A man sits on the corner of a stone fence, a thick cascade of flora and fauna behind him. He rests his left hand on one of the posts for balance while gently holding his fiancée’s hand in his right.
He looks at the photographer with a reserved smile and kind eyes. His fiancée turns and looks over her right shoulder, revealing a slight, mischievous smile. They seem a bit caught off guard, like they were interrupted in the middle of an intimate conversation or a quiet moment.
A wooden pagoda-shaped lamppost hovers over them protectively.
“My first time in Japan was 1962,” says Morton Huber during a talk at the Sechrest Gallery at High Point University. “I had met my wife during her last year of university. She was Japanese and going back to Japan, and I thought I would go with her. While I was there, I visited her and her family many times. We were married at the embassy in Tokyo.”
Huber looks different now than in the black-and-white photo in the corner. He’s older; decades have taken a natural toll on his body. He uses a walker to move around, but his mind and memory are as keen as ever.
“I went thinking I was gonna learn about Japanese artists,” Huber says of his 1962 trip. “I had read enough about Japan to expect a lot of the things I saw. I immediately liked the people, liked the food.”
The gallery is filled with Huber’s diary of his life in Japan. The close to two decades that he spent in the country during the ’60s and ’70s have been captured on film and displayed throughout the space in a new exhibit titled Reflections of Japan: Photographs by Dr. Morton W. Huber with Prints of “The Floating World.” The only photograph not taken by Huber himself is the portrait of him and his fiancée Kyoko. The others are a love letter to a country with which he still feels deeply connected.
In addition to the dozens of black-and-white photos by Huber, the exhibit displays a selection from Huber’s collection of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, that he collected during his travels.
While his career was in chemistry, Huber developed a passion for visual art. He painted watercolors frequently and dabbled in black-and-white photography in his spare time.
And though he first went to Japan for a teaching position in chemistry and environmental science at Kanazawa Institute of Technology, the exhibit displays Huber’s deep fascination and adoration of his new home.
Next to the photograph of Huber and Kyoko hangs a colorful woodblock print of two lovers taking a walk in the snow. The print, which dates from 1762 and is by Suzuki Harunobu, similarly portrays a couple caught in an intimate moment as they stroll carefully over newly fallen snow, a paper parasol protecting them from the elements.
Emily Gerhold, director of the art gallery and an assistant art history professor at High Point University, says the show attempts to meld the two differing mediums by grouping them by subject matter.
“We loved the idea of showcasing the photographs and the prints together,” Gerhold says. “When I looked at [his] photographs, his aesthetic really seems to be influenced by these really traditional images of everyday Japanese life. We thought that showcasing the photographs would add an even richer context, that the images would contextualize each other.”
On an opposite wall, a woodblock print with spots of red against muted green and blue tones forms a group of workers in a rice paddy. They bend down carefully, faces covered by wide, straw hats that shield them from the pouring rain as they harvest the grain, their ankles shin-deep in the water. A large, looming mountain anchors the background. Next to the woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige, a contemporary of Hokusai, is a black-and-white photo by Huber.
His focuses on recently shorn tufts of rice, the once-tall grain cut short and jagged — most likely with a sickle. The rows of shortened crop appear at an angle and light bounces off the surface of the water, creating pockets of white on the image. In the far back corner, a lone farmer bends down, his or her face obstructed by a familiar wide-brim hat.
Despite being from vastly different time periods, in some cases, almost two or three hundred years apart, both Huber’s photographs and the woodblock prints act as a kind of time machine into the bygone eras of Japan. The prints depict quiet images of fishing villages and manual labor, while Huber’s photographs echo similar imagery of rocky coasts and lone boats on the water. Others depict monks at Buddhist and Shinto shrines and old-school dollmakers and woodblock carvers in their studios. Combined, the exhibit isn’t necessarily meant to show the history of the country so much as serving as a window into one man’s viewpoint of a country that welcomed him many years ago. The last time he visited Japan was in 2003, Huber says.
“I miss the people and the work I was doing,” Huber says as he walks around the gallery. “I’d like to go back and start it all over again.”