09 January 2015

In Snow Country. Shiraishi and Kawabata

I was introduced to the photography of Kent Shiraishi by Suzanne, the Errant Aesthete, in 2011 when Shiraishi received an award from the magazine National Geographic.  Shiraishi, who is Japanese,  describes himself as a Samurai photographer.  He lives on the northern island of Hokkaido, an island whose shape is oddly similar to that of Newfoundland, another semi-detached province halfway around the world.  And then, like peeling back layers of an onion,  I discovered that there is something curious about the Blue Pond that put Shiraishi on the photographic map:   the blue pond sometimes turns green.

During October and November, when winter arrives on Hokkaido, the pond at Biei where Shiraishi lives changes colors, and not just the ordinary colors you might expect. In spite of overcast autumn skies,  the pond changes  from turquoise to emerald green.   Although it is known to local people as  Blue Pond, the pond is an artificial excavation, part of an erosion control system built to protect the town from damage if  the nearby volcano, Mount Tokachidaka, erupts.  The cause of this dramatic color change  has yet to be determined but scientists speculate that aluminum hydroxide in the water causes  blue light to refract at shorter wavelengths than usual through the earth's atmosphere.  Shiraishi's explanation is more succinct: "the weather."  
The weather is, of course, a compelling preoccupation of Japanese  artists at least since the time of ukiyo-e or 'the floating world.'   An archipelago of islands, Japan is a country with a culture of water; its creation myths describe male and female deities descending from above to create mountains, rivers, and vegetation of variety and uniqueness.

“Time passed. But time flows in many streams. Like a river, an inner stream of time will flow rapidly at some places and sluggishly at others, or perhaps even stand hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”  - excerpt from Beauty And Sadness by Yasunari Kawabta (1975)

Yasunari Kawabata’s prose is admired its combination of spareness and lyricism.  To his countrymen, Kawabata was the writer who best carried forward  ancient traditions in his novels, such as The Old Capital, Snow Country, and A Thousand Cranes.  Yasunari Kawabats was the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. 
Orphaned when he was four years old, he went to live with grandparents and by the time he was fifteen, both of them had died as well.  This left him alone in the world,  and as a young writer living in Tokyo, Kawabata experimented with several styles before finding the voice for his  stories of love's difficulties set against the the inexplicable beauties of nature.

In Beauty And Sadness, Kawabata wrote, “I wonder what the retirement age is in the novel business.  The day you die.”  In the event, Kawabata died in 1972, an apparent suicide, although the exact circumstances were not determined.

 “It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.”  - excerpt from Snow Country (1956) 

At some point during the winter the blue pond freezes over.  Above the pond Sirius appears to the naked eye as the brightest star in the night sky but it is composed of two stars, a circle of light.  Like Kawabata or the British poet Don Patterson in "Phantom IV" we bring to our contemplations "nerve and hand and eye." 

Images: Kent Shiraishi, photographer,  National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
1. Blue pond in winter.
2. Blue pond at first snow.
3. The blue pond and Sirius.


Unknown said...

I appreciate that you published many of my photographs here.
Thank you very much!

Jane said...

I am delighted to hear from you! I hope I presented your work well. Seeing it made me go back and read Yasurnari Kawabata again. Please let me know of your new ventures and punlications.

Tania said...

Merveilleuse association entre "Pays de neige" et les superbes images du photographe. Merci, Jane.

Jane said...

Merci, Tania. Vous pouvez voir plus de photos par Kent Shiraishi: