Andreas Till

Visual Haiku
Photography and Resonance

Die japanische Literaturform des Haiku hat Fotografen immer wieder inspiriert, doch gerade durch die inflationäre Verwendung dieser ­Referenz ist sie mittlerweile zum bloßen Klischee verkommen. In seinem Essay zeichnet Andreas Till die Entwicklungslinien dieser Verbindung nach – vom ­„entscheidenden Augenblick“ bei Cartier-Bresson über künstlerische ­Arbeiten bis zum Portal Visual Haiku bei flickr – und untersucht anhand der Arbeit des Fotokünstlers Yamamoto Masao die Relevanz einer Übersetzung
der Idee des Haiku in den visuellen Bereich.

Japan based artist Yamamoto Masao (b. 1957), who, in 1975, turned to photography after having been trained as an oil painter under Goro Saito in his native city ­Gamagori, is widely known for his deliberately stained and creased pocket-size photographs that he arranges in extensive wall installations, for which his prints are directly attached to museum and gallery walls. Yamamoto has exhibited around the world, although for the most part in the United States and since 2007 also in Europe. His work is continuously referred to as visual haiku1Eleanor Heartney, „Masao Yamamoto at Yancey Richardson”, Art in America (May 2002) or photographic haiku2Masao Yamamoto’s Photographic Haiku, accessed June 1, 2011,, mostly in gallery releases and exhibition reviews. In doing so, the authors of those releases and reviews link Yamamoto’s work directly to the poetry of haiku, which, being essentially Japanese, has also found great popularity in the West since the 1950’s3Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form (Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company,1974), 7.

Certainly, Yamamoto doesn’t stand alone when it comes to the linkage of photographic work to haiku and gets in line with other professional international artists such as the British landscape photographer Michael Kenna, the American installation artist Jim Campbell and the American photographer Duane ­Michaels. Besides these professionals there is a great number of photographers within the field of amateur photography, who utilize the term visual haiku to label their work. Building visual haiku groups4Visual Haiku, accessed June 1, 2011, on the image hosting website and online community flickr, they contribute to a large pool of pictures that can’t be more diverse in style and technique. For the greater part, these pictures are colorful landscape photographs and macro shots of plants and animals, which occasionally mix with street photographs, cityscapes or product shots. Although this widely varied imagery already introduces a certain aspect of haiku, it rather raises the question of how the concepts and criteria of haiku can be transferred to a visual level and where connections between the written form and its historical background and the visualized forms can be established and are reasonable.

The haiku originated in the late nineteenth century as the result of a succession of modifications of early Japanese poetry. It evolved from the forms waka and renga and is only a short section of these forms. Also known as hokku or haikai, haiku refers to the first three lines that were part of waka and renga and from which it originated to be its own poetic form. The original Japanese form of haiku is ­written in a single line of kana writing. Opposed to this, the English haiku “is a 17-syllable poem arranged in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, having some reference to the season and expressing the poet’s union with nature.”5Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 23

“Haiku and photography have much in common”6Basho Matsuo: A haiku journey : Bash’s The narrow road to the far north and selected haiku;translated and introduced by Dorothy Britton (Tokyo & New York : Kodansha Inter­national, 1974), writes Dorothy Guyver Britton in the introduction to A haiku journey: Bashō’s “The narrow road to the far north” and selected haiku and with Blyth’s statement at the back of one’s mind that “haiku are moments of vision”7Reginald Horace Blyth: A History of Haiku Vol. 1 (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963–64), V this linkage is a corollary. The haiku moment “that flash of intuition that gave birth to Haiku”8Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 9 also brings back to mind the term of the decisive moment that was initially introduced to the photographic world by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson with his eponymous book that was published in 1952. For him, photography was the instantaneous sensibility for an appearance and the arrangement of the visual configuration that constitutes and indicates this appearance. This notion of photography sounds strangely similar to Giroux’s explanation of the haiku moment: “Haiku is the expression in words of the instant of intuition uniting poet and object”9Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 47 and “the very words of the haiku are found during the instant of the haiku moment.”10Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 47

Accordingly, a photograph is the visual expression of the instant when the photographer releases the shutter of his camera after organizing what presents it­self before the camera by means of composition and perspective among others.
By releasing the shutter the shades within the camera lens open and the chemicals on the film capture the light that makes visible what was in front of the camera at that very moment. Through this opening process the photographer, metaphorically speaking, connects with the world in front of his lens. He unifies with his subject. To push this idea even further, the stimulus, which entices the photographer to release the shutter and capture a moment within a photographic image and which makes the haiku poet capture a moment within a brief poem is what Blyth calles a “sensation”11Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1 (­Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963–64), XXXI or Giroux refers to as “moment of insight”12Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 7. Through the process of perception and the shaping of the initial, “almost entirely physical and mechanical”13Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 25 sensation by either words or visual elements, a transformation of that sensation takes place and it becomes a “humanized sensation”14Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 25, which makes the haiku “not mere description, just photography.”15Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 25

