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Stephen Vaughan

left: Ofunato, Iwate (where the Tsunami first struck land)

Memorial Garden for Victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, Yokoamicho Park, Tokyo 11th March 2011

David Chandler A Catfish Sleeps, 2009

Although they are, still, our most reliable and satisfying way of recording what is there and what happens around us, it is now broadly understood that photographs can never truly replicate what we see. Instead they give us another kind of vision and another kind of imaginative understanding of our experience. Even in its coldest stare, the camera and that mechanical blink of the shutter reinvents the world; what it describes, so automatically, is always mediated by a thought and an intention, by what we choose to see and how we want to see it. Desire lurks in even the most coolly programmatic of photography’s operations, in the most determinedly scientific surveying of time and place. In his notebooks, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge carefully describes, with a degree of detachment and curiosity, the visual nature of hallucinations brought about by his ingestion of laudanum(1). For him, and other romantics, normal vision enslaved the mind to the mundane world of materiality. In contrast, and borrowing Thomas Carlyle’s phrase, the romantics favoured a ‘Spiritual Optics’ in which the inner eye might be awakened to the ‘creative inspiration of the spirit’(2) However, Coleridge came to see a dilemma in allowing free reign to his ‘symbolic imagination’, and what he called the ‘seeking and asking’ for something within himself, increasingly recognising this as a threat to his primary powers of perception, a clouding of sensory stimuli that might adversely affect his ability, as he put it, to ‘observe anything new’. The art of photography continues to be equally freighted and enlivened by such dilemmas and tensions. It might be interesting, for example, to consider many contemporary photographs in terms of Coleridge’s hallucinations and his attempts to describe them, as visions that embody both the will to bring them into being, and the mesmerised attention borne from the encounter itself, the sensory dialogue between photographer and subject; a physical as well as intellectual experience.

The extraordinary quality of Stephen Vaughan’s recent photography rests on these ideas, and specifically draws strength from a carefully crafted balance between a quasi-scientific mode of investigation, and a feeling for picture making that tends towards the visionary. Vaughan’s work unveils strange and unfamiliar landscapes at the edges of human experience. They are remote but also invoke primordial and other-worldly states, and indeed sometimes depict sites chosen by others specifically for these qualities, such as those places used by Apollo astronauts in advance of the first lunar landings, or those that are the closest equivalent on earth to the surface of Mars. To get there and to ensure that his resulting photographs enact a purposeful engagement with the land, Vaughan’s expeditions and projects are meticulously planned and researched, to a point where photography becomes almost subsumed into other disciplines – archaeology, geology, cultural geography. Building a degree of prior knowledge like this, and we might imagine a keen sense of expectation, too, is where Vaughan’s work really begins, helping to shape and bring focus to his subsequent approach, to place him in the landscape before he arrives. But, and crucially, what his work also embraces, and what plays in counterpoint to its scientific context, is the uncertain and unpredictable condition of being in place, and the particular kind of photographic description, by turns immaculate and revelatory, that may flow from that. One photograph in particular from Vaughan’s Icelandic body of work, Ultima Thule (2008), crystallizes this quality in his work. It depicts what we assume to be an iceberg, and though the scale is hard to determine, what look like small pebbles in the foreground suggest it might be a fragment, or the residual form of something originally much larger. But whatever its size, the thing tests our powers of comprehension. It is without any describable shape or contour and light reflects through its infinitely and irregularly faceted surface as though through an immense, verdigris-tinged uncut diamond.

