What’s cool about photography, compared to painting, is that the most abstract form—because it’s derived from a real object—has meaning. People can relate to it and add their own layers of interpretation.” So muses Tokyo-born, Pratt-educated, New York photographer Kyoko Hamada.
Hamada tells me this in the dimly-lit lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on a brilliant Manhattan afternoon. Hamada doesn’t have a studio. She works wherever her imagination and assignments take her. The Algonquin, a longtime meeting place for literary types, seemed like a good place to get together; that day she was moving from an apartment in Greenpoint to Fort Green, both in Brooklyn. “Another green place,” she says with a smile.
As I study the prints in her portfolio, the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” comes to mind. There are expanses of whiteness of every shade, pictures mysteriously and elegantly composed. Every object holds meaning; most are carefully set against a pale wall or a picture plane that, however unadorned, is anything but blank. “I am drawn to clean environments,” she states. “They’re the spaces I feel comfortable in.”
Hamada’s work shouldn’t be overanalyzed. It speaks for itself. “I enjoy photography,” she says simply. “I’ll see something that makes me feel something, and I want to photograph it. But it’s not like things are posing for me. I always play with the elements and try to emphasize what I’ve seen and gotten excited about. The more you take pictures, the more challenging it becomes because the world is filled with images and it gets harder to find things worth photographing.”
At 33, she has been taking pictures since her third year at Pratt, when she switched her concentration from painting to photography. “The painting department had a strong emphasis on abstract expressionism,” she recalls, “and I wanted to incorporate narrative into my work. I was making six-by-five-foot paintings filled with abstract shapes, and started combining them with photographs.” She began exposing images on photo linen and sewing them to the canvas with string. Her senior project was a series of interpretations of shapes of hairpieces and wigs, painted in acrylics, that incorporated photocopies of close-ups of body parts.
When pushed to categorize her work, she calls herself a surrealist. I sense that everything she does, whether it’s a portrait or landscape, small or large-scale, is in some way a still-life. The objects might be teacups, turtles, airplanes, people, swimming pools, tract houses, nuclear reactors. “Even the most trivial thing can be transformed when it’s framed properly,” she says. The water in pools shimmers like that in David Hockney’s paintings, and the buildings become sculptural objects like those in Ed Ruscha’s work. She cites as influences, in addition to Hockney and Edward Hopper, an eclectic list of photographers and filmmaker Jacques Tati. “I love the tempo and the playfulness of Tati’s Mon Oncle,” she says, “and the themes of technology and consumerism supplanting the old French ways.”
Although she’s a fine art photographer, Hamada doesn’t make her living in the fine art market. When she isn’t working on personal projects—explorations of form that might be shot in high school art rooms, in pediatric hospitals where clowns perform and in university labs where robots are being developed—her clients include ad agencies and major consumer magazines. Her notable portraits include Clive Davis, president of Arista Records, talking on the phone by the pool at his upstate New York house and Yoko Ono as a hot babe in her Chelsea studio. She’s shot the restaurant impresario Rocky Aoki for New York magazine, the architect Daniel Liebeskind for the London Sunday Telegraph, Al Sharpton for the Washington Post Magazine and Dame Judy Dench for Variety. She posed the band Sonic Youth against a backdrop of her own draftsmanship; she drew heads of sentimentalized youth on white seamless while waiting for the band members to arrive. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, British Harper’s Bazaar and the New Yorker as well as several Japanese magazines (but she’s so modest her rep Bill Charles told me this days after our initial interview). According to Charles, she did the first major ad campaign for Uniqlo, a hip apparel company, two Samsung campaigns for home theater equipment and a beautiful campaign for Bliss spa in New York. Hamada, however, would rather be known as a photographer of quirky things than celebrity portraits, and points to a favorite picture of filmmaker John Waters’s collection of fake food on his bedside table, which she shot for Vitals.
“I guess I was lucky,” Hamada says of her success. It is obvious that it’s more than luck; besides having extraordinary talent she has worked in a focused and diligent way.