In his book The Haiku Form Joan Giroux points out that the haiku moment possesses certain qualities, which lead us to a deeper understanding of its meaning.
Directness, paradox, austerity and joy represent these qualities16Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 50–62 and it is an interesting question of how these qualities can be equally applied or found within the medium of photography. Photography has always been defined as a medium that is capable of mirroring the exact form of things (if we neglect photography’s possibilities of image manipulation by, for example, long time exposure, dark room techniques or digital editing in photoshop). “The directness of […] haiku may be defined as the straight looking at things and portrayal of them without symbol and without metaphor.”17Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 50 It thereby resembles qualities that were internalized by the German photographic movement Neue Sachlichkeit (1923–1930) that sought to work against the artistic tendencies by utilizing objective imagery.
As opposed to pictorialism, which privileged the completed atmospherical and subjective picture before the subject, the Neue Sachlichkeit, as initiated by ­German photographers Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt, aimed at depicting the simplicity and the beauty of things by keeping a healthy distance to the subject. Austere and simple imagery would allow them to capture its structure and character as “these things without any thought or emotion or beauty or desire are haiku.”18Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 8 Detachment and the sparing use of words19Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 55 constitute this austerity (which Blyth refers to as ascetism20Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 1 and Susan ­Sontag might designate as “a noble reticence, a lucid understatement”21Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001), 30) in haiku. The haiku poet doesn’t abandon himself to conceit and extenuation, suggesting meaning beyond things. He merely cherishes the things as they are and appreciates that their meaning lies in themselves. At the same time, he calls on the reader to be receptive for their resonance. Moreover, the haiku poet tries to achieve unity in his poems. For this reason the elements within the haiku poem have to be complementary, have to unite concord and discord with the result that every quality needs its companion, as following quote by Blyth supports: “In Haiku, the two entirely different things that are joined in sameness are poetry and sensation, spirit and matter, the Creator and the Created.”22Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 7

Subsequently, after having elaborated on the qualities of directness and austerity, there is a need to briefly elaborate on their complements as indicated by Giroux: ­paradox and joy. A paradox is a seemingly indissoluble contradiction. For Giroux this paradox in language resides in the fact that one word can always only express one thing23Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 53. He illustrates this with following haiku by Yamaguchi Sodo (1643 – 1716):

Yado no haru
Nani mo naki koso
Nani mo are

In my hut this spring
There is nothing.
There is everything.

Here, the absence of palpable matter and the presence of spiritual richness oppose and affect each other. The absence of physical things seems to promote the reception for the obscure and intangible. As hinted above, the notion of the photograph as a copy of reality has begun to totter, not just since the invention of digital photography. What we see in a photograph doesn’t necessarily represent the “real” world anymore. It raises the questions of truth and evidence. Asides from that, what we see in a picture will always stay within the frame and on the surface of the photograph. What we see is a picture of a pond and not the pond itself.

However, although the pond is not “really” there, it will exist within our imagination as we deduce what it was really like. The pond is simultaneously present and absent. The quality of joy occurs to be a little tricky if we want to correlate it to the nature of photography and hereby support the idea of shared qualities of the latter and haiku poetry. What Giroux means by joy is ostensibly different from what we would think of in the first place. Joy, for him, represents a general easiness and openness to the world and, to a certain degree, the appreciation of all its creatures.24Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 60

This implies the act of “giving up a possessive attitude towards things.”25Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 61 Contrary to our expectations, we are now confronted with a conflict. The act of ­photographing is a predatory act, which is already implicated in the use of the term “to ­capture an image”. It entails a certain patronizing of reality26Susan Sontag, On Photography, 80 and thus works against the fourth quality of the haiku moment as elaborated by Joan Giroux. By stating that, as a “[…] way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.”27Susan Sontag, On Photography, 9, Susan Sontag punctuates one notion of photography’s paradoxes and its compliance with haiku’s qualities on the one hand, but also its resistance to them on the other.

To sum up, I want to revert to Cartier-Bresson’s book The Decisive Moment, in whose keynote text he quotes 17th century Cardinal de Retz, who wrote: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” As previously worked out, correspondence between photography and haiku poetry undeniably exists.
However, if we adopt de Retz’s statement and take into account that the decisive moment is ubiquitous, that brings about the assumption that almost every photograph is haiku. Naturally, we have to consider the derived parameters and qualities associated to haiku and photography, but specifically focus on those, which are not inherent in the nature of photography itself, since this would only empty into a generalized conception of “visual haiku”.

