April 2011
2011, Apr 29
Last night’s photography conversation (昨日の会はの記録)

I met a friend yesterday in Yokohama, we talked and drank for a while. In the course of our conversation he said something like this: “I really like American photography, it feels so fresh. To me, things in Japan are stale, everyone is doing the same thing here.” I said “really? It seems to me like so many photographers in America, especially graduate students, have these really ponderous artist statements, which doesn’t interest me at all. I feel like Japanese photography is something new.”

And so on. Of course there’s something obvious here (we both know our own cultures pretty well, so we’re interested in something different) but it’s the first time I’ve heard someone here really say that they were bored with things. We went on to talk about the idea of being “famous” as a photographer: if Eggleston or Friedlander walk down the street, do amateur photographers recognize them? Moriyama and Araki would get recognized. Then the over-polite service of the chain restaurant we were at prompted us to talk about how in Japan, photography is a way for radical individual expression. Of course there are some photographers who take a restrictive approach to their work, but the big names here (Moriyama and Araki) take a very open approach to allowing photography into their lives.

This conversation made me think of things a little bit differently, like it’s just as helpful to introduce foreign artists here as it is to introduce Japanese artists abroad.





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2011, Apr 28
Top 5 Japanese photography books?

I received this question from Gabriel Benaim, who had written inquiring about Koyuki Tayama’s books:

What would you put in your top 5 list for Japanese photobooks in print (or reasonably found)?

Limiting the list to books in print (or reasonably found) makes it a lot easier for me to answer, because I’m not sitting on a huge collection of rare books. Four of the five books on this list I actually own, which I think is important. The memory of a great exhibit might stay with you for weeks or years, but a photobook is an object you live with. Your relationship to it might change as you look at it during different times. So here’s the list, in no particular order:

Rinko Kawauchi, Utatane. Little More, 2001. ¥3000
Hiromi Tsuchida, Zokushin. Tosei-sha, 2004 edition (the original is from 1976 but this is better anyway). ¥7500
Ume Kayo, Ume-me. Little More, 2000, ¥2000.
Yasuko Noguchi, Sakurabito. Vacuum Press, ¥1050.
Aya Fujioka, I Don’t Sleep. Akaaka-sha, 2009. ¥5000

Tayama’s books are all sold out, by the way, so they don’t really qualify for this list. I’ve added a couple of links to Japan Exposures where they carry the book, otherwise “reasonably found” may still entail some kind of convoluted ordering process. “Reasonable for Japan”?

This is my first listicle. It’s gonna get me tons of hits right?


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Photobook Nonsense

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2011, Apr 26
Seiji Shibuya, “Flame” at Akaaka

Last week I wrote a post on Seiji Shibuya for La Pura Vida, talking mostly about his recent photobook “Dance.” I liked the lightness of the photos, and for the “Dance” exhibit, Shibuya went as far as to write a very coherent statement explaining why he put together such an un-“serious” book.

Shibuya also held a second photo exhibit at Akaaka’s gallery, “Flame.” Here are some photos from the exhibit:

Some photos were hung on the walls, but this table was the centerpiece of the exhibit.

The photos of these flowers were shot just a couple of weeks ago, in Miyagi, an area heavily damaged by the tsunami.

It’s my first time to see a show presented like this. It looks like pins have been driven through the photos, but actually, each photo is sitting on top of four metal posts, with a small magnet placed on top.

I thought this photo in the center might have also been taken in Miyagi, but it was actually taken at the funeral of Shibuya’s grandmother.


This was taken at Shibuya’s talk event. He has a good way of speaking in public, the word I would use is “measured.” He’s on the left, though I guess you can’t make out his face, or the Budweiser that he and the moderator were drinking. That was also a first, I’m glad to see Tokyo’s photographic community beginning to rally around this fine beer.


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AKAAKA, Seiji Shibuya

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2011, Apr 21

A day after photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in Libya, it doesn’t seem like a good time to post about Japanese art photography. Maybe after the weekend. I haven’t seen Hetherington’s film Restrepo yet, but after reading Bryan’s post I think I need to see it soon. The trailer is here.

