Ancient landmarks from an unusual perspective

by Felicitas Blanck January 9, 2019
Ancient landmarks from an unusual perspective

Nowadays a wide range of photos of traditional Japanese architecture is easily accessible – but few seem to capture the atmosphere of the wooden structures and the core idea of Japanese philosophy embodied in these ancient buildings as well as the photographs of Mitsumasa Fujitsuka, actually shown at the Japanese-German Center Berlin.

Mitsumasa Fujitsuka is one of Japan’s most renowned photographers, well known for his works on design from architecture as of Tadao Ando, to fashion like iconic Issey Miyake.

The photos for this exhibition come all from the book “Japan’s Wooden Heritage: A Journey through a Thousand Years of Architecture ”, which was published in 2014. The exhibition based on the book, was very successful in Japan and is shown now in Germany.

The images are arranged in groups for each of the 23 portrayed buildings, many in contrasting juxtaposition: detail and overview. We see a timber joint next to a bird’s eye view of a roof, for example. Many scenes are well known to the observer, as they show the most prestigious of Japan’s historical sites, several of which belong to the List of National Treasures of Japan. Having said this, the photographer adds a new view which might be yet unknown to us. There are the bright red frames of Itsukushima shrine: one image shows just one huge red post in close-up, so we get a sense of the texture of the wood and can even see the strokes of the axe. Another shot shows a grid of red verticals and horizontals made up by the beams of the shrine.

Visitors can use a booklet containing the descriptions by structural engineer Mikio Koshihara appearing in the book as well. A big part of this commentary centers around earthquake-resilient architecture and explains how this was achieved in historic Japan and in which ways engineers today try to add their learnings to it and design houses even more robust.

Frames and views

Although all photos are in colour, some seem almost monochromatic, reminding one of ink drawings from the Muromachi period (1333-1573), as below in the photo of Zaōdō Hall which seems to be created from a exclusively blue-greyish color palette. The snow covered main building of Kimpusen-ji temple soars high above the surrounding landscape while the fog floating in the middle ground gives the capture an unreal and enchanted atmosphere.

One of the most striking aspects of Fujitsuka’s photography is that he always takes the traditional Japanese approach to architecture into consideration: every door, every opening created by a sliding door is seen not only as a passage but as a frame to the landscape outside, and in reverse to the insides, notably the shrine niche, the Tokonoma. Both views, both frames are equally important. So his photography puts another frame on the view the door encloses and becomes an actual picture to hang on a wall. A building is not considered as an artificial addition to nature, but part of it – and in this sense Fujitsuka shows it to us.

Structure and light

Each building is built for durability and is therefore perfectly adjusted to the conditions of the nature surrounding it. Regardless the function, the basic structure is almost always the same: a cuboid form. Although in this exhibition we see several buildings – temples, mostly – which don’t fit that description at all (below the Sazaedō Temple, Mt. Iimori). Some of the structures we see here are almost 1000 years old, only components are swapped for refurbishment at times, others are rebuilt and still ancient as the rebuilding happened hundreds of years ago in itself.

Another important feature of Fujitsuka’s approach is the light. He shot – at least the images we see here – only with natural light. So he is capturing perfectly the character of these ancient structures, in an atmosphere which should come as close as possible to the one originally planned.

The light is much more subdued than we are used to today, it flows naturally according to the time of day and filters through the paper-thin walls, as the observer sits and watches its decreasement when evening approaches.

Photo exhibition “Japan‘s Masterpieces of Wooden Architecture”
Japanese-German Center Berlin
On Display until February 22, 2019
Opening hours: Mon – Thu 10 am – 5 pm, Fri 10 am – 3.30 pm
Admittance free

Digital prints on Fujifilm Professional paper Pro G, glossy on Aluminium
Camera: Canon EOS 5

© for all pictures: Mitsumasa Fujitsuka. Thank you!
Kintaikyō-Bridge in Iwakuni, built in 1673. The bridge was rebuilt several times.
Zaōdō Hall, Yoshino, completed during the second half of the seventh century.
Sazaedō Temple, erected in 1796.

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