The foregoing approach though, might lead us to standards that will help to arrange terms for “visual haiku” as a form that is neither visualizing or, otherwise put, illustrating haiku poetry or functioning as a template for such, but is geared towards an exclusively visual transcription, which is haiku itself. Ideally, these standards will provide us with additional information, notably when it comes to the processes of sequencing and determining the medium of visual haiku artwork in the field of photography. In as much as an untethered quality can be depurated it is the quality of austerity, for the reason that it does not only tell us about appropriate imagery, but also lets us anticipate the semblance of a collection of multiple photographs.

“The poet expresses the truth as it is, without comment.”28Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 62 Set aside all the discussions on photography and truth, which have been open to debate for a long time, this statement alone expels almost 98% of the 2.176 pictures currently constituting the Visual Haiku group on flickr as, in my opinion, a single photograph or a larger body of work that are thought up to be visual haiku can’t be a color photograph or be made up by such. Color always suggests emotion and evokes feelings. It is also prone to being symbolized or metaphorized and has a palliative effect.

The sparing use of words within haiku poetry must be translated in the sparing use of color photographs within a book or series. As far as I can see, this is the only way that makes sense, if simplicity, distance, reticence and the absence of comment and “over-intellection” are our primary objectives. This also entails, that the use of a small depth of field counteracts with our pursuit to meet these objectives. A small depth of field blurs boundaries and abates the possibility of an unbiased observation.

Additionally, to expand my previous thoughts and coincidentally turn back to the beginning of this essay, I want to implement one of Yamamoto Masao’s photo­graphic books at this point. Since 1998, Yamamoto has published six photo books. While his first book The Box of Ku is still rather conservative in its approach his following books Nakazora (2001) and Omizuao (2003) open up a whole new set of possibilities, as they carry the potential to further deepen our understanding of “visual haiku”. For the kinship of the two books and the eventual parallelism in certain aspects, I will narrow down my focus to the former.

To begin with, I must unveil to the reader, who might not be a connoisseur of Yamamoto’s work, that the use of the term book for Nakazora is rather misleading. Labeled as “makimono-style” this book, also known as “kansubon” in Japan, is an early form of bookbinding. In fact, it will be more accurate to speak of Nakazora as a scroll and refer to it as such in the following. Yamamoto’s scroll is made up of sheets of paper that have been pasted together culminating in approximately eighteen feet in length and twelve inches in height. It carries 46 four-color plates printed on uncoated fine Japanese paper. The photographs are reproductions of original toned silver prints.

This particular scroll stands historically and traditionally in line with “emaki”, that is Japanese narrative hand scrolls, which developed during the 10th century, combining pictures and text. Makimono-style is a derivation of this term. Emaki climaxed in the 12th and 13th century. As artists turned to other modes of painting, the art of emaki declined after the 14th century. It played an important role in the narration of a wide range of stories, whose contents vary between being historical, philosophical or biographical.

These stories include the “keen observation of landscape, the animal world and every aspect of human behavior”29Miyeko Murase, Emaki: Narrative Scrolls from Japan ­(Tokyo: The Asia Society, 1983), 15 and are illustrated with a sequence of paintings. Today, emaki are still of highest value in Japanese culture and society as they are conceived and cherished as national treasures. Yamamoto once noted in an interview30Masao Yamamoto – The Space Between Flowers, accessed June 1, 2011, that he is repulsive to binding himself to particular ideas and that he always tries to maintain an open mind to remain receptive to all sorts of events or objects in front of his camera. The kansubon, as a pre-binding book form, seems to blend in perfectly with this notion as it establishes new possibilities for the construction of photographic work and, in addition, makes possible the implication and execution of further attributes of haiku.

Undoubtedly, one of emaki’s most striking features is its sequentiality as already implied by its very little height but very great length. Read from right to left and viewed from above, its reader has to get active and make use of both of his hands as he unrolls the scroll on a table. However, the character of this unrolling, or better, opening process is twofold. Logically, the best way to read emaki is to unroll the scroll with one’s left hand just to roll it up again with one‘s right hand, which allows for a partial view of about forty inches of the scroll. The constant movement during the reading process enables the viewer to move along the paper by progressively opening and closing parts of the scroll and epitomizes the experiences of time and travel, which are so crucial for the understanding of haiku.

Step by step, the viewer unveils a new set of pictures. No two sets of pictures can be seen simultaneously and the viewer, who is driven by anticipation, moves forward through the hand scroll starting to lose his memory of the photographs seen first. A movement opposed to the reading direction is required to rekindle these photographs. The possibility to go back and forth, to view and re-view certain images does not only show the importance of time, but over and above the manifestation of timelessness. Furthermore, the horizontal expanse of the scroll that allows for the long compositions in Nakazora greatly resembles the traditional Japanese form of haiku. It distinguishes itself from the altered English form that organizes the haiku poem in a triplet.