Untitled, from the series Ultima Thule (2004-08)

But what appears in Vaughan’s photograph barely coheres as a natural phenomenon or even as a material object; rather it remains something miraculous, an apparition from beyond conventional sight. What Vaughan manages to summon in this battle-worn alien ship come to rest on a quiet Icelandic shore – and more forcefully so than in any other photograph from his project – is a highly potent symbol of place, a kind of visual puzzle, centrally framed but left unsolved, that at once evokes a form of wondrous desolation and stands as a measure of the distance between us and the conditions under which it was formed. Vaughan’s new work from Japan, A Catfish Sleeps (2009), begins with a curious echo of this spellbinding picture, transposing it into the realm of an advanced material culture that has also consistently tested western powers of comprehension. And importantly for Vaughan in this new project, the image of a model fox precariously balanced on a boulder of ice at the Okhotsk Ryuho drift ice museum at Abashiri in far north of Japan is also another symbol, this time for the inherent instability of a country beneath which four tectonic plates collide. Japan has drawn the fascinated and often bewildered gaze of generations of western writers, artists and photographers, especially since the man-made catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in a new era of human history, and Japan’s national trauma became gradually deflected by the conditions of rapid economic growth and buried under the trappings of unbridled consumerism. What has preoccupied most photographers during this post-war period has been the kaleidoscopic surface of urban Japan, which so often appears to show western influences taken to extremes, replayed and contorted into some kind of kitsch but highly photogenic theatre, or which displays a social and architectural fabric of extraordinary technological innovation, a high-tech future existing unbelievably in the present. In contrast, and in keeping with his inter-disciplinary ambitions, Vaughan’s approach was to go beyond that surface, literally, to begin by looking

down into Japan’s sub-strata of shifting tectonic activity in order to explore the connections between past and present across the deeper recesses of geological time. Japan is an intricate subduction zone, and so prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity, and Vaughan’s work effectively started with his considerable efforts to understand the complexities of the country’s geological past and how that history is still unfolding now, with often devastating effects. Tectonic, geological, volcanic and rupture probability maps were an important part of this research and helped him to plot possible locations for his work where evidence of Japan’s fragile geological identity might be manifest in the immediate present. But ultimately this route map also became the template for a journey into contemporary Japanese culture, where, among the clues and symbols of a volatile subterranean world, Vaughan is distracted by other energies, and where the singular poetry of a society in constant flux exerts its seductive power. As if to give emphasis to the uneasy balance between the material foundations of Japanese society and its air of impermanence and uncertainty, architectural forms and the built environment feature prominently in Vaughan’s work. In some photographs this becomes manifest directly, in architectural studies of grand scale engineering solutions to seismic and volcanic activity: the slit dam in Tokachidake, Hokkaido, for example, that offers protection from pyroclastic/debris flow during a volcanic eruption, or the world’s largest shake table (or earthquake simulator) at the National Research Institute for Earth Sciences and Disaster Prevention, and, at the same site, bridge structures built of flexible metal compounds. Elsewhere he creates images whose formal properties serve to hint at instability or suggest physical events such as rifts, vents and extrusions. For example, views of the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo are spliced into a diptych that breaks the bridge and its massive support structures in two; the elegant sweep of the bridge and its sense of grandeur are undermined, power, innovation and vulnerability appearing in equal measure.

A corrugated metal house in the Chuo-minato district of Tokyo is rusting and feels resigned to its fate; a short-life structure, a house of cards, that suggests a certain utility and perhaps a pragmatic wariness compared to the high-rise monsters that have been built around it. In another image, at Ginza, a bizarre confection of modular buildings seem thrown together without much thought, although on the right we might notice the wellknown Nakagin Capsule Tower. Completed in 1972, and now something of an architectural landmark, it is comprised of concrete capsules containing tiny single rooms originally designed as economizing overnight accommodation for workers, complete with bed, built-in TV and reel-to-reel tape deck and mini-bathrooms. Again the building speaks of a utilitarian logic, this time taken to extremes, but more recently its social and architectural principles have fallen prey to other concerns, the presence of asbestos in the building and growing doubts about its ability to withstand earthquakes have led to calls for its demolition. In many ways, however, the building’s short lifespan falls in tune with the unreliable terrain and with the example of history. Built quickly, but not necessarily built to last, much of Tokyo’s architecture expresses a city whose attitudes have been indelibly marked by the constant threat of rupture and, still within living memory, by episodes of total destruction, first from the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and then from the extensive American firebombing of World War 11, both of which left the city in ruins. Elsewhere Vaughan treats us to the replenished city as it comes to life at twilight. He photographs street scenes bathed in that familiar soft neon glow, or he frames iridescent fragments, vibrations of urban colour that evoke an unspecified building of energy, and that, on a walk through Shinjuku with camera held above his head and the exposure set to the duration of an earthquake, are released into chaotic traces of light, the restless ghosts of a traumatic past. In fact the entire city hums with this latent energy. In one sequence of pictures from an elevated viewpoint, Vaughan

