Masterful photos recall Romantic-era paintings 

click to enlarge Photo by Naoya Hatakeyama - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Photo by Naoya Hatakeyama

It’s a rare artist who can make a quarry recall 18th- and 19th-century Romantic paintings, but Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama does it deftly by playing with perspective, light and color.

“Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories,” on view through Nov. 4 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and co-organized with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, begins with the serene Swiss Alps and ends with a bang, closing with the hypnotic short film “Twenty-Four Blasts” — an intimate portrait of 24 quarry explosions.

The journey is epic and inquisitive, proving Hatakeyama a graceful surveyor, able to find the sublime just about anywhere, even in a sewer.

Hatakeyama’s jaw-dropping Alpine images are staggering in scope, and it is difficult to imagine what heights he scaled to snap them.

European Romantic painters were obsessed with the sublime, a trickle-down from philosophers who sought all that was awe-inspiring. Popular images of the era were otherworldly mountain vistas; lush, blue-green forests; mystic rivers and gray-tinged skies. Hatakeyama’s images, whether mine or mountain, are similarly tinted and positioned.

In a witty shot, he emasculates the Matterhorn, capturing a cloud puff instead of the famed mountain’s bold, bolting zenith. The de-glamorization is complete with a muddy snow pond in the foreground straddled by an old ski lift.

In another image, he makes a large museum perched atop a rocky summit look like a dollhouse, dwarfed by surrounding peaks, the approaching visitors reduced to antlike proportions. His hints at the complex relationship between humanity and nature give poetic pause and haunt his work.

Although enamored with vista points, Hatakeyama also shoots low, burrowing below Paris and Tokyo in two subterranean series.

“Underground” surveys Tokyo’s Shibuya River, a waterway re-routed below the city like a sewer. Hatakeyama illuminates the caverns with a single strobe, the water often reflecting the same glacial, turquoise blue in his Alpine photographs.

With equally dramatic lighting, the “Ciel Tombé” series documents Parisian subway ruins, where many tunnel ceilings have collapsed in craggy heaps.

In 2011, Hatakeyama’s hometown, Rikuzentakata, was devastated by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. The artist lost close family and friends, but documented the damage nonetheless.

The photos are heartbreaking to viewers, but unsentimental from the camera’s eye, an unflinching portrait of Mother Nature at her worst. Sixty pre-tsunami photographs by the artist are quietly illuminated in a digital slideshow on an opposite wall, the Kesengawa River looking placid and pastoral.

Multiple mine, quarry and demolition series pepper the exhibit, revealing Hatakeyama’s elegant and tactile hand at terrain. In his hands, a slag heap looks like baked Alaska dusted with charcoal, and  brown grass at its base seems as soft as down.

In “Twenty-Four Blasts,” solid rock bursts and shatters with dazzling clarity, the freshly splintered material looking as fragile as glass shards, autumn leaves or confetti.

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Lauren Gallagher

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