01 blog posted this video today. Hetherington wrote, “‘Diary’ is a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It’s a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.”


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2011, Apr 16
Children’s photos of Ishinomaki from ROLLS TOHOKU

ROLLS TOHOKU is basically the best collection of images to surface from Tohoku, the area of Japan that has been damaged by the tsunami. The concept of the ROLLS project is simple: give people in these areas disposable cameras, have them shoot over the course of a few days, show the unedited results online. In taking a photo of something tragic there’s always the possibility of just turning it into an easily consumable aesthetic object. That’s not at all the case here though. I want to thank the guy who thought of this project, not because I think it’s going to produce the next wave of photo stars but because it is pleasant to see something real.

What’s really excellent about this project is that it tells you if the photographer is an adult or child, and also where they are currently living. I was particularly struck by photos taken by a few different children around Watanoha Elementary School, near Ishinomaki (Google Map here).

There’s a whole range of emotions here, which sometimes are a bit surprising. We can see some friends running around and making faces for the camera in front of piles of debris which have been piled up in the schoolyard. On the one hand I think: kids are kids, put a camera in front of a 12-year-old and they’re damn well going to make a funny face. Still, it seems like they are well aware of what’s happening, so maybe they are just making the best of the situation, “putting one foot in front of the other” and getting on with their lives. In any case, this is essential viewing.

I’ve updated my earlier post with links related to the earthquake, and will continue to add relevant projects as they show up.

Kaho Imai:

Mizuki Atsumi:

Keiya Ustumi:


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3/11 Earthquake, ROLLS TOHOKU

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2011, Apr 14
Oh Jinil and small goals

My tendency in looking at (and taking) photographs is to go for something we could call organic, or unconscious, or close to the course of one’s life. Lately, though, I’ve been more interested in small, self-contained projects. I think this has something to do with hanging out with Erik van der Weijde in the too-brief time that he was here in Tokyo. There’s something to be said for setting yourself a clear goal, going out and hitting it. Erik makes this process look easier than it actually is.

Oh Jinil, a Korean photographer living in Osaka, took these photos there over two snowy days. They feel like the beginning of a simple project: snow, umbrella, hair.


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2011, Apr 12
Missed opportunity

I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.

Lee Friedlander

A little while ago I heard of someone who was shooting a photo project in Japan, which was a meditation on the idea that a major earthquake could strike here sometime soon. This person had been to Japan a few times before, but as luck would have it, he was actually in the country on March 11—amazing, cosmic timing, right? I was curious to find out what became of the project, but as it turns out, he viewed the earthquake as an imposition; he was annoyed that he couldn’t complete the project as he’d previously envisioned it!

On the one hand, you could say this is a failure to be flexible in one’s thinking. Fair enough. But if the subject of your photography project was the possibility of a major earthquake in Japan, and you were not in Japan when a major earthquake hit, wouldn’t that just drive you up the wall? To actually be in Japan at that time, and effectively throw in the towel, strikes me as a misunderstanding of the medium. Unless you’re working in a studio, it’s not reasonable to expect control over anything—and it’s surprising that someone whose subject was the shifting of tectonic plates would not grasp this! Friedlander’s quote (and work) is perhaps the example of how to keep yourself open—to receive the unexpected not as an obstacle, but as a gift.


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Lee Friedlander, Quotes

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2011, Apr 10
Japan seen from abroad 4

Here’s a review of “Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art,” a show currently up in New York City. Rinko Kawauchi gets two sentences here, though it’s a huge group show so that’s no injustice. The writing is confusing (confused), though:

By having the uniquely Japanese sub-cultural ko-gals kill themselves (in a manner drawn from bushido honor code), he gesturally decimates Japan’s most marketable youth.


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Japan seen from abroad

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2011, Apr 08
Takashi Homma’s “New Documentary” exhibit EXCLUSIVE PIX


With my platform over at La Pura Vida, I feel like Street Level Japan is probably no longer the right place to really focus on introducing Japanese photographers, which is the main thing that I want to use the internet for. This blog should start to become a bit looser, like back in the day when I was living in SF, couldn’t talk to anyone about photography, and for a while set myself a goal of posting once a day just to see if I could. I don’t think I’ll even have as much time now to post things quickly like I’d want to, but we’ll see. If things are going well this blog will become more like a notebook, i.e. much less serious than the things I’m posting more “publicly” — with the notion that the audience here is still rather intimate.

