William Corey is a bit baffled. The Boulder photographer, who's spent the last twenty years snapping placid images in Japanese gardens, is surprised that anyone in this country--other than a few wealthy collectors--would be interested in what he does.
"Nobody's interested in slowing down," Corey says of his fellow Americans. "Most of the interest here is in drama." Corey, though, goes against the American grain: He just wants to champion beauty.
That's why he spends three or four months of every year working in Japan, where in 1996 the government granted him permission to spend the entire summer photographing the Imperial Gardens in Kyoto. That was something no Western photographer had ever done before, and the results were breathtaking: meditative and painstakingly detailed panoramic views of the gardens' peaceful, shadow-strewn green expanses. Those photos will receive their American debut this week at Camera Obscura Gallery.
Appreciation for Corey's Kyoto photographs deepens when he describes how they were taken. He uses what's known as a banquet camera, an instrument developed in the early twentieth century to photograph large groups. He found his in pieces in an antique shop twelve years ago and rebuilt it from scratch with help from an engineer friend.
"It just clicked for me," Corey says of his secondhand discovery. "I thought, 'This is the perfect garden camera.'" The contraption, which weighs seventy pounds and requires film that has to be custom ordered, allows Corey to work in a large format. The photos show a remarkable amount of detail, aiding in Corey's quest to capture the elusive Japanese essence. "It's a wonderful tool, but I'm still learning how to compose with it," he says, explaining that the camera creates extended images that emulate the scroll shape of traditional Japanese art.
In part because of the instrument's weight and heft, Corey didn't spend all of his time in the Imperial Gardens with camera in hand. "The photography itself is almost the very end of the process," he says. "I'd go to the garden for days and days without a camera, trying to get a sense of it. It's almost like a jigsaw puzzle. As a photographer, I put the pieces together."
When Corey's Imperial Gardens works were displayed in Japan, the exhibition was called One Time, One Chance. It's not hard to understand why. After spending hours studying the landscape with nothing but his eyes and a sketch pad, when he did turn to the lens, it was a one-shot deal. "Gardens reveal themselves slowly to you," he says. "I'd try to get my heart and head to match up. Getting that connection in my heart is the tough part. If it's not right, it's because I didn't plan it right."
Some things, like history and time, can't be planned for, though. "Photographers usually try to stop one moment in time, but I tried to extend that moment for as long as I could," Corey says. In an effort to capture the gardens' timelessness, he began to use longer exposures, varying them from twenty to forty minutes in length. "I'd take a breath, go click, and have to watch the camera every second during that time, because the light was constantly changing," he says. "Often in the middle of an exposure, a cloud went in front of the sun or people walked through the scene, but it's so fast, they don't even appear in the final print. The essence of them might be there, but there's not enough time for them to show through."
In recent times, Corey has switched some of his focus to Italy, a place he says is as different from Japan as a country could be. "In Japan, everything works too well," he explains. "A ten-hour train ride arrives at the exact minute it's supposed to. In Italy, nothing works. And the people are much closer and kinder."
But Japan is still in his blood. "I guess it's a lifelong project," says Corey. "I keep on learning and going deeper into it, but as far as they're concerned over there, I'll never understand it. Some consider gardens the soul of Japan, but foreigners are not supposed to get it."
Corey, however, seems to have made inroads. "I wanted to photograph what valuable contributions mankind has made to the world," he says. "Gardens seemed like a good place to begin."
William Corey: Panoramic Japanese Gardens, June 5 through July 5 at the Camera Obscura Gallery, 1309 Bannock Street, 623-4059. Opening reception June 5, 5:30-8:30 p.m.