Photography was the last thing assistant professor Akihiko Miyoshi ever thought he’d take up. “I resisted the stereotype of the Japanese person holding a camera,” he says, “so I only ever took a few photographs, reluctantly, until I was 25.” By then, in 2002, he was a doctoral candidate in computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and curiosity compelled him to sign up for a photography class. “I found it far more interesting than computer engineering,” he says. There was no sense going through with that Ph.D., when what he really wanted was to throw himself into the M.F.A. program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Miyoshi started out doing street photography, “as a reaction to technology.” Then he met Jeff Weiss at RIT, with his large-scale, digitally-manipulated color photographs of fantastic pastoral landscapes, and, he says, “everything changed. My work became more about ideas versus what it looked like.” He finally understood why he wanted to study photography. “With computer engineering, you’re just solving problems for others. But art gives you the option of asking your own questions and spending time with them.”
One of them is: In this digital age, how do I engage with photography as an artist? “Photography has detached itself from its material base, and the tangibleness of it is lost,” says Miyoshi. “Now it’s about data. Most photographs today don’t end up on paper, but on cell phones, iPods, and computer screens. It’s unsettling to me, but it’s also very exciting.”
Instead of eschewing the technology, Miyoshi embraces it, questioning it in his art by way of computers, video, and other digital technology combined with drawings, paintings, and inkjet prints. “I like to think of myself as a conceptual artist. The idea comes first and the art takes form from that,” he says. If there’s a running theme in his work, “it has something to do with how we see the world.”
Ask Miyoshi to elaborate, and most likely he’ll tell you that he doesn’t have the words for it. That explains his artist statement, which looks more like an electronic schematic or piece of amateur concrete poetry. “I resist talking about my artwork, especially if it’s in process,” he explains. “There’s the danger of thinking I’ve resolved something before I even do it.”
As much as Miyoshi insists he lacks words for his art, his art often represents something that can’t be seen—like his paintings of webcam images, pixel by pixel. Then there’s his 44-by-60-inch acrylic painting, This is What it Sounds Like (2004). It depicts a flock of swallows and its algorithm—lines connecting them to each other—generated by a computer graphics program and based on a photo he took of the birds.
For his inkjet print, Reading the NY Times, Aug 13 (2004), Miyoshi created a software program that analyzes the grammar of each sentence of the online version of the New York Times. The program extracted words relevant to the sentence’s meaning and represented each with a different colored ellipse, its size determined by its frequency of appearance in the newspaper. Computer-generated semantic connections result in Miyoshi’s print of a scattering of colorful ellipses connected by flowing lines, like untethered balloons floating in the sky.
If only he had the time to delve into his art again like that. “Occasionally, I can work on some ideas, but I’m the kind of person who has to lock myself in my studio and think until something happens, and I can’t do that while I’m teaching,” he says. “I put most of my energy into my students. This is my first teaching post and I’ve been here only a year and a half. Once I can repeat more classes, I’ll know better how to fit in my artwork. It’s frustrating, though, not being able to do art. I get grumpy.”
Maybe Miyoshi’s frustration is busy forging new ideas—like the bits and bytes of a computer, invisible but working hard behind the screen.
Additional artwork may be found on Miyoshi's website.