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HDR⎽nature by Yoshinori Mizutani: A Natural Phantasmagoria

For William Henry Fox Talbot, photography was considered a pencil of nature, that allowed him to render objective and unbiased representations of the world without any human intervention. Photographic documents were free of the approximations of paintings and they quickly introduced new standards that helped lay the foundation for naturalism. 

Today, the camera continues to be the instrument of choice for capturing phenomenon that cannot be seen directly and demonstrating experiences that cannot be expressed clearly. In the first pages of his exhaustive investigation into the origins of abstraction in photography , Lyle Rexer outlines that the uses and meanings associated with the photographic medium have never been only oriented towards objectivity : ‘At the same time, however, the process itself (in its many forms) offered opportunities for formal and material expression that further distanced the photograph from documentation—and invited continued experiments’. The works of early photographers provided more precise and objective ways of documenting the natural world. But in the same moment, they were bringing technologies to their limits, and contributed to the creation of visual and aesthetics codes that reproduced the world as an abstraction.

The posture of Yoshinori Mizutani exemplifies this tradition that considers photography as a tool for creating images and languages that help the observers to see the world beyond what is visible at first glance. In Tokyo Parrots (2013), the parakeets are dotted in the sky like the notes of scores in which the lines are made of tree branches and electric power lines. In Yusurika (2016), the flash causes a vast number of midges to swarm in rivers and ponds, plunging the landscapes into dreamlike tableaux that outlines the dynamic and unstable qualities of the natural environments. HDR⎽nature opens a new chapter in this photographic exploration of the unseen territories that surround us. 

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. This technique expresses the difference between the lightest light and darkest dark that are possible to capture in a photo. The process consists in merging several photographs of the same scene, shot with varying shutter speed combinations, in order to attain a greater dynamic range of luminosity than with a single photograph. The images are then blended together automatically, or in postproduction, in order to create a single image presenting the most focused, the most well-lit and the most colorful parts of the scene. To some extent, the final images are the result of a fully automated process. Oftentimes, the images made using HDR present outrageous contrasts and uncanny temporalities. The world seems to unveil all its facets, as if the day and the night were present at the same time. 

HDR⎽nature intends to tweak this normal set of operations. Mizutani explore this technology that is always more common in contemporary photography as a way to discover new images, and at the same time, as a challenge to expand the possibilities of photography. In particular, by moving the camera while shooting, Mizutani forces the software to the limits of its ability to represent reality. By slightly disrupting the process of reproduction, his series gives rise to a whole range of unplanned and welcomed visual combinations. Captured with the HDR rendering algorithms, the familiar forms of the natural environment are transformed into pleochroic patterns in half-light color gradient. Our eyes are constantly reframing the shapes and the contents, the foregrounds and the backgrounds, the obscurity and the clarity. Polymorphic and ubiquitous, this series documents a radiant, hybrid natural environment, in which the elements seem to be in perpetual transformation. 

More than a century and a half after the invention of photography, Mizutani shows that it is always possible to invent new languages to see the world. In this sense, his approach to the medium could be compared with the pioneering experimentations of the botanist Anne Atkins. Indeed, by using for its own purposes a type of photogram called a cyanotype, she developed a new visual language that, with the benefit of hindsight, goes well beyond the scope of scientific methods: ‘Atkins’s work especially resembles a natural phantasmagoria, in which recognizable views of known objects give way to extravagant variations of exotic forms, suggestive visual analogies, stunning textural contrasts, and sheer exuberance, solicited it seems out of the blue’ (Lyle Rexer). By focusing the viewers’ attention on the infinite variations of the natural environment, Mizutani brings the observers beyond the sole act of observation. HDR⎽nature is a present-day evidence that the technologies of vision, despite their increasing algorithmic precision, are also reproducing the world as a phantasmagoria. 

IMA magazine vol.25, p150, amana

Text: Joël Vacheron


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