By Sascha Udagawa

“Something just clicked the first time we visited Japan. I don’t know what it was. It was certainly the natural beauty here, but it was also my respect and appreciation for who the Japanese are and how they function as a society,” said Gil Garcetti, a photographer from Los Angeles who recently visited Japan to promote his latest book, Japan: A Reverence for Beauty. In the book, Garcetti explores through images and essays what he feels is a unique quality of Japanese culture: the appreciation of and need for beauty in virtually every aspect of life.

Garcetti and his wife came to Japan for the first time in 1967 and have returned numerous times. “It was a five-year project with many trips here, but it also motivated me to really delve into as much written material as I could, attending lectures, meeting people and letting them open up and inform me about Japan,” said Garcetti during an interview with American View. “It’s been a marvelous experience and we’ve met such incredibly interesting people.”

Gil Garcetti

Gil Garcetti speaks during the interview

Although he’s been taking pictures for many years, Garcetti hasn’t always been a professional photographer. In his previous career, he spent 32 years working as a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, including eight years as the elected district attorney and four years before that as the chief deputy district attorney. As the district attorney, he handled major cases including the O.J. Simpson murder trial and dealt with the aftermath of the L.A. riots.

“When I left office in December 2000, I decided that I still had another really good 30 years left, so why not try something new?” said Garcetti. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing, but it started with the ironworkers who were on site at Walt Disney Concert Hall. They were building it, I started taking photographs, they encouraged me, and ultimately I was convinced that we should do a book. Contrary to what I expected from the L.A. Times and others, they loved me as a photographer.” Garcetti’s photographs of the ironworkers were published in a book titled Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2002 and exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

As a photographer, Garcetti isn’t simply focused on creating beautiful pictures. Although his photos are stunning, his approach to photography infuses images with a deeper meaning. Since leaving the legal profession, Garcetti has published several photography books in which he sought to convey ideas he gleaned from traveling around the world. As a lawyer he probably would have used hard facts and legal arguments to make a point, but now he relies on the power of an image to make his case.


© Gil Garcetti

In Japan: Reverence for Beauty, there is a definite message he wants to convey, but it seems almost cryptic, as if the meaning is locked inside the pictures somewhere. The photo on the cover has an otherworldly quality. Although it depicts a leaf that appears to be falling from a tree, the shot is very still with no sense of motion. “Five young Japanese were smiling and intensely focused on a tiny orange maple leaf suspended in air at the memorable garden of Koinzan Saiho-ji temple,” explained Garcetti in his photographer’s statement in the book. “As I approached, they smiled and made room for me. Silently we shared this mystery. Then a ray of sunlight caught the single spider web line on which the leaf was suspended. We all smiled and nodded at each other.” As the group patiently worked to solve the mystery of the suspended leaf, Garcetti was struck by and found that he shared their fascination with something so simple and yet so beautiful.

Japanese lady with autumn leaves

© Gil Garcetti

Another photo in the book shows an elderly woman holding a bunch of colorful autumn leaves and smiling broadly at the camera. “She caught my eye because there was a beauty about her, but also because her face was almost glowing,” said Garcetti. “It was like, I’m so happy to be alive, I’m so happy to be experiencing the fall here in this beautiful place.” This is the Japanese “reverence for beauty” that Garcetti hopes to capture in his photos, and it’s evident not only in his shots of people enjoying the autumn leaves and cherry blossoms, but also of everyday scenes and street fashion in Japan.

Fashionable women in Japan

© Gil Garcetti

Since many of the photos in the book depict breathtaking scenes of Japanese gardens and architecture, the viewer naturally wants to know where they were taken. But the book contains no captions or endnotes describing the photographs. This forces the viewer to slow down and contemplate the images themselves and the meaning they convey. “I intentionally did not identify each photo saying where it’s from,” said Garcetti. “My book is really a project, not just a book. This is my calling card, because I’m hoping that people invite me to come and speak. Then I can inform them about the photographs and why, in a small way, they answer the question that I raise: Why are the Japanese so unique in this world in their respect, reverence, and need for beauty in their life? What can we learn from this ancient culture and people that might make us a tiny bit better as a people or a nation? That’s the ultimate question. What can we learn from the people in Japan?”

Dried persimmons

© Gil Garcetti

The Japanese government learned about Garcetti’s deep appreciation of Japan and invited him to join a committee of prominent Los Angeles residents who will provide input on the development of a “Japan House” in the city to showcase Japan’s cutting-edge technology as well as its traditional and popular culture, including cuisine. The prosecutor-turned-photographer views the appointment as a great honor and is thrilled to be able to participate in this exciting project.

Garcetti’s understanding of Japan’s unique “reverence for beauty” was undoubtedly aided by his experiences interacting with people in all walks of life while traveling the world. Without witnessing how people respond to beauty in other countries, he might not have come to the conclusion that Japan is somehow different in that respect. The first time Garcetti ventured outside the United States was when he received a scholarship to go to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom for a semester. “My goodness, what an eye-opening experience that was!” he said. “From that day on, I realized the value of being exposed to people from other nations and other cultures. There is no richer experience in a young life than being exposed to another culture and getting to know the people there.”

Sascha Udagawa Sascha Udagawa is a writer and editor at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. She graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a degree in visual arts. Her interest in Japanese culture brought her to Tokyo in 1991 to teach English, and she worked as a Japanese-to-English translator for a number of years before joining the Embassy.