The Beauty of a Flower by Mark Vassallo

The Beauty of a Flower by Mark Vassallo

“Come, see the true


On this pained world.”

(Matsuo Bashō)

Our conversation started discussing about tea…

Checking out the menu of a small lounge-bar in Tokyo, Mark revealed me that he is a true tea-lover and, on the top of the traditional Japanese sencha, he loves the rare Chinese Jasmin Pearls… well, as a I am also tea-addicted, my interview to Mark could not start in a better way!

I met Mark Vassallo, a fascinating photographer grew up in England and moved to Japan 25 years ago, last summer at Mamma Luisa’s Table, a typical Italian restaurant in Ebisu area. At the restaurant there is one of his photo from “FLOWERS” series and the related catalogue… when I saw them it was love at the first sight! Then, as we both are regular costumers of that restaurant, we met there in person and the restaurant’s owner introduced me that he was the author of these captivating photos.

Last week I went to the restaurant again and, chatting with Pietro – the owner – about my plan to go to Kyoto International Photo Festival “KYOTOGRAPHIES” next April, he exclaimed: “Also Mark will exhibit there!” Perfect, I thought, finally I have an excuse to interview Mark!

My conversation with Mark started from the project he is working on and that he will present at “KYOTOGRPHIES Satellite Event KG+”. I am talking about photos belonging to his “FORM IS EMPTINESS” series, which are a reviewed version of the “FLOWERS” series.

The photographer has made a real step forward by working on his past artworks experimenting a totally innovative technique for photography field. Actually the technique he uses, which consist in covering the picture’s background with gold leaves, is not new in Japanese art’s production. The use of gold leaves as background dates back to the Medieval Japan (Momoyama Era 1573 – 1603), and it was mostly used for the painted sliding doors (shōji) or for the folding screens (byōbu). By using gold leaves as background antique Japanese houses, characterized by very short walls and no use of glass-window, could result a little bit more illuminated.

The magic gold-effect turns the previous Flowers series in a totally new collection: by the light reflection of gold on the piece of artworks, they changes aspect several time per day, depending of the different light that hit them.

Due to my academic background on Japanese Art, this kind of Momoyama revival technique raised my curiosity, so I’ve asked Mark which Medieval artistic school or Japanese artwork inspired him. Surprising Mark told me that he has not a specific model, but his “Japanese Style” artworks  come spontaneously, such as he has been absorbing Japanese art and aesthetic only by living here in Japan half of his life!


But let’s make a step back and discovery a little bit more about this photographer. First of all, I had to make him an essential questions: ‘Why flowers?’ And, even more important: ‘Why Japan?’.

The artist’s reply to my questions was quite impressive, and it involves some incredible life turning points, let me go through them.

Mark arrived in Japan 25 year ago with the purpose of enclosing himself in a Zen temple and meditate. He took this drastic decision after a lesson at Central St. Martins university where his art professor showed a Japanese ink painting depicting an enso, a circle that Zen masters use to paint during the meditation process. Mark remained deeply fascinated by this kind of representations and by the way to reach the capability to draw them. Few months later he was in Japan, meditating.

His experience of the monastery lasted half year, then he moved to the Japanese countryside and continued to meditate in loneliness and he started to taking pictures, shooting botanical subjects.

As we all can guess, one cannot survive only with his photography for pleasure, so Mark specialized his photography skills into the fashion field becoming a well known fashion photographer. However, even if travelling back and forward from Japan to Europe and US for work, he never gave up his passions, and he carried on meditating and shooting flowers. Therefore, FLOWERS series can be considered the result of a very long process, which sees Mark spending hours at florists’ shops at first, then going to the main Japanese flowers market and, eventually, growing his own flowers in his studio.

It was since he could keep monitoring his flowers 24 hours a day that Mark came up with a great result. By growing flowers in his apartment, in fact, he could spend day and night gazing at them – in a sort of meditating process – waiting for the right moment to shoot the most beautiful moment of a flower’s life.

The photographer confessed me that not always the ‘absolute Beauty of a flower’ coincides with the blooming, but sometimes it happens before the flower discloses the petals or right before they fell down on the floor. Explaining Mark’s aim using his words, I am not interesting in how flowers look like, but I am experiencing them.

Nowadays, by adding gold leaves this these pictures, the photographer is giving them a second life, bringing these photos to another level. As I’ve mentioned before, the gold has the power to reflect a different light depending on the display or time of the day. For this reason, Mark has selected two special locations to exhibit his “EMPTINESS IS FORM” photos during KYOTOGRAPHIE festival: the first one will be a machiya (a traditional Japanese room covered by tatami held by a family of kimono makers) This room is located nearby Shiorian Museum and it is surrounded by Japanese gardens. The second  one will be the Mitsui Garden Hotel, famous for the traditional design of its dining room. The artworks will be displayed in an hotel’s room called kura, the stock-house, characterized by a low roof and deep shadows. The reason why he wanted to expose in such places comes from a script by Tanizaki Junichiro, “In price of shadow”, here the words by the Japanese author:

“[…] beauty of Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else. […] The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that make for us the charm of a room” (In price of shadow, 1977).

But let’s go back to his artworks. As I’ve said above, the mixture of meditating and picture-making process really fascinated me. By listening to Mark’s explanation of them, I think that these photos can be considered a sort of mandala: by means of them one can go through a meditation process by admiring the change of light reflections on the pictures’ surface.

What do you think about this interpretation?

Both Mark and I agreed that the very lucky of you who can come to KYOTOGRAPHIES festival must have the final word about it.

Here below the invitation to Mark Vassallo’s exhibition vernissage.

We will wait for you from the 12th to the 16th of April in Kyoto… for a truly ‘Art Experience’!



Words by: Elisa Da Rin Puppel

Photos by: Mark Vassallo

Photographer website:

KG+ KYOTOGRAPHIE Satellite Event official website:

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