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Ginza, Tokyo, 2009

waits and makes photographs as darkness gradually falls, the city spread out before him. Then in the shadow of night, he finally captures Tokyo’s full majesty, a machine city that is also an organism, like some vast, darkly glimmering coral reef, with its centerpiece the resplendent Tokyo Tower as its antenna and electric conductor. Outside the city, as Vaughan follows the tectonic lines that mark out his route, the real elemental world on which Japan so delicately rests comes powerfully into view. Smoking volcanoes seem to loom on every horizon, or their craters like that at Tokachidake, are open wounds on the land, inviting Vaughan’s closer topographic inspection, his camera for once becoming intimate with the qualities of the earth’s raw matter, the underlying substance of his exploration. Steaming hot springs (or ‘hells’) are further messages from the underworld, rising from the townscape at Beppu, their presence here ambiguous: on the one hand providing health giving and recuperative baths to many visitors, while on the other – and especially within the context of Vaughan’s work – representing a barely contained, constantly grumbling threat of immense power waiting to be unleashed. Tokyo Tower, 2009

This elemental world is ingrained in Japan’s identity, and has become a national spectacle, its significant sites historicized and its dramatic events memorialized at places like the Nojima Fault Museum, which preserves a 140 metre section of the fault that caused the 1995 Kobe earthquake. As Vaughan visits these places, the lines of tourists that trail over specially constructed walkways or those that stand and stare across a vast caldera become part of his story, reminding us of the seemingly endless reach of global commodification, albeit here played out nervously. The incongruity of it all, takes a bizarre turn in the tourist information materials that Vaughan collected at these sites, where insecurities are barely masked by cartoon-ish characterizations, such as the little devils that illustrate Beppu’s ‘Hell Tour’.

Nakadake Crater, Asosan Volcano , Kyushu 2009

These brochures will remain part of Vaughan’s research, a strange annex of his larger document. But ultimately, although not exhibited as such, they do form part of his work. In Vaughan’s practice research of all kinds becomes inseparable from the plotting and traveling, the physical demands of walking and carrying his equipment, from the practical compromises of the terrain and circumstances, from the making of the exposure to what happens next, the careful reviewing of the visual material and the first stages of editing, from the striving for clarity and sense, and on to the final resolution, the closure, and the emergence of the final work. And yet what does all this mean, what is inside it all? For one thing, that word ‘striving’ is crucial, for there is a required persistence and belief that must be maintained. But also there must be the idea, some core of directional guidance that helps the artist navigate through it all. For Vaughan, I suspect, despite his inter-disciplinary ambitions and obvious unquenchable interest in the fine details of geography, topography and history, there is an idea in his work about deep-seated social and human values. What is important, he seems to be saying, is that we begin to appreciate our culture and our history as part of something much larger, that is the barely comprehensible time-frames and slower movements of the earth’s past, present and future. Volcanic and seismic activities are the wild interventions of these ancient, but still evolving systems into our everyday experience, our sense of the present; the intrusions of a world that we inhabit yet that we all too often forget exists, particularly in cities which are states of mind as much as physical spaces. In Japan the world ‘out there’, or the earth beneath our feet, is more difficult to ignore; it is part of the country’s social psychology, part of its collective memory and imagination. This is clear enough from Vaughan’s work, but his photographs also propose a wider view. They suggest that beyond all the preoccupations that shape our days, beyond the myriad distractions of our materialism, and beyond the nano-seconds of digital time around which our lives are increasingly constructed, civilization is bound up in an even more epic narrative, one into which our destiny has already been written.

