Late last year I had the opportunity to travel to Gifu, Japan to photograph the superb craftsmen at the Ozeki lantern workshop. Not many people know this but during the Shogunate Gifu was a cultural and economical hub due to a combination of geography and high quality natural resources. Gifu is surprisingly famous for a large number of core crafts, including smithing, washi (paper) production, bamboo crafts and the like – and as a result a great deal of higher level crafts flourished in the city as well – such as lanterns, which used a combination of the high quality materials produced in the area. .
For the most part, the lanterns made at Ozeki are decorative interior lanterns – different to the ones I photographed in Kyoto, which were mainly for outdoor use (a blog post for another time!). For this purpose, the lanterns needed to be compact and aesthetically pleasing, requiring a much more delicate approach and also an artistic design sensibility. The bamboo ribs are far more delicate and closer spaced than lanterns meant for outside use – the paper used is also extremely thin and translucent locally produced washi, adding to the luxury factor. Finally, each lantern has its motif hand painted directly onto the paper by an artisan so skilled and unerring that his brush strokes look effortless.
The famous Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi was so impressed with the skill and craftmanship of Ozeki’s artisans that he collaborated with them to make a series of art deco lanterns that are on display in the city right now. The geometries of the lanterns, some of them sinuous and organic, others with rigid and sharp lines, shows the adaptability and virtuosity of these artisans.