Photographer Yoko Naito currently moves between New York City and Berlin, but her quiet photos don’t immediately reflect that life until you understand her view of the world and how she came to it. Her show Unbeknown at Outside, the North Adams gallery at 10 Ashland St., Naito offers a series of ethereal images which get to the core of that.
With Unbeknown, Naito turns her eye to Coney Island during the winter. Naito was looking for a place in New York City where she could escape crowds and noise, and she found what would be not only her area of solace, but the focus of a series of photographs that convey the same need — a beach in winter.
Naito, who was born in the small village of Fukuoka and then grew up in Tokyo, became fascinated with environment, particularly the contrast between the rural and the urban, when she was a kid. Summer vacation would take her out of Tokyo to stay in a small village with her grandparents, accompanied by road trips that had Naito concentrating on the cascade that passed outside.
“I watched many landscapes through the car window,” Naito said. “I’m curious about the scenery outside of my living environment. I started to capture those sceneries when my father gave me a 35mm film camera.”
Naito’s interest and eye evolved in such a way that the images she captured evoked not only what she saw in front of her, but what transpired in her own mind, making the connections between the landscapes she walked in, the emotional remnants of previous human use of those areas and her own mindscapes that coexisted within her own experiences in the landscapes.
“Yoko has a very unique perspective on the relationship between humans and the environment,” said Outside gallery co-owner Mandy Johnson. “Her photographs begin to tell a story of humans and nature but leave open many questions that compel the viewer to reflect on the subject. There is something very haunting yet peaceful about her imagery.
One constant through all of Naito’s work is the lack of humans, even if they are areas that humans have created, or at least congregate. But as Naito points out, that lack is only in the physical sense, and her images have a way of portraying that which is no longer there.
“Even though there is no human in my photography, there is a smell or atmosphere of humans because of the object that humans left behind,” she said. “If I photograph a portrait, we have to open our hearts each other. But nature is always waiting for me.”
That’s the case with her work in Coney Island, which is filled with humans during the summer months, while the winter is defined not by a emptiness, but a lack of humans. Their spirits loom, but the landscape itself, along with the detritus of human involvement, dominates the physical presence.
“The photographs in Unbeknown are very quiet and minimal, which we feel gives greater power to the subject matter in each image,” Johnson said. “The photographs depict objects typically associated with activity, or human presence, yet are absent of either. The effect can be lonely and isolating, yet at times playful or even sarcastic. The fact that the imagery is left intentionally vague allows room for the viewer to have their own personal response.
In her Unbeknown photos, Naito makes use of the vast blankness of the winter sky and snow-covered ground to create an immense area within the frame that is taken up by grays and whites and faded blues. The minimalism of these areas of her frames present the whole world as a constructed piece of art where nature and man-made objects like buildings, tire tracks and fences don’t collide, but work together in the complete picture, much in the same way the world outside Naito’s car window as a child would transform from urban to rural as not separate images, but a wide tapestry.
“The vast frame of snow and sky turns each object into a character,” Johnson said. “Yet, the space around each object is as much as character as the objects themselves. Yoko represents space as a thickness, not just a passive background, that plays a prominent role in the tone and aesthetic of the photographs. Each subject is given a similar treatment in atmosphere and composition, which allows for a deeper and more objective understanding of each.”
In Naito’s universal view, neither is more important — the natural and the man-made exist together on the same plane, and Naito’s photographic capture of this dynamic is marked by a meditative quality that she requires in making the work itself. In that way, Naito, too, is part of her own frames, with her camera being the other proof of human activity within the barrenness she documents.
“My interest is the environment of the correlations of nature, humans, animals and their artifacts,” Naito said. “The juxtapositions with different kinds defines the significance of existence between each other in the same environment. This fact helped me realize that we’re living in one universe. I capture the unexpected in the same environment and the similarity in different environment. I observe the world objectively, a quiet environment is preferred in order for me to capture this essence.”