'Perfectly Imperfect': Yamamoto Masao (1957)


Yamamoto Masao’s photography has been highly appreciated in the West for many years. His work is suffused with sensibilities that derive from Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, Daoism, and Japanese aesthetic traditions. It is impossible to fully understand or discuss his work without reference to spiritual and aesthetic concepts such as wabi sabi.


Yet to Yamamoto himself, this connection wasn’t always obvious. In a public lecture he spoke of how he became aware of the Zen sensibility that suffuses his work, only when European and American critics started remarking on it.


“I had never studied the Way of Zen and had no awareness of the spirit of Zen within me … I realised the need to relearn the traditional Japanese culture. As I gained more knowledge … there were ‘aha’ moments where I discovered why I think and behave the way I do.”


Some of Yamamoto's works from the early series are small enough to lie across your open hand. He is not afraid of the prints being faded or wrinkled by carrying them around, rubbing them in his hands and pushing them into his pockets. 


Yamamoto’s aged prints can easily evoke a wabi-sabi feeling. They take on the aura of old family snapshots that have spent decades in boxes, drawers, and albums and which, through the passage of time, develop a floating, elusive relationship to memory. The subjects of his photographs transmit a deep harmony and they encourage the viewer to reflect and make connections with their own memories. 


“When I look back upon my path, I realise that the one consistent motif in my work was my obsession for small things. I feel joy when I discover seemingly insignificant things that may be easily overlooked. I am interested in those awkward feelings – such as when you miss a buttonhole or are stalled and lost in a disorienting fog. I prefer whispering my messages in a soft voice instead of speaking them out loud. My messages may be so soft as to be mistaken for illusions.”


In collaboration with Gallery FIFTY ONE

Images: ©Masao Yamamoto,