Poignant Pics no. 14 // J Swofford
Welcome to number 14 in our series Poignant Pics where we've asked photo curators, educators, collectors and makers to share a brief essay on a photo that has significantly changed the way they think or look at the world.
Photographer J Swofford discusses the poetic impact of Maseo Yamamoto's "Box of Ku".
Early in the days of searching for my artistic voice I came across Maseo Yamamoto’s Box of Ku and it affected me deeply. It changed how I looked at and thought about photographs in general. For the first time I saw how imperfections in a photograph can be a powerful method of communication. In almost all respects the photos are not good in a conventional sense. They are tiny and printed with too much or too little contrast, they are too light or too dark, they are out of focus, the prints themselves are ripped or creased, and burning and dodging of the prints is obvious and almost heavy handed. And yet, I found the work intensely compelling. It was a revelation to me that the technical points of a “good” photograph can take a secondary role in the production of the object and that the object, taken as it is, has a poetry and beauty of its own. It flew in the face of what I was being taught photographic art strove to be.
In particular I found #149 very striking. A crude ladder leans against a severely pruned tree, excised branches ringing the trunk on the ground. The print itself has a ripped and deckled edge and is torn irregularly and diagonally at the bottom, the upper corners are both creased and flattened again. The tree is vignetted in the middle of the print and the canopy is somewhat crudely burned it giving it a halo while the rest of the details of the landscape in the composition fade as if swallowed in fog. With an overall sepia tone to the highlights the print takes an air of great age. Like the other prints in Box of Ku all these factors come together to make each image a piece of a memory, a sentimental keepsake whose value and preciousness is not readily apparent.
The questions it raised in my mind about what this picture was about fascinated me. The poetry, I found, was in its ambiguity.
Maseo Yamamoto’s work was a sort of Rosetta Stone for me by which I more fully understood photography as poetry and more deeply understood the emotional impact of artists like Minor White and William Eggleston. The depiction of common, everyday ephemeral moments can, and often does, have great emotional impact as it plays on the experiences of the viewer. Yamamoto’s tree brings to my mind trees I have know in my rural and agricultural upbringing. In this way the tree in #149 becomes a surrogate for the trees in my past and, by extension, almost unconsciously, attains a status of precious memory. I have come to understand since that this is one of the powerful attributes of good photography. Even when it is novel and unexpected it is still familiar.
From his earliest days J has been a little different from other people. His parents, compromising on an argument, gave him as his full first name the letter "J". It has been a mixed blessing; wonderful in its uniqueness, cumbersome in its nonconvention. Although at times in his formative years he tried to deny it, J has always been in love with art. Being the son of art loving parents, art chose him long before he was born. J picked up his first camera in the summer of 1996 and from there taught himself black and white developing and printing.