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Pacific ocean cool: when American Arts and Crafts met Japanese modernism


The photographer Yasuhiro Ishimotos images of the pioneering architecture of Greene and Greene have a minimal aesthetic that still looks contemporary

A few months before his death in 2012, photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto requested that his 1974 series on architects Greene and Greene be exhibited in California. The Museum of Art, Kochi, the seriess current home in Japan, is not a lending institution and none of the collection has ever been outside the country until now. At San Marinos Huntington Library is Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Bilingual Photography and the Architecture of Greene and Greene, a unique exploration of modernism, American Arts and Craft movement and traditional Japanese architecture presented in a lean series of 46 eloquently minimal black and white photos.

Born in San Francisco in 1921, Ishimoto moved with his parents to Japan during his formative years but returned to the US to pursue higher education. Instead, he wound up in Colorados Amache Internment Camp during world war two where he took the time to reflect on his future. Upon release he enrolled in the Chicago Institute of Design to study under legendary Bauhaus artist, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In a city as rich in architecture as Chicago the multi-award winning Ishimoto couldnt help but shoot buildings, including a 1951 series of Mies van der Rohes Lake Shore Drive apartments. His professor, Harry Callahan introduced his work to MoMA photography curator Edward Steichen who included Ishimotos images in the landmark Family of Man exhibit of 1955.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Robert R Blacker house, front entry detail Photograph: Kochi Prefecture

Twenty-five years later, Tsune Sesoko, editor of the influential design magazine Approach, commissioned the images that make up the current show. Ishimoto took more than a 1,000 photos of landmark domiciles designed by arts and crafts architects Greene and Greene. They included the Thorsen House in Berkeley, the Blacker House in Pasadena as well as its famous neighbor the Gamble House, where he shot over 600 images. Of the 1000, only 82 were printed and only 23 were published.

The shows curator, Anne Mallek (former curator of the Gamble House), chose from published photos and unpublished prints, prefacing each section with Ishimotos images of Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto taken 20 years before the Greene and Greene commission. Compositions tend to focus on geometry and design details wooden hinges, fixtures, masonry but few wide shots incorporating complete structures. Despite the gap in time and place, the resemblance between the 17th century royal retreat and the Greene and Greene houses of the early 1900s are close enough that one could be mistaken for the other.

Stepping-stones from the Imperial Carriage Stop to the Gepparo, Katsura Imperial Villa, 1954. Photograph: Ishimoto Yasuhiro Photo Center/ Kochi Prefecture

Photographing Katsura was a very personal exercise for him in terms of being drawn to the beauty of the building and how the details and structure of it lend itself to a modernist interpretation, explains Mallek, co-author of A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene. Its a basis for seeing how he established the eye, established his reputation for being a modernist and how he took that and looked at the Greenes work.

Ishimoto was not alone in his modern approach to the past. Katsura Villa greatly influenced architect/photographer Kenzo Tange and others seeking a new direction for architecture in post-war Japan. Together they published their landmark work Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture, a seminal look at the relationship between photography and architecture.

David B Gamble house, northeast sleeping porch detail. Photograph: Kochi Prefecture

Of course one of the Greenes most famous structures, the Gamble House is a short drive from the Huntington and is open to the public. But the Libby House, also in Pasadena, was razed in 1968. Luckily the staircase remains, salvaged and preserved as part of the Huntingtons permanent gallery dedicated to Greene and Greene. Here, an evolution of their style can be traced through interior design elements ranging from furniture and fixtures, eschewing ornate Victorian styles of the day, through their expanding use of stained glass as well as their collaboration with the Hall brothers, master woodworkers employing mahogany, black walnut and teak to create an complete floor-to-ceiling environment.

Quintessentially American in its mash-up of identity and culture, the relationship between Ishimoto and the Greene brothers goes beyond simple polarities of east and west. Western artists had long held an exotic fascination for the east, often flirting with but seldom incorporating aesthetic styles to pave a new path forward.