The silent breathing of the forest

A new exhibition in Barcelona showcases the work of Takeshi Shikama His landscape photos are captured using old-fashioned plate cameras

One of the photos by Takeshi Shikama, which are on show in Barcelona until March 7.
One of the photos by Takeshi Shikama, which are on show in Barcelona until March 7.

The small size is misleading, and even more so now, once our eyes have gotten used to the colossal photographs hanging from gallery walls.

But a closer look at the diminutive work by the Japanese artist Takeshi Shikama, on display until March 7 at the Gas Natural Fenosa gallery in Barcelona, unveils the details of the natural landscapes that he captured between 2004 and 2013 in Japan and the United States.

The closer one looks, the more the images seem to expand into the depth of the forests where trunks, leaves and rivers are captured with every anatomical detail.

The 65-year-old artist employs a unique technique to crystallize reality: using a heavy, old-fashioned plate camera, he immortalizes the naturally occurring foreshortening effect in its exact size. Later he prints it with a platinum-palladium emulsion on Gampi, a handcrafted paper made from a rare Japanese tree, so the finer nuances and fragments may be engraved in the yellowish medium.

“His black-and-white series, devoted to forest groves and natural parks, constitutes a timeless work,” says Carmen Fernández, director of the Gas Natural Fenosa Contemporary Art Museum (MAC) in A Coruña. “It is hard to say whether the photographs were taken in the early 19th century, the mid-20th century or right now.”

“In an entire day maybe he manages to take just six or seven pictures”

Fascinated by this “Japanese form of contemplation and of feeling the landscape,” Fernández asked Shikama to photograph the Atlantic forests of Galicia as part of a wider retrospective on his work scheduled for May at the MAC.

Shikama was a professional designer in Tokyo until the age of 55, when he decided to take up photography. He built himself a wooden house in a forest, two hours away from the megalopolis, and left city life behind to devote himself to the contemplation of nature.

“He was deeply impressed by tree-cutting, which allowed him to understand an ancestral Japanese belief that venerated trees as though they were gods,” notes Alain d’Hooge, curator of Shikama’s exhibition in Brussels. The artist, he says, “allows himself to be guided by the murmuring of a world outside the world, what he describes as a silent breathing.” Shikama lugs his heavy equipment around in this pristine natural setting, and “in an entire day maybe he manages to take just six or seven pictures,” explains Fernández.

His images straddle Eastern pictorial traditions and Western landscape photography, with direct references to the work of 19th-century pioneers such as Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge. In the dark depths of the forest, long exposure times mean that any movement — trembling leaves, flowing water — get eliminated in the final shot, lending a vibrant, dreamlike quality to nature.

Even in the few “urban jungles” where Shikama has worked, such as New York’s Central Park, the artist manages to convert the skyscrapers into distant ruins that blend with nature, in an effect that is not so much photographic as it is typical of prints or painting. The end feeling is that one is contemplating an idyllic spot, a paradise that is off limits to the common mortal. The forest breathes silently.

Takeshi Shikama, La respiración silenciosa. Until March 7 at Sala Polivalente de Gas Natural Fenosa, Plaça del Gas 1, Barcelona. www.mac.gasnaturalfenosa.com

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