The Photographer

William Corey

June 13, 1949 – April 1, 2008

In 1974 Boulder photographer William Corey was sitting in his Colorado home watching a PBS documentary on Japanese gardens. He was so intrigued that the next day he dropped in on a travel agency and inquired about traveling to Japan. Within a week he was there, studying and admiring the ancient art of growing.

Twenty-eight years later, with numerous trips to Japan and countless images recorded, Corey may well be considered the premier garden photographer. At this point in his career, he is considered the foremost western artist to photograph Japanese Gardens and the only western photographer ever invited to photograph the gardens of the Japanese Emperor.

The process to photograph these gardens is unique and anything but simple. He determined early on that the complexity and overall dimensions of these gardens would be difficult if not impossible to get with a small camera. He resorted to an antique banquet camera with film plane dimensions of 8″ by 20.”

During a visit to Corey’s home, he admitted he is “kind of a composition guy” and considered his unique rectangular camera dimension as “a wonderful space to work in.” He feels that there are two kinds of pictures. Found ones where all the elements are there and one just has to fit the pieces together properly. Then there are made ones. The scenes where you don’t at first even see a picture, ones he says “if you work at long enough they begin to make themselves into something.” Using a big screen, as he calls it, gives him “a full view of the world” and a place to work out these formidable compositions.

His process is zen-like. Once he has arrived at a garden, he will study and sketch the scene of his next photograph upwards of three days. “It’s all about quieting down a bit before you start seeing,” he states.

Seldom does Corey expose more than one sheet of his custom cut film. And for good reason. His process is zen-like. Once he has arrived at a garden, he will study and sketch the scene of his next photograph upwards of three days. “It’s all about quieting down a bit before you start seeing,” he states. Then the camera is placed into position, the final composition is determined and an exposure is executed with the help of a stopwatch and a keen eye focused on light changes, wind-blurred leaves and haphazard appearances of groundkeepers and garden visitors alike. Interested in extending the moment rather than stopping it, exposures can last up to 30 minutes. But these long exposures are always fluid and variable. Hefty gusts of wind or the occasional lingering visitor within the field of view prompt Corey to close the lens shutter and wait before continuing the rest of the exposure. Changing clouds, lightening or darkening the scene, may cause him to increase or decrease the exposure. Thirty minutes can become forty, or twenty at the whim of the light.

Final products from his garden explorations have been pampered and massaged into many media. To date his work has been admired in numerous individual and group exhibitions from San Francisco to New York. The huge-up to four by ten foot meticulously framed prints-hang in numerous corporate and residential spaces and have been displayed in the halls of museums, most recently, the Bunshokan Art Museum in Yamagata, Japan, where Corey was the first western artist ever to be selected for a one-person show.

Clearly his prized possessions are the limited edition handmade Japanese accordion-style books that not only captivate the eye but lure the sense of touch. Silk textiles embrace the hard outer skin of the book and open to reveal personally selected rice papers which were first sent to a Vermont letterpress company to be struck with the elegant and poignant text. These sheets are married with the chosen photographs and are carefully delivered back to Japan to be bound by a 350-year-old Japanese book binding family. The books are housed in individual wooden boxes and when displayed can extend thirty five feet.

Slowly and methodically Corey is preserving and safekeeping the individual images. Each negative is being carefully scanned into the digital world, catalogued and archived for future generations to observe and better understand a civilization’s ancient art form.

“You can get so caught up in the sense of time when you are working in these gardens,” states Corey. “Spending day after day in seven hundred year old gardens — I am continually traveling back and forth through history. I come away from them filled with awe and amazement.”

Article courtesy of Eric Bakke. Photograph of William Corey courtesy of Reimi Adachi Corey.
Originally published by the American Society of Media Photographers, June 2002.
© 2002 ASMP. All rights reserved.

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