The Getty will be showing “In Focus: Tokyo,” from August 5 to December 14, 2014 1. This exhibit collects the work of Shigeichi Nagano, Mikiko Hara, Masato Seto and Daido Moriyama. I think there will be a lecture event of some sort in October, but I don’t have the details yet. I will look forward to seeing the work of Nagano and Hara in particular.
For people from America and Europe, the image of Japanese photographers is a kind of mystery shrouded in unknown gloom, or a darkness, isn’t it? I think that Japanese photography has definitely been maturing for quