When the Camera Speaks

When the camera speaks, what are photographers trying to tell us? What do they want us to feel?
Why did they choose photography to express themselves?
Leading photographers share their thoughts about their craft.

A photographic legacy to stand the test of time

Interview: November 13, 2015;
Posted: January 29, 2016

Portrait photographer whose subjects are mostly actors, celebrities and athletes, Shin Yamagishi recently turned his camera toward Kyoto's Kamigamo Shrine over a 17-month period, and will present images from that project in the exhibition "Kamigamo Shrine (Kamo-wakeikazuchi Shrine) World Heritage Site 42nd Shikinen Sengu Ritual: Return to the Sanctuary" at Olympus Gallery Tokyo from Heisei* 28 (2016) Janunary 22-30, and Olympus Gallery Osaka from February 5-18. Also on Yamagishi's slate this year are an eighth exhibition of work from his Shunkan no Kao (Face of the Moment) portrait series featuring men from various walks of life, and in the spring, the release of a compilation of photos taken over ten years covering Ban-ei horse racing in Tokachi, Hokkaido.

* Heisei is the name of the current era in Japan that started on January 8, 1989.

Over 30,000 shots in 32 days

Photographer Shin Yamagishi has just wrapped up 17 months of photo-documenting Kyoto's Kamigamo Shrine. His work at the shrine ended for the time being with the Seikangu ceremony of the shrine's forty-second Shikinen Sengu renewal ritual*. We spoke to Yamagishi about how it felt to spend over a year capturing the shrine during this important rite conducted just once every 21 years, and what visitors can expect to see at the exhibition scheduled for January.

Q: In our interview last September (2014), we talked about how you came to photograph Kamigamo Shrine. At that stage, you had previously been on four shoots at the shrine. How much time did you subsequently spend commuting between Tokyo and Kyoto for the assignment?

Yamagishi: In terms of days on location, a total of 32 days, during which time I took over 30,000 photos. After an initial visit in May 2014, I covered events at the shrine from the karisengu that June to seikangu in October this year. This period included not only the repair of the National Treasure-status honden, but festivals such as the Aoi Matsuri, and various Shinto ceremonies. Staying for two or three nights each time, I was out there from morning to night, hence the number of photos: pretty much what you'd expect for that time frame.

Q: How are preparations going for the exhibition?

Yamagishi: I always say that choosing photos is as important as taking them, and this time the selection process is taking about a month. I'm hoping to narrow the number down to around 45 for the exhibition, so obviously there are far more photos that we will not able to show. I started by printing out about 150, then making test prints of about 80 of those, and laying them out in the studio to finalize the selection.

The previous exhibition omitted the repair work on the cypress bark roof, but this time I'm thinking of printing and displaying images of this process. The problem is that the sheer scale of the whole Sekinen Sengu project is such that it would be impossible to show every aspect. Re-thatching of the roof takes place every second time, and it's impossible to represent a task performed only once every 42 years in just one or two photos. So this will mean including a detailed explanation in the accompanying text.

* Every 21 years, a ritual known as shikinen sengu involving repairs to the main sanctuary (honden), re-thatching and other work is conducted at Kamigamo Shrine (officially known as Kamo-wakeikazuchi Shrine). Proceedings begin with a ceremony known as karisengu, in which the enshrined deity is transferred from the honden to the gonden, its temporary home. On completion of repairs to the honden, priests perform the seikangu ceremony, returning the deity to its original sanctuary.

Praying to the heavens while photographing the seikangu

Q: Photographing the seikangu ceremony, in which the deity is returned from the gonden to the honden, must have been the climax of a long drawn-out shoot. Can you describe it for us?

Yamagishi: I was allotted a special spot for the ceremony. Media representatives are assigned positions by ballot, but the shrine staff let me stand away from them and closest to the action, in what was probably the best position. It wasn't without difficulties though. The seikangu was performed in almost total silence: you couldn't even hear the footsteps. Apart from the faint strains of music in the backdrop, it was completely quiet. Being by myself away from everyone else, naturally any movement on my part would have really stood out. Plus I spent the whole time crouching, unable to stand up. Even the tiniest movement there would disturb the gravel making unbelievably loud noise.

Once the deity was finally back in the honden, the lights dimmed abruptly. It was a moonless night, pitch black. The LCD screen on the camera glowed brightly in the gloom, so I swiftly put a raincoat over my head and adjusted the focus to infinity. I had no choice but to switch to bulb mode and operate the shutter by feel. Having had no idea it would be this dark, I was caught totally off guard. I glanced skyward, pleading for something to show up in my shots. It's certainly the first time I've ever asked any gods for a favor.