As we encroach more on interconnected conditions and forces of nature that, despite the strenuous efforts of scientists and their ever more accurate calibrations, may be finally beyond our capacity to fully understand or influence them, the world out there returns to haunt us in the violent waking dreams of environmental disaster. But to look, to describe, to envision, to lay bare the evidence, the fragility, the uncivilized essence of our planet, and then to seed that into our imaginations, is to begin to assimilate its story into ours and to see things differently, to observe something new, and perhaps to begin to change and adapt. These I think are the underlying themes and aims of Vaughan’s work. They are not messages driven home by dramatic or unequivocal statements, they are not proselytizing calls for action, nor do they offer any certainties in themselves, or solutions. Rather Vaughan recognizes that photography is a process of discovery. In a recent article, written for students of Yale University’s MFA programme in photography on which he currently teaches, the photographer Paul Graham – one of the most internationally influential over the last thirty years – had this disarmingly simple but important thing to say about the act of photographing: ‘The more preplanned it is the less room for surprise, for the world to talk back, for the idea to find itself, allowing ambivalence and ambiguity to seep in…sometimes those things are more important than certainty and clarity. The work often says more than the artist knows.’(3) Stephen Vaughan’s approach to photography is scholarly and serious. It is informed by ideas that make unique connections across different disciplines and areas of knowledge, and in this his photographs do reach for something new, a new way to look and to understand. And yet, as wilful and directed as it is, and as much as it aims for clarity, his work also quietly absorbs and dwells upon what he can never fully predict or hope to entirely know, and so can only represent with a sense of wonder and imagination. In remaining open to its extraordinary and beguiling complexity, Vaughan’s photographs allow the world to talk back.

1. See, Seamus Perry (ed), Coleridge’s Notebooks, OUP, Oxoford, 2002. Also Josie Dixon, ‘The Mind’s Eye: Vision and Experience in Coleridge’s Notebooks’, at: An essay developed from an earlier piece in Lucy Newlyn (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, Cambridge, 2002. 2. See: Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett (eds), The Oxford Companion to the Body, OUP, Oxford, 2001. 3 Paul Graham, from an essay in Yale University’s MFA Photography Programme End of Year Book for 2009.

© David Chandler 2009 David Chandler is a writer, curator and former Director of Photoworks. He was recently appointed as Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth. His recent collabotations include essays for Rinko Kawauchi’s forthcoming book (Aperture) and for the seminal career survey of Paul Graham (SteidlMack).


Photographing Dragonflies, Shiretoko (meaning ‘end of the earth), Hokkaido (above)

Abashiri Ryuhyo (drift ice) Museum, Hokkaido (right)

Oniyama Jigoku (Monster Mountain Hell), Beppu, Kyushu

Umi Jigoku (Sea-Pond Hell), Beppu, Kyushu

Chinoike Jigoku (Blood-Pond Hell), Beppu, Kyushu

Nakadake Crater, Asosan Volcano, Kyushu

Osorezan (Mount Terror), Shimokita Hanto, Northern Honshu

Pyroclastic Sabo Dam, Tokachidake Volcano, Hokkaido (above)

Sakurajima Volcano, Kyushu (right)

Sakurajima Volcano, Kyushu

The World’s Largest Earthquake Simulator, ‘E-Defense’, Hyogo Earthquake Engineering Research Center, National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, Miki City, Kobe

Pressurised Oil Pipes connected to Hydraulic Pistons (previous page) that power the 3-D Earthquake Simulator ‘E-Defense’, National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, Miki City, Kobe

Preserved 140m Section of the Nojima Fault, which caused the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, Nojima Fault Museum, Hokudan-cho Earthquake Memorial Park, Awaji Island, Kobe

Shizuoka (at the southern end of the ITSL (Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line)

High-Water Dam, Shizuoka (at the southern end of the ITSL (Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line)

Tsunami Defences, Shizuoka (at the southern end of the ITSL (Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line)

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo (diptych)

Pachinko ‘Gaia’, Shimbashi, Tokyo

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Ginza, Tokyo

Chuo-Minato, Tokyo

Tokyo Sky Tree (the world’s second tallest building) Under Construction

TOKYO 11– 17 March 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree (before and after the Great Tohoku Earthquake) 11 March 2011

