In a Photograph
My introduction to Kai Yamadaís work hung on the walls in the entry to the ďContrasting ObjectivesĒ exhibit. These photographs first caught my eye because they are of the same subject matter that I focus on in my work, which involves buildings and man-made structures, generally bare of people. Then I looked closer, and I saw an image that took my breath away. Kai had taken a picture, at night, of Whatcom Creek, and the bridge that runs above it. This place isnít a secret, thereís a staircase and a path that runs directly down to where he took the picture, and Iím sure this location isnít important to me exclusively. But Kai managed to capture on film one of the most valuable scenes in my life.
This bridge, located near the Bellingham Municipal Courthouse, stretches over a boardwalk leading down to an outlook over Whatcom Creek. The image is done on a silver gelatin print, which means it appears in shades of grey. Power lines overlapping a matte sky are illuminated by a streetlamp that is obscured by one of the many trees. The boardwalk extends into the darkness in the back of the image, and the creek at first is serene, reflective, like glass. As it flows along, it tumbles down rocks like a miniature waterfall and runs out of the image, beyond where we can see. If you were really there, you would know that youíre able to follow the boardwalk down, watching the path of the water grow harsh and jagged. Youíd know that you are eventually able to cross over it. Youíd feel the temptation as you lean over the railing to stare at the white water rushing beneath you to maybe drop your camera or yourself into it.
Kaiís photograph doesnít take us this far. But he fuses seamlessly the division between nature and concrete, the question of where human life ends and the unknown begins. The bridge is manmade, the drainage pipes running up the side of the creek are not supposed to be there. But they bring an element of familiarity and comfort, as ugly as they can be, because then we know that humans are still around. The power lines jar the sky, but we like to see them there because they represent us in a way that a stream canít.
To my life specifically, this scene has striking familiarity. Itís where I come to think, itís where Iíve walked my dog, itís where Iíve celebrated the joys of winning and the bitterness (and sometimes relief) of defeat. Iíve dated there, Iíve cried there, and Iíve participated in some behaviors that shouldnít be repeated there. Iíve tried to define myself on that bridge; Iíve mourned the loss of friends there.
Iím sure Kai doesnít know any of that. But his photograph accomplishes some objective, then, because this photograph somehow evokes in me all of the memories and emotions that I associate with that place. If I were to go there, and take a picture with my old digital camera, would the result have the same effect on me? I donít think so. My photograph, thought it would have all of the emotions that I pile onto that place behind it, would not be able to capture the scene as Kaiís did because I donít know how to do that, and he does it without realizing it.
So what makes Kai Yamada able to view something creatively and capture feelings that he doesnít even know are there? As Diana George and John Trimbur put it Reading Culture, ďLike verbal language, visual languages does not convey simply one stable message to everyone who reads it. Meaning depends on the reader as well as the text.Ē This also makes sense when applied to the photograph of Whatcom Creek. What do other people think when they see this picture? Do they feel the same need to be there, to be watching the creek tumble by? Probably not. I think that most people simply see a beautiful photograph, with elements that just fall into place. Maybe it reminds them of somewhere they love. Most likely, they see it just as I see the rest of Kai Yamadaís work, photographs of places that I donít know. These pictures are unfamiliar to me, and I have no ties to them. However, I still appreciate the delicacy of them, the composition of the photographs that took much longer than the viewer can understand.
On Kai Yamadaís website, he describes, to some extent, the process of capturing emotion in photography. ďBy my early twenties, I had been taking snapshots for many years before I made what I consider to be my first real photographÖ.There was a feeling when I snapped the shutter of capturing something powerful.Ē Did he have the same feeling as he took the picture of Whatcom Creek? It is certainly a powerful image, definitely a moment in time caught on film.
Is that Kaiís objective, to capture powerful things on film? Every picture Iíve seen of his, from the creek that I love to nights in Seville, Spain, does so. He captures memories, emotions, even desires. He opens my mind to photography and encapsulates scenes to be more beautiful than they are in real life, even. And most of all, Kai Yamada can take a powerful scene from my life and transfer it onto paper, and that is worth my admiration.
George, Diana, and John Trimbur. "Images." Introduction to Chapter 4. Reading Culture. 5th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004. 173-181.
Yamada, Kai. Artist's Statement. Contrasting Objectives: Fifteen Pacific Northwest Photographers. Brochure for Exhibit. Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham. 2006.
Yamada, Kai. Whatcom Creek. 2005. "Portfolio." Kai Yamada Photography. 12 May 2006 http://www.kaiphoto.com/bell_06.html.