I prefer to capture bright things bright, and dark things dark, like I did at the karisengu. So, I kept the shutter speed down pretty low. You can't have things that are invisible through the viewfinder coming out light. Ultimately only two shots came out from that scene.

But look at this way: it's not like I went there specifically to get this one shot, or even that this is an especially important shot. But perhaps it was a vague feeling that I'd get a shot like this that kept pulling me back there for 17 months, and to my way of thinking, that makes it all worthwhile.

The significance of recording religious rites and festivals in photographs

Q: What was on your mind over the year-and-a-half while you were taking photos at the shrine?

Yamagishi: Initially I was at a real loss as to what exactly to photograph at Kamigamo Shrine. I used art filters, varied angles, all sorts of techniques, but in the end came to the conclusion that my task was simply to document this historic shrine. In other words, forget about stuff like focusing on the main subject and artfully blurring the background, or tinkering with the camera to perform technical trickery. Instead, ultimately I saw my mission as documenting the rites and festivals staged at the shrine, and doing so properly. Although not in the sense of reporting, or even simply recording, but applying my own senses as a photographer.

Q: Meaning, leaving an enduring legacy to be appreciated by future generations?

Yamagishi: How many head priests do you think there have been at Kamigamo Shrine? The current priest is actually number 204. That's quite a history. As I photographed the shrine I became conscious of huge gaps in my knowledge, and the need for more study, but I suspect even those who work at the shrine do not know all there is to know about it. After all, it is thousands of years old. There are very few records from so far back. The photos I took of Kamigamo Shrine form an historical record that will also be useful for future members of its priesthood.

So while having people view the photos at the exhibition was a pivotal pillar of the project, as I went about taking those photos I started wanting to bequeath something to the shrine. Because by presenting the photos to the shrine, I'm providing a valuable reference for the priests involved in the next seikangu in 21 years' from now.

Emphasizing the human element

Q: Didn't you find it a challenge to tackle what is for you, a completely new sort of subject?

Yamagishi: Not at all, because these shots still have people in them. In fact, they're all people, with hardly any purely landscape shots. There are photos of the hill behind the shrine, known as Koyama, the stream that runs through the grounds, hollyhock leaves and so on, but that's about it. And I suppose that is why the shrine's PR person commented that my photos of Kamigamo Shrine were different to what anyone else has taken.

Q: How did you gain the trust of people at the shrine?

Yamagishi: Certainly not by doing anything special. Generally speaking I'm quite reserved, and while I can be a chatterbox at interviews, on location at a place like this, I mostly keep to myself. No doubt that is obvious from my photographs. It's a big deal to print something and put it out there with your name on it, and that applies whether the print run is just a handful or in the thousands. So we photographers always have that in mind the whole time we're on the job.

One thing I will say is that while those of us taking photos were allowed to undergo ritual purification and enter the site before the waiting worshippers, I made a decision not to feel conscious of receiving special treatment. I had to have the same feelings as those praying, otherwise it would stop me taking the photos properly.

The joy of photography in clean fresh air

Q: What motivated you to spend so much time traveling back and forth to Kyoto in such a short period?

Yamagishi: As photographers go I'm quite impetuous, so prefer to be on the go (laughs). I knew the dates for the various ceremonies, so if I had a couple of days of spare time I'd make some inquiries and drive down to Kyoto with an assistant. I shudder to think how much it all cost though. I probably could have spent a year in Paris for the same outlay!

But then, it's not that I especially wanted to make my money back, or have my name known to future generations, or anything that dramatic. I felt privileged just to be there, the sole visitor to the shrine. The simple fact of being able to breathe the clean, crisp fresh air and forget all my worldly cares as a photographer taking photographs—that can be a wonderfully soothing experience.

Q: So is this the last of your work at Kamigamo Shrine?

Yamagishi: No, it's not a matter of having quit. With the shikinen sengu over, I'm thinking perhaps now I can finally photograph Kamigamo Shrine however I like. For instance, perhaps I will go there when the cherry trees are in full bloom just to photograph the cherry blossoms.

Up to now I've been photographing the shrine's rituals and haven't really paid a lot of attention to much of anything else. I might find that as I start photographing the shrine throughout the changing seasons, in the snow and so on, that it's too much to keep all to myself, and decide to compile it into a book.

Interview and text: Koji Okano