The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has a strong collection of Japanese photography and a history of showing important photographic work from that country to American audiences, dating back to a 1999 retrospective of the work of Daido Moriyama. Last year, curator Lisa Sutcliffe began work on putting together an exhibition of the work of Naoya Hatakeyama, a photographer whom she describes as one of the most interesting Japanese artists working right now but someone who has not yet become well known in the United States. She traveled to Japan to meet with him—in March of 2011, when the tsunami struck, destroying Hatakeyama’s hometown of Rikuzentakata and killing his mother.
The show that Sutcliffe and Hatakeyama were meant to discuss was transformed by those events. The result is Natural Stories, organized in cooperation with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and opening at SFMOMA on July 28. The exhibition is a retrospective, featuring more than 100 photographs along with videos, all with a focus on the artist’s landscape work.
“All of his work is looking at landscapes in transition. It draws on the tradition of the sublime, so even when the work is peaceful there’s always this quality of on-the-verge-of-change,” Sutcliffe says. “Even if the photographs are sort of peaceful and idyllic there is this sense of this other, more interesting system at work.”
The earliest work in the show comes from Hatakeyama’s Lime Hills series, which the artist began in 1986. Those photographs of a landscape shaped by a desire for the natural resources within are, says Sutcliffe, a sort of jumping-off point for the career that followed, throughout which Hatakeyama has explored the relationship between the land and the people who live and work in it. And, ever since the tsunami, the balance of power in that relationship is exceedingly clear—and seeing Hatakeyama’s photographs from 25 years ago next to his work from this past year just underscores that point.
“You look at these landscapes where humans have interacted with the landscape, and you see the pictures after the tsunami,” Sutcliffe says, “and just how much nature really does still have power over us.”
Naoya Hatakeyama is an award-winning Japanese photographer. The exhibition Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from July 28 – Nov. 4, 2012.