Hiwatari Fire-walking Ceremony, Tokaosanguchi, Tokyo

Nihonbashi, Tokyo

Kanda, Tokyo

Tokyo Stock Exchange (first day’s trading after the earthquake)

Shinjuku Station, Tokyo

Metropolitan Government Building seen from Shinjuku, Tokyo (during electricity saving time)

Sumidagawa, Tokyo


March – April 2011

Kamaishi, Iwate

Kuwagasaki, Miyako, Iwate

Tsugaruishi, Miyako, Iwate

Yamada, Iwate

Otsuchi, Iwate


April 2011

Chie Omori, Tsunami Evacuation Centre, Atago Primary School, Miyako, Iwate

Tsunami Evacuation Centre, Miyako Primary School, Miyako, Iwate

Masayoshi Sasaki, Tsunami Evacuation Centre, Atago Primary School, Miyako, Iwate

Tsunami Evacuation Centre, Kuwagasaki Primary School, Miyako, Iwate

Maki Masu with her daughter and grandchildren, Tsunami Evacuation Centre, Kuwagasaki Primary School, Miyako, Iwate

Fumie Yamane, Tsunami Evacuation Centre, Kuwagasaki Primary School, Miyako, Iwate

Stephen Vaughan A Catfish Sleeps, 2011 Geological stratigraphy suggests that in c.1700 an enormous maginitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of north-west USA. No written record exists in the United States of the earthquake’s occurrence. However, recent research has revealed a number of historical texts that describe a coincidental tsunami at Kuwagasaki, Tsugaruishi and Otsuchi on the northeastern coast of Japan. According to these records, the tsunami occurred without warning – suggesting that it was created by a remote earthquake. In March 2011, I returned to Japan to continue my series A Catfish Sleeps, which I had begun two years earlier. The series looks at the geo-cultural landscape and considers human responses to the complex tectonic and geological system that underlies the Japanese landscape. I intended to make a new series of photographs in Iwate, at the sites of the 1700 tsunami, and to reflect on these invisible histories. I began the new series by making photographs in Tokyo, revisiting places that I had photographed previously in 2009. On 11 March, I was rephotographing the Tokyo Sky Tree when the massive ‘Tohoku’ Earthquake struck. The movements of the earth’s crust that I had been imagining in my work had suddenly become a terrifying reality. The sites of the 1700 tsunami that I had planned to photograph were now contemporary sites of enormous catastrophe. 28,000 people had lost their lives in the devastating tsunami that followed the earthquake. My response to these events was driven by the need to bear witness to what had happened. Unable to travel north, I continued to make images in Tokyo, where the signs of the earthquake were largely invisible. I made

photographs on the street, inside the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and disrupted transport hubs, as well as at the Earthquake Memorial Museum for victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Frustrated by the dominance in the media of the problems at Fukushima, I was eager to focus upon the landscapes that had been devastated by the tsunami. I wanted to give an indication of the extent of the devastation and its affect on the lives of thousands of people who had lost their homes and families. The photographs of Miyako, Otsuchi and Kamaishi only represent a fragment of the immense damage. Although the images are centred around the locations of the 1700 tsunami on the northeastern Iwate coast, the same damage has affected all coastal towns, ports and cities along the entire eastern coast. The scale of the catastrophe is beyond anything I had imagined or that I could possibly describe. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the people I met while making this work, both in Tokyo and in Iwate. I was moved and humbled by the hospitality and kindness that was shown to me amidst the most traumatic circumstances. Much has already been written about the dignity and spirit of the Japanese people in this terrible moment of their history. Nevertheless, I would like to pay my own tribute to the courage and strength that I witnessed – from the Japanese Army, the Red Cross, the YMCA, the many volunteer relief workers and my own friends in Japan. Above all, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the survivors that I met, who welcomed me with such generosity and warmth.

“I have survived, so I will survive.” Chieko Wakayama Kuwagasaki Evacuation Center, Miyako

All images Š Stephen Vaughan 2011

A Catfish Sleeps