People often ask Yoshihiko Ueda why he became a photographer. He replies that he has no clear memory of the beginning. “Perhaps it was almost coincidental,” he said. His wife offers the explanation that his sister gave him a camera to console him when he was disappointed at failing boyhood examinations. She believes that he had never been interested in any form of art up until then. But that first camera pointed him in the direction he should go.
Ueda was born into a Hyogo farming family. He considered becoming a lawyer, but instead, with his camera, entered a college for photography in Osaka. He studied with famous teachers, and served a short apprenticeship of only a few years before he set up the Yoshihiko Ueda Studio in Tokyo. That was in 1982, when he was 25.
As with all artists, Ueda had to come to terms with photography for its commercial value, and photography as his artistic expression. For him, the resolution was simple.
“There is no difference in the act of photography itself,” he said. “There is no difference in the transaction which occurs between myself and the subject through the lens of my camera. What is occurring in front of the camera is reality, isn’t it?
“The most important fact is that I am actually photographing whatever it is that mesmerizes me with the same interest whether it is for personal or commercial use. I feel there is basically no difference between my personal and my commissioned work.”
Ueda accepted work in advertising, and built up a steady client portfolio. He said: “When I first became a freelance photographer, an art director told me my work was not suited for commercial use, as it lacked lightness and glamour. But I continued.” Another art director saw in Ueda’s advertisement work “an essential human quality, an element of spirit.” In time, whilst surely meeting his clients’ requirements, Ueda said he was able to photograph his own interests much more freely in advertisement. In trusting his own aesthetic sensitivity, he became self-confident and acclaimed.
Ueda gave his first one-man exhibitions five years after establishing himself. One was in Tokyo. The second, in Atlanta, was “Portraits in Fashion.” He became much in demand as a fashion photographer, and in this venture he met the model who became his wife.
Another five years, and Ueda was participating in group exhibitions. He produced portraits, still lifes, nudes and landscapes. As well as his sensitivity and attention to detail, his “severity” and “intensity” came to be remarked. In giving an exhibition in his studio, he kept control of administration and purpose. He set up the chance to talk there at length with other photographers. He said, “I feel many young photographers are being led to misbeliefs by seeing much trendy photography. I hope they will recollect their thoughts on the motives of photography, that should be sincere and intrinsic.” He pays strict attention to the frames, designed by himself, that he uses for his pictures. “The work should enable the viewer to retrace the photographer’s experience, and the frame plays a crucial role in this process,” he said.
Ueda’s work has included pictures of Parisian dancers, and has led to his reconsidering the concept of the beauty of the Western body. Consequently he wanted to “bring eyes back” to the Asian body and to Oriental costumes. For a landscape series he chose a forest in Seattle, and scenes from all around Japan. He concerns himself with social themes too, as in his “Pictures of Peace” and “Living with AIDS and HIV.” In a span of eight years, he published eight major books of his photography.
“I feel that photographic works have yet to be established as single works of expression,” he said. “All means of artistic expression, whether painting, sculpture or music, are predestined to have a particular characteristic which one should be conscious of at all times. One does not debate whether a painting is really a painting or not, or whether a sculpture is really a sculpture or not. Only photography is subjected to debates of this nature, of whether the image is photographic or not. There has not been a history of relating to a photographic work as a single work of personal expression. I feel that it was absolutely crucial that my expression has been and is photographic.”