A JAPANESE STROLL GARDEN plays out along a rambling path. Stepping stones, uneven and irregular, insistently demand a downward glance. You look up again, and each small step forward unveils a newly unfamiliar scene.
The finest stroll garden is found in the one-time capital of Kyoto. Within is a sprawling, seventeenth-century structure, the Katsura Detached Palace, and a scattering of teahouses with fairy-tale names: Pine Harp Pavilion, Arbor for the Admiration of Blossoms, Shelter for a Laughing Heart. There is an intricate gate of bamboo and bark, a platform for contemplating the moon. A tiny temple.
Only a few cultural icons emerge that are, over and over, reinterpreted and reappropriated, each time offering as much insight into the era as the original itself: Leonardo's Last Supper, say, or Shakespeare's Hamlet. Katsura, far away, its interior unattainable (tours are arranged by application only and limited to the garden), is architecture's twentieth-century touchstone, its legend launched by the German architect Bruno Taut's first brief visit in May 1933. Taut claimed (immodestly, and unmindful of his Japanese hosts) to have rediscovered Katsura, declaring its simplicity an antecedent of the modern, monochromatic International Style then fighting for a foothold in Japan. Scores of books have since been published on Katsura, two dozen incorporating at least an English introduction. Each offers renewed insight, each includes new perspectives or new scholarship. Walter Gropius, Kenzo Tange, and Arata Isozaki followed in Taut's footsteps, adding to accounts by other architects once well known, but now nearly forgotten everywhere but in Japan.
Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Katsura's most important photographer, was born in San Francisco in 1921, and studied architecture and photography in a mid-century Chicago intoxicated by German Modernism. Soon thereafter settled in Japan, he is today one of only a few hundred acclaimed there as a "Person of Cultural Merit." The aging artist also appears intent on establishing appreciation of his work in the nation of his birth, first donating 250 prints to Chicago's Art Institute and then, after coming to know Yasufumi Nakamori, a Japanese-born Assistant Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, offering that institution even more. The museum staged three small shows of Ishimoto's art over a fast 15 months. The last, from June to September 2010, was a kind of encore, returning to a topic for which Ishimoto is best known — Katsura — with a handsome catalogue entitled Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture: Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro.
Over 50 years, five beautiful books on the imperial retreat have been built on Ishimoto's images. His earliest work, Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture (1960), illustrated the architecture as unembroidered, but three decades later he and Isozaki performed an about-face (in the 1987 Katsura Villa) and instead underscored Katsura's opulence. And in this latest book the story shifts from the architecture to the artist, to the photographer.
Almost every one of the dozens of books already authored on Katsura is lushly illustrated, often employing the best technologies of its time, and the MFAH's catalogue, printed in rich tritones that fill the page, is no exception. While many books have featured the work of famous photographers, not one is as esteemed as that which Ishimoto initiated in his ...