Like the photographs he has taken, his name is a condensation, a reduction to an essence that can’t be easily forgotten. Hiro is the professional appellation of Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, born in Shanghai in 1930 and a fixture in the fashion world for more than 50 years. Apprenticed in the studio of Richard Avedon, he lasted only a year because Avedon saw that he was too talented to play second fiddle to anyone and sent him to the editor Alexey Brodovitch, who made him a staff photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. The photographs recently purchased by the Getty Museum and the quintessential examples on view at Pace/MacGill Gallery (through April 16) make clear what they saw in the work of an unproven photographer, and why we are still looking. Peter MacGill’s summary gives the broad strokes: “His pictures are superbly done, without compromises, visually clear and completely surprising in the elements they combine.” The word most commonly applied to Hiro’s photographs is surrealist. One of his most famous images involves a jeweled necklace adorning the hoof of a bull. Another shows the interplay of a chimp and a robotic arm.
The shock of incongruity is as sudden and certain as Méret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup or Man Ray’s woman-as-violin. To a current generation raised on Photoshop, Hiro’s eye-catching juxtapositions would seem as well to anticipate the liberation of digital imagery from the constraints of the actual. Yet a closer look at this issue’s cover image (Jerry Hall, Saint Martins, French West Indies, 1975) and others in the Pace/MacGill exhibition reveal the true source of Hiro’s hiro-ism. It has less to do with concept and collision than it does with composition. Hiro turns Jerry Hall’s profile into a graphic oval, divides the picture into intense zones of blue and brown, and joins them with a puff of smoke, like a cloud. During the 1960s, his photographic series of visors for Optico and his Harper’s Bazaar cover of Marisa Berenson and a shoe, among others, introduced into fashion an extreme formalism that had everything to do with exploring the boundaries of photography and less to do with selling anything. Hiro’s work is not immune to interpretation, and it’s possible to read a symbolic story into the contrast between a hoof and a precious stone, but the power of the pictures lies elsewhere. His underlying goal seems to be challenging viewers’ perceptions and point of view. In front of his best photographs we often ask, what are we seeing? and from what angle? Once we resolve the questions we are left with a sense of joy or lightness in the spirit of photographic play. Once upon a time, Henri Cartier-Bresson staged a photograph of a man in midstride stepping over a pool of water. Behind him on a wall was a poster of an acrobat, Cartier-Bresson’s subtle comment that photography is a kind of magic, and that what you see at first is not all that you get. If Hiro is selling anything, it is joy in a medium that shows us things that seem impossible and makes us believe them.