A post of mine went up recently on American Photo called “The Future of Photography Is Alive and Well in Tokyo.” It’s part overview of Tokyo’s independent gallery scene, part love letter to Totem Pole Photo Gallery. I got a comment expressing some doubt over the title, and I think this doubt might open up a conversation that’s interesting to people invested in Japanese photography.
My editor and I see the title as meaning: “Tokyo is an exciting and nurturing place for young photographers.” The reading that may have caused concern goes: “The young photographers of Tokyo have a bright future ahead of them.” The difference here is the subject: “Tokyo” versus “photographers,” and I would agree that things are not exactly rosy for individuals. In the article I took Emi Fukuyama as an example of someone who’s succeeded within the structure of an independent gallery. Her relative success is far from a guarantee, though.
It’s true that there are many independent galleries in Tokyo, but it’s also true that these galleries are not spurring on a “Golden Age” of Japanese photography. I think the reason for this is that the structure of these independent galleries is stronger than its individual members. In other words, there’s a danger of spinning your wheels creatively. When you join an independent gallery, you’re part of a system, and this can actually make it difficult to “break out,” not just out of the independent gallery scene in general but even outside the internal structure of your own gallery! This actually mimics the way that Japan functions in general. (Thinking about it now, the fact that this thought actually surprised me surprises me. How could I forget?)
For what it’s worth, I think Totem Pole is one of the least stratified independent galleries, but even so, I was glad to hear that Emi was leaving: it showed that she was taking some serious decisions about her own work and development. To be honest, someone with a slightly selfish approach would get the most out of an independent gallery, because they would always be conscious of how the gallery is working for them. I probably don’t need to tell you about selfishness and Japan, though. In the end, I’m still convinced that these galleries can serve as a good platform; the challenge for the photographers to use it in a way that actually benefits them.