how it was or how it might be; betrayal, betrayal of friends,  sisters, lovers. People have secret lives and aspirations and sometimes they share them with others, but not always.
        In the story “Wigtime” Anita returns to the town where she grew up and encounters Margot. The used to walk home from school together.
        They spun the day out a little longer, talking. Any subject would do…. They talked so easily and endlessly that it seemed they talked about everything. But there were things they held back.
        Anita held back two ambitions of hers, which she did not reveal to anybody. One of them — to be an archeologist — was too odd, and the other — to be a fashion model — was too conceited. Margot told her ambition, which was to be a nurse. You didn’t need any money to get into it — not like university — and once you graduated you could go anywhere and get a job. New York, City, Hawaii — you could get as far away as you liked.
       Two teen age girls talk. Some things are said and some are not. It’s real life, so Margot gets married and never gets away, while it is Anita who becomes a nurse. Confidences return, as they tell each other how it happened, betrayals and all.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Alice Munro / The Progress of Love / Review by Michiko Kakutani

Alice Munro


FOR the people in ''The Progress of Love,'' storytelling is a way of seeing and remembering, a mundane but necessary art. In the title story, the narrator recounts how her father watched her mother burn her unwanted inheritance in the kitchen stove; though probably untrue, the story serves as a testament to what she believes about them and the nature of love. Another woman tells a story about how she met her first husband while singing madrigals at college, a neat story of destiny between ''a skinny innocent bit of a lad with a pure sweet tenor'' and ''a stocky little brute of a girl with a big deep alto.'' And a third speaks of how she and her husband ''invented characters'' for their children, casting each daughter in a specific role.
In ''Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux,'' the telling and retelling of familiar stories serves a ritual purpose of alternately soothing and discomfitting various family members, and in ''Jesse and Meribeth'' a teen-age girl tries to impress her best friend by inventing an outrageous story about an affair with a married man - a story that ironically fulfills itself even as it's exposed as a lie.
As this volume and several earlier collections (most notably ''The Moons of Jupiter'' and ''The Beggar Maid'') attest, Alice Munro is herself a remarkable storyteller who, having slowly acquired a faithful audience outside her native Canada, now richly deserves recognition as one of the foremost contemporary practitioners of the short story. Though her tales occasionally display an overcrafted sense of irony (''Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux,'' which involves two possible attempts at murder, is one such example), the best possess a wonderfully organic coherence. They create complete fictional worlds for the reader, but their wholeness has the pleasing irregularity of something found in nature. Instead of squeezing the ambiguities of relationships and feelings into a neatly molded form, the stories accommodate them, taking on in the process the complicated texture of real life.
Families, the overlapping and intersecting lines of emotions connecting parents and children, husbands and wives, the ''dangerous mix-ups'' of domestic life - these are the subjects Ms. Munro returns to in these stories and she delineates them with an old-fashioned amplitude of emotion and language. She is concerned not only with the different configurations of love that occur in the wake of divorces, separations and deaths, but also with the ''progress'' of love, the ways in which it endures or changes through time: how the weight of intimacy can suffocate a marriage, as easily as loft it into new passion; how disappointments, an apprehension of loss, can be handed down generation to generation, mother to daughter, as easily as the capacity for caring; how history repeats itself, when the man who spurns one fiancee for another decides, years later, to leave the wife for another woman.
But while so many of the characters in these stories leave their lovers or their families, few ever exit completely. Instead, they seem to hover about the corners of their former lives, like ghosts who are reluctant to depart - new girlfriends are introduced, quite cruelly, to former wives; anniversaries are celebrated years after a spouse's defection.
Indeed, the characters in Ms. Munro's stories seem perpetually torn between freedom and domesticity, the need for independence and the need to belong. One man seems to trade in wives and girlfriends, regularly, as soon as their failure to live up to a designated role - of ''hippie,'' ''trollop,'' etc. - threatens him with real intimacy; another determines to leave town when his girlfriend hints she might be pregnant.
In ''White Dump,'' a woman relishes the idea of staying behind as her family goes off for an airplane ride, cherishing the prospect of ''emptiness, a lapse of attention,'' that will permit her to momentarily misplace her customary enthusiasm and watchfulness. And in ''Miles City, Montana,'' the narrator also yearns for ''a place to hide'' from the demands of running a household. She wants to ''get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself,'' only to realize in the wake of a swimming pool accident that her self-preoccupation has nearly resulted in her daughter's death.
But while death and overt violence occasionally do make their appearance in these stories, the characters tend to be haunted by a more abstract premonition that life is precarious and fragile, that things can shift, fade or disappear with the suddenness of a mood change. A man abruptly leaves his wife and daughter for a woman whose camper has broken down; a woman meets the man who will become her new lover during a celebration of her husband's 40th birthday. Even when everything seems smooth and scheduled and fine, ''the skin of the moment can break open.'' ''With all their happiness and hugging and kissing and stars and picnics,'' a woman can find her husband's side of the bed empty and leap to the conclusion that he's ''done away with himself.''
In the end, Ms. Munro suggests, one of the reasons for this sense of aloneness and peril is the utter subjectivity of truth, our inability to see things through others' eyes. In the title story, for instance, a woman contends that her late mother tried to hang herself out of a sense of despair; her sister maintains that she did it as a joke, in order to provoke their father. Which version is correct? Can the truth ever be ascertained?
Drawing upon her seemingly infinite reserves of sympathy, Ms. Munro writes, in these stories, from a multitude of perspectives - shifting points of view, from one character to another, as well as back and forth in time. The results are pictures of life, of relationships, of love, glimpsed from a succession of mirrors and frames - pictures that possess both the pain and immediacy of life and the clear, hard radiance of art.

By Alice Munro. 
309 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $16.95.