In nearly perfect, lightly accented, English, she describes being the only non-native-born student in a high school in Wheeling, West Virginia. “We were the first non-American family most people in Wheeling had ever met,” she recalls. “I knew no English when we arrived and kids can be cruel.” Her father worked for a Japanese steel company that merged with a company based in Pittsburgh. The family of five moved from Tokyo when Hamada was fifteen. “I was really shy,” she adds. “I was always having a hard time with language.” She returns to Japan almost every year and says she still reads Japanese faster than English. When it comes to getting images, she isn’t shy, and makes the most intricately engineered setup look easy. If she has an idea and wants to photograph something, she makes phone calls and appointments, rents cars, takes buses or planes. “I have a vision and then do the research,” she states. She is fearless. She goes up to strangers, gets them to pose, rearranges elements. She works quickly when subjects are pressed for time, but likes to spend hours manipulating the composition so every detail pleases her eye. Then she shoots it, over and over, from every angle. Right now, she’s deeply involved in a series of still-lifes taken in high school art rooms, which might become part of a group exhibition. “They’re comical,” she says of the pictures, which include studies of objects like electrical outlets. “High school art usually gets thrown away,” she says, “or maybe put on refrigerators, but I think everybody can relate to this part of the curriculum; it’s somewhere to start and it might trigger something that makes you an artist. Also it’s nostalgic, the act of visiting where you once were.
She travels without an assistant and uses a Mamiya RZ67, a medium-format camera with interchangeable backs for 120 and 220 roll film. For larger-format work, she uses a Toyo Field camera, which has an old-fashioned pleated bellows that allows the body to rise, swing and tilt so she can correct distortion, adjust depth of field and selectively focus. She likes to shoot 400 nc Kodak film, a fine-grain color negative film favored by wedding photographers. Skilled in the dark-room, she processed her own film for years, both black-and-white and color, and made her own C-prints. Now she trusts a few labs to do this and to scan her negatives, send her digital files, which she manipulates and e-mails back to them to make final prints. She uses an Epson Stylus for work prints and personal projects—and is thinking about getting a digital camera “someday.”
Making money is not the highest item on her list of aspirations. Although she appreciates getting good fees, she says that most of the time it’s sufficient to earn enough to pay the rent for a studio apartment and make art. Hamada insists she’s just as happy to have her work in small, quality art magazines as she is to see it in Harper’s Bazaar. “I don’t have a family to support,” she says. “I don’t have big overhead.” How different this is from the paradigm of the successful photographer that reached its apex in the big-annual-report days of the 1980s. You charged a hefty day rate and pushed yourself to work every day, photographing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico one week and ketchup bottles on African tables the next. Hamada is not interested in that lifestyle. She is interested in exploring ideas and emotions within the context of her signature style—the pristine environment. Any economic downturn that may have negatively affected the photography business, such as clients’ reliance on huge online libraries of inexpensive stock images, doesn’t seem to have had an impact on her. She is out and about, documenting and stylizing life.
But when Bill Charles rings, and there’s an assignment, say, for Ask.com from Fallon Worldwide in London, she’s off to tackle that, too. Working with an agency is a different way to make a picture, she says. There’s the creative director, the art director, the prop stylist, the makeup person. “It’s collaborative, a group of people working together.” Hamada’s first agent, Los Angeles-based Deborah Schwartz, is credited for getting her started in commercial work at a time when she was struggling to make a living as an assistant.
Charles is almost nostalgic about the day in 2003 when Hamada dropped off her portfolio at his New York office. “I get dozens of books dropped off every week,” he says, “and I try to take a look at all of them. It happened that on that day, Larry Fink, former chairman of the photography department at Yale and one of the greatest fine art photographers of all time, was here. We just fell in love with Kyoko’s work. She has a unique way of seeing things, a certain irony and sense of humor.” Charles has been regularly matching her with plum assignments, such as her recent portrait of a garden tool maker in Vermont for British House & Garden.
Magazine and agency art directors are also generous with praise. “I find her work like haiku: perfectly constructed, minimal and balanced,” says Elisabeth Biondi, visuals editor of the New Yorker, who chose Hamada’s picture of a plate of pudding on a pink-sheeted bed to illustrate a tragic love story in the summer fiction issue. “Her work is original and surprising, and her vision is consistent.”
“I’ve been lucky,” Hamada repeats, perhaps again not giving herself enough credit. “I was lucky getting agents, finding clients and, more important, I am lucky to be able to do what I do.” ca