Every August in Toshi Ueshina's hometown of Kyoto, Japan, the people light bonfires on the surrounding mountains.
The fuel is arranged in patterns that trace out particular shapes—of a shrine, or a boat, or Chinese characters—and these flame-drawings burn golden on the hills by night.
The fires, Ueshina says, "invite the souls of the dead to return. People can see the fires, and they know the souls are returning to where they came from."
The fire ritual comes at the end of the Obon festival, when the beloved dead come back and mingle for a time with the living. During the sacred days of Obon, the Japanese visit the graves of their ancestors, and artists play music and dance in the streets.
When Ueshina first saw the All Souls Procession in Tucson, which ends with the burning of messages to the departed, he was reminded, naturally, of Obon. The next November, he decided to participate. Wearing a kimono, he joined up with Odaiko Sonora, Tucson's Japanese-drumming group, and danced the Bon Odori, the special dance performed only at Obon. He was delighted at the response.
"People threw necklaces as I walked along," he said. "I picked them up and saw that they were (offering) wishes of peace."
The procession's fire acts, dancers and costumed marchers were irresistible to the longtime photographer. He started shooting pictures of the procession in 2006, and has returned every year but one to make more. A collection of 15 black-and-white photographs, Toshi Ueshina: All Souls Procession, now on view at the Temple Gallery, uses overlapping imagery to capture the procession's pageantry and mystery, and its lights in the darkness.
"Coatlicue," just for example, frames the head of a woman with wild tendrils of hair and fabric ricocheting around her, white against the night. "Xochipilli," is a longer view of a tangle of dancers, repeated multiple times, gyrating down the street.
While Obon is a long tradition from a particular culture (the Buddhist festival has endured at least 500 years), All Souls is a new, invented festival that's a mélange of cultural expressions. Started by local artist Susan Kay Johnson in 1990 as a way of grieving the death of her own father, it mixes elements of the Catholic feast of All Souls, the Mexican Día de los Muertos and even the Celtic Samhain, or Halloween.
It also adds its own Tucson twists. The year he walked it, Ueshina says, not only did he see Tucsonans dressed in the traditional Día de los Muertos costumes—skeletal brides in white dresses and veils, and skull-faced gentlemen in 19th-century suits—he also saw Balinese dancers, stilt-walkers, flame-throwers and Scottish bagpipers.
He was a Japanese man dancing the "Bon Festival dance to the rhythm of the Japanese drum beats made by Americans," he writes in an artist's statement. "As I placed myself in this procession where various cultures, religions and rituals intertwine, suddenly I wondered who I was, and what exactly was I doing here."
His layered photographs explore that question. Named for Aztec deities, in honor of the Aztec festival of the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl (believed to be a source for Día de los Muertos), the pictures are dreamlike, even trancelike, with odd bursts of light illuminating the soft-edged human figures emerging out of the darkness.
In "Tezcatlipoca," torches trail flames across the sky. On the street below, one man has his face painted like a Spanish conquistador, and another has a Tohono O'odham spiral painted on his clothing. A small woman is dwarfed by her Aztec headdress. A giant woman in whiteface towers over the others; her magical size is out of proportion to the other walkers.
That big woman is really the start of another picture, blended into the first.
"I use a toy plastic Chinese camera," Ueshina explains, a Holga that allows him to advance the film so that different shots overlap.
The deliberate overlapping of imagery evokes the wild mix of cultures in the procession as well as the wildness of the night itself. Long and horizontal—like the procession itself—each of the pictures is an unexpected apparition.
"I want to discover new relationships and connections in my pictures," he says. "All the images are connected."
Ueshina goes out on festival night without expectations, relying instead on serendipity and randomness.
"I'm not looking for anything," he says. "Whatever comes to me, I get inspired. Becoming blank is my process—it's like meditation. I'm interested in images created by accident. I invite accidents when I create images."
The photographer first made a connection with the American scene in 1994, when photographer Linda Connor came to Kyoto. Connor is well known for her photographs of sacred places around the world, and Ueshina guided her around his city.
The following year, Arizona photographer Mark Klett arrived in Japan to shoot ruins from the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe. Ueshina served as his guide, and "we took pictures together."
The young Japanese man was already beginning to get attention for his work, and Klett encouraged him to come to Arizona State University to study. Ueshina got his master's in photography at ASU in 1999, and worked with Klett on Third View Project, the acclaimed re-photographic survey of the West. After teaching first at ASU and then at Clemson University in South Carolina, Ueshina moved to Tucson.
"I really love the Southwest," he says. "It's so different from my city."
He'll be back at the All Souls Procession this year, photographing angels and devils and Medusas and puppets.
The procession "doesn't exist anywhere else in the world," he says. "That's the part that is amazing to me. That's why I love the procession so much."