Yesterday was the opening of Takashi Homma’s ambitiously titled retrospective exhibit “New Documentary,” which is up at the Art Gallery in Tokyo Opera City. (If you’re going to go check it out, it’s really also worth visiting the NTT Communications Space on the 4th floor of Opera City, which shows technology-based art that’s usually very satisfying.) World-renowned blogger/curator extraordinnaire Marc “eyecurious“ Feustel was in Tokyo, and since he’s down with SLJ he let me sneak in with him.

The exhibit is very large: there are six different spaces, showing about eight bodies of work total. I like Homma’s work but don’t know it particularly well, so I recognized a couple of things like “Tokyo and My Daughter” and “Tokyo Suburbia.” The presentation of the photos is generally really good, they’re mounted under borderless glass which highlights the idea of surfaces, something that kind of defines Homma’s work in a way.


security guard: ah you can’t take pictures in here. are you with the press? me: i write a blog. him: ok i guess


The most exciting part of the show for me was a small corridor where Homma had stacked up a bunch of softcover books for people to flip through. This is titled “Reconstruction of 1991-2010,” and it’s all black and white reproductions of his work, sometimes as it’s appeared in magazines or other places. The quality of the books felt very disposable, which was nice. It also led me to believe that you could walk off with one, Felix Gonzalez-Torres style, but that turned out not to be the case.


The boxes weren’t filled with anything (I think)


on the right is one of the more emblematic images of tokyo suburbia, as verified by google


There was another room with his McDonald’s photos mounted on the floor. This work has been published in a series of zines.



This show certainly gives you a lot to chew on. I’ve never had the chance to see his “classic” Tokyo work in person, so even though it’s not new, it’s nice to be able to think about it clearly. He seems to be taking pictures of almost nothing, but then small things begin to stand out, and you wonder if he really “meant” it that way, or if other people can see it too. The printing quality is very high of course, I guess it goes without saying but the pictures you’re seeing here don’t do the show real justice. On another level, it’s nice to see his work presented all at once, and to observe how certain themes in his work have developed over time. Then there’s also something about the way that he’s chosen to re-present his work, giving it this title, and reproducing everything in the “Reconstruction” book, as if it could all be boiled down to some black and white photocopies. It’s up for a while, so I’ll definitely go back again. Recommended, obviously.


araki is good with children, no joke. not shown are the 20 other people also snapping this photo, who are standing in the half circle described by a radius of 15 feet extending from his person.


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Nobuyoshi Araki, Takashi Homma

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2011, Apr 03
Patrick Tsai, Talking Barnacles

© Patrick Tsai

I’ve featured Patrick Tsai a couple of times on this blog before. He got quite a lot of attention a few years ago with his My Little Dead Dick project, which he describes on his website as a “photo diary.” When that project ended, he moved to Tokyo, and I met him shortly after I arrived here a couple of years ago. Since coming to Japan, he’s published a very good zine, “Hot Water,” but it seems like it’s been hard to follow up the success of My Little Dead Dick.

His newest project, though, seems like it will stand up well to his earlier work. What made MLDD so compelling was looking at someone else’s life put on display, and Pat’s new blog, Talking Barnacles, operates in a similar way. What started out as an interview blog has now become a post-earthquake blog, and I’m sure it will turn into other things as well. There’s more writing here, but it’s still a “photo diary.” I try to err on the side of undersharing myself on the internet, but the opposite approach definitely works. I like that he’s turning around his film quickly, and introducing the people in his life. It’s still only a couple of weeks old but it looks promising. Pat said it himself: “after being lost for four years, I finally found my voice again.”

Tokyo is darker than usual, which contrasts with the excitement I feel about being here. I will continue to write about photography here and other places – I’ve got a nice post lined up for La Pura Vida. About an hour before the earthquake hit I became a full time freelancer, so if you have any writing or web design gigs, please get in touch. Contact info to the left.


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Patrick Tsai

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