Reconsidering the fact that Yamamoto carries around his wallet-sized, stained photographs in his pockets or his wallet a long time before he puts them to use in his books or installation works lets us marvel about the physical closeness that both his photographs and the form of the emaki represent. His use of emaki as being a personal object, “an item of private nature”31Miyeko Murase: Emaki, Narrative Scrolls from Japan, 19 and the way his photographs are printed on the paper supports his effort to emphasize the object character of a photograph. Consequently, the rolled-up scroll can be easily carried along on travels. Therefore, the quality of movement that adheres haiku reverberates not only in the shape of Yamamoto’s photographs and the hand scroll form, but also in its object character.

One of haiku’s essential components is the season word. It references to one of the year’s seasons and thus stands in the tradition of old Japanese poetry.32Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 94 Seasons, as naturally being periods of transition and state’s of in-between, represent change and development and indicate arriving and departing. The “possibility of development is the most fundamental feature of emaki”, says Giroux and pricks into my mind to think of Yamamoto’s pictures as points of departure and points of arrival as one follows the flow of his photographs and becomes a traveler oneself – just as the hermit Ryokan, one of Yamamoto’s most favorite poets, or Bashō, one of the great masters of haiku. Additionally, the way Yamamoto sequences his photographs, giving them their own individual space and leveling his subjects (people, animals and landscapes) by, for example, visually equalizing a fish and a fly to the same scale, assimilating a woman and a stone through juxtaposition brings to front the idea of “the oneness of nature, or undifferentiated nature of human feelings and the feelings of natural events, objects and creatures.”33Masako K. Hiraga, “Blending” and an Interpretation of Haiku: A Cognitive Approach in Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 3, Metaphor and Beyond: New Cognitive Developments (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 468
Blyth also ties this to animism, “the experience that each thing is ‘alive’, not merely animate or inanimate”34Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 8, although this experience is hardly ever ex­plicit in haiku35Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 10. Yamamoto’s appreciation of the wholeness of the world, which is, in his case, the “every-day-world”, nevertheless becomes more or less obvious in the way he arranges his photographs on the scroll.

Finally, we can already identify a huge multiplicity of additional criteria for visual haiku after a very brief and definitely fragmentary study of Yamamoto’s Nakazora. We found out that Yamamoto synthesizes kinship on various levels. He brings together photography and painting, not only by situating his photographs on ­emaki, a traditional medium for Japanese painting, but also by applying a slight hint of color to his photographs. Furthermore, he interweaves the subjects of his pictures through the utilization of scaling, sequencing and the way he situates his subjects within the frame and thus approximates his work to the concept of animism, which is part of haiku. Although haiku “is grasped by the eye rather than by the ear or mouth”36Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 7, we also found out that not every photograph is haiku, but, if certain parameters are considered, the two can become very close, approaching each other to a certain extent, but simultaneously dissociate from each other. It remains the question, how close a written form and a visual form haiku and photo­graphy can actually get.

  • 1
    Eleanor Heartney, „Masao Yamamoto at Yancey Richardson”, Art in America (May 2002)
  • 2
    Masao Yamamoto’s Photographic Haiku, accessed June 1, 2011,
  • 3
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form (Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company,1974), 7
  • 4
    Visual Haiku, accessed June 1, 2011,
  • 5
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 23
  • 6
    Basho Matsuo: A haiku journey : Bash’s The narrow road to the far north and selected haiku;translated and introduced by Dorothy Britton (Tokyo & New York : Kodansha Inter­national, 1974)
  • 7
    Reginald Horace Blyth: A History of Haiku Vol. 1 (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963–64), V
  • 8
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 9
  • 9
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 47
  • 10
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 47
  • 11
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1 (­Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963–64), XXXI
  • 12
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 7
  • 13
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 25
  • 14
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 25
  • 15
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 25
  • 16
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 50–62
  • 17
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 50
  • 18
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 8
  • 19
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 55
  • 20
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 1
  • 21
    Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001), 30
  • 22
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 7
  • 23
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 53
  • 24
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 60
  • 25
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 61
  • 26
    Susan Sontag, On Photography, 80
  • 27
    Susan Sontag, On Photography, 9
  • 28
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 62
  • 29
    Miyeko Murase, Emaki: Narrative Scrolls from Japan ­(Tokyo: The Asia Society, 1983), 15
  • 30
    Masao Yamamoto – The Space Between Flowers, accessed June 1, 2011,
  • 31
    Miyeko Murase: Emaki, Narrative Scrolls from Japan, 19
  • 32
    Joan Giroux, The Haiku Form, 94
  • 33
    Masako K. Hiraga, “Blending” and an Interpretation of Haiku: A Cognitive Approach in Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 3, Metaphor and Beyond: New Cognitive Developments (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 468
  • 34
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 8
  • 35
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 10
  • 36
    Reginald Horace Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, 7