At its best, the art of photographic still life is a manipulation of both the senses and the intellect. Unlike landscape or portraiture, still life is totally within the dominion of the photographer. The still life object is a patient model, it is small and moveable, more or less replaceable, and agreeable to the artist’s most outrageous challenge to its identity. Yet these natural advantages belie the extreme difficulty of making an original still life statement. In the world of advertising this is the stuff of steep competition. How is the commercial photographer to arrest the jaded eye of the magazine browser, to excite our senses anew over a thing we have considered countless times in countless ways? To begin with he must have an active imagination. No less essential, he must possess a flawless technique to match it. The game he plays in not unlike the magician’s: his result must be fantastic, his technique invisible.
The magic of Hashi’s still lifes represents years of experimentation and untold pounds of perishable products. The list of clients Hashi has attracted during his career as an advertising photographer in New York City, which by now numbers nearly four hundred, attests to an impeccable reputation. The portfolio that follows might be viewed as Hashi’s personal bag of tricks, a collection of fantasies that he has successfully made real. It is into this wonderful bag that it is high client’s privilege to dip for ideas.
To appreciate the special niche that Hashi has claimed for himself, one must consider the daunting competition he faces not only in the contemporary world of advertising but retrospectively. Throughout the present century certain leading artists of the genre have propelled still life photography through a succession of notable innovations. Whether it is defined as commercial assignment or personal expression it is on the basis of these achievements that Hashi’s work takes off.
Man Ray, working in the surrealistic milieu of Paris in the 1920s, made still lifes to assert that truth is relative, or a question of interpretation. In one of his photographs, titled “Compass,” a toy gun hangs menacingly from a horseshoe magnet; in another an erotic reading of a peach is made overt by its placement in the center of a fig leaf. At the same moment in California Edward Weston was making his innovative studies of peppers, shells, and gourds. Under the scrutiny of Weston’s camera natural objects propose a cosmic sensuality. Edward Steichen, meanwhile, on assignment for the most fashionable magazines of the period, aimed for neither irony nor transcendence, but glamour. In a particularly memorable example of Steichen’s commercial art a pair of lady’s evening shoes is lit with cross-beams reminiscent of a Hollywood premier.
More recently, the unmistakable style of Irving Penn has introduced a spare elegance to the repertoire of commercial still life. Penn’s clean and perfectly balanced arrangements are frequently set off by a sign of their eventual undoing; a burnt match soils a still life of after dinner drinks; the physical pleasure of fresh fruit is enhanced by a moistened cherry pit. In a very different mood Marie Cosindas assembled densely packed still lifes of perfumes and flowers. Like a painter with a warm toned palette she evokes an atmosphere of sheltered personal taste and old-world values.
For all of these photographers success has been due to their understanding that it is not the thing itself as much as the atmosphere they can create around it that will ultimately dazzle and seduce. Even more essential, they have brought to that premise their own distinct method and signature. Starting out in the wake of such formidable talents as these, Hashi had to define a vision that could compete but could not be confused with theirs. Right away, one is struck by the taught, shining simplicity of Hashi’s still lifes, and the sensation that his objects are highly charged.
One imagines that the process of Hashi’s art begins with the question of how to liberate the object from its dull daily life, to coax from it a display of its natural energy. Once found, the solution seems obvious. A fresh hot pepper is belted with a matching red electric cord; a breath of smoke curls out from the interior of a chambered nautilus. Favoring spot lighting and dark backgrounds, Hashi makes his objects at once mysterious and bold, and as new to us as if they had been shot down from another planet.
Such images require an exhaustive knowledge of the properties of light and the value of color. But most of all it is the eloquence of his timing that raises Hashi’s work above the average. The most exacting test of Hashi’s technical know-how is his use of liquid substances. It is with liquid that he can make his objects pop, hit, sink, or slide. Perhaps the most perfectly controlled of his aquatic pictures is that of four smooth stones hitting deep blue water which captures the nearly impossible split second between their landing and sinking, an image at once mind-boggling and sensuous. Hashi’s still lifes do not only reach the senses by way of their sudden impact but also by way of association. A golf ball, two thirds of the way down a glass mug of beer, has caused a perfect crown of white foam at the rim of the glass, a subliminal reference to the champion of the game. In another example a giddy Spanish olive has zigzagged out of a martini glass, splashing a tail of gin, its red eye looking straight at the camera. Both photographs suggest the intoxication of drink, on the one hand suddenly strengthening, on the other unpredictably flirtatious.
Hashi’s joy in the watery element is especially pointed by contrast to his studies of decayed food. An almost apocalyptic image of a red cabbage hovering on a purple horizon stabbed by a dart is followed by its sequel, an unsparingly blank rendering of the withered objects a few weeks later. As if to remind his client that nature will not always cooperate with the artist these photographs seem, as much as anything, a pointed reference to Hashi’s exceptional patience with the living reality of his subject.
Hashi dismisses the suggestion that his sensibility owes something to his Japanese heritage. In the sense that photographic still life is an international language, and that Hashi operates out of its commercial capitol, the point may be far from conclusive. All the same, it is impossible to miss the special advantage Hashi seems to have in his intuitive respect for the facts of nature. While his photographs are performances of extreme calculation, his materials are never substitutes for the real thing, and his concept is consistently designed around the object’s own natural tendencies. Like the aesthetic clarity of Japanese cooking Hashi’s ingredients are never disguised; their beauty is in their selection and arrangement, their power in their rawness. In spite of the jungle of electric cord, battery of lights, camera apparatus, and hovering assistants that are the basic equipment of the still life studio, Hashi’s magic is made by his undistract4ed and complete confidence in what it is. -- A Critical Essay by Belinda Rathbone