MICHAEL K. YAMAOKA was born in Japan, and studied at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was the first Japanese student to receive a photography degree from Art Center College of Design in California, and came to New York in the late sixties to begin his career as a commercial photographer. He was on Staff at BBD&O before opening his own studio, where his client list included Campbell’s Soup, AT&T, General Electric, Burger King, Pepsico, Dean Witter, Book-of-the-Month Club, Pillsbury, Schaeffer Beer, FAO Schwartz, Time-Life, Sheraton Hotels, Toshiba, Pentax and many others. After closing his studio in the mid-eighties, Michael became a consultant acting as a liaison between Japanese and American companies in a variety of fields. 

Then, after a personal tragedy, the death of his son, Kenneth Kagetaka, in an automobile accident in 1997, he decided to concentrate on his personal photography, to publish a book, Odyssey: A 35 Year Photograph Journey, in memory of his son, and to establish a scholarship in his name. He has since exhibited in one-man shows in New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, and in many cities in Germany, to great critical acclaim, and also at the German Consulate in New York in 2007    

and the United Nations in 2017. In 2008, he was honored when I.M. Pei requested one of his photographs for his personal collection. Michael continues to exhibit his fine art photography in galleries and institutions in New York and worldwide. The book Odyssey is available for purchase, as are all photographs on the website.

Knitting Time: Photographs by Michael Yamaoka


-- By John Austin

Charles Baudelaire defined pure art as “the creation of evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.” Great art, then, implicates the hidden by what is seen. The clarity of Michael Yamaoka’s photographs is all the more striking because of the sense of mystery that infiltrates the imposing, iconic structuring of forms. The willful quality of his photographs of different objects is infused with an element of tender delicacy that is altogether unexpected. This rare combination is also a winning one.


It is the uncanny sense of displacement and often overt regularization in the artist’s work, which gives it impact and its charge. The artist’s sumptuous prints are optical marvels that are charged with empirical directness and force. The specificity of each image suggests a specimen of a newly discovered natural order that we are perceiving for the first time. In all of his artistic endeavors what is made crystal-clear is that Yamaoka is producing art which, while drawn out of private experience, reaches out in universal terms to touch everyone on different levels. Perhaps the most impressive quality that emerges out of each work is its lyrical drive which forms a visual choreography of parts related to wholes and voids as well as of subtle, nuanced coloristic tonalities connected in vitalistic ways to compositional shapes.


The first aspect that draws us to Michael Yamaoka’s imagery is its sense of conflicted tensions that course through this work. His work is Janus-headed in that it is work that refers to the domain of passed time and lived experience even while it attempts to lift itself (and us) up into a realm of the sublime. So, while the work resolutely attempts to transcend conventional perception of what could be called inconspicuous, it is rooted in a condition that Thomas Weiskel has termed ‘a humanistic sublime’—an enticing contradiction.


Yamaoka’s photographs are about transience and contingency, the very fabric of modern life, as Baudelaire notes in his essays. The artist’s images of old buildings, peeling paint, cracked walls with their frozen-fluid dynamism, express the essence of impermanence and oscillation between a “magic flight” into an abstract sublime and a groundedness of pure matter where signs of dilapidation lend imagistic power to the photographer’s work. This process gracefully brings home the point that the universe, while seemingly stilled is yet unpredictable at its core, ready to change and alter its state of being from one moment to the next.


In effect, the artist is deeply immersed n delineating for us, the viewers, what he perceives as an elemental condition of life, which finds its equilibrium through an interior force of counter-harmonies. The delicate compositional balance that pervades each piece suggests, then, a momentary state of quiet and stillness within flux. This suggestion of a temporary surcease from the strains of life while poetically filled with intimations of voids and silenced energies allows the artist, nevertheless, to communicate a flurry of tension and struggle.


What seems quite evident in Yamaoka’s efforts is his encapsulation of principal Taoist tenets of seeing into the nature of things through the nurturing of a sustained condition of “wu-wei” or non-action. In his remarkable photographs objects seem to be held in suspension, yet are still eager and wiling to accept the responsibility of bearing the liquid weight of the world within them. 

An overall tranquility pervades Yamaoka’s work. In turn, this gives the viewer the sensation that the creative yin-yang process of the universe is embodied within the creative process of the poet-artist. In looking at the surface patterns of Michael Yamaoka’s large-scale digital prints the viewer’s mind is directed in complex and contradictory associations and suggestions. Yamaoka’s abstracted objects or objectified abstractions seem to defy their totality as images. They remain on the cusp between recognizability and its opposite. This is so because they may be viewed as exactly not being pared-down images of something else. Instead they have, paradoxically, the power of evoking a concrete passage of time that has been knitted together visually. John Austin is an art writer living and working in Manhattan.

This essay appeared in the show catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition of photographs by Michael Yamaoka, organized by the New Art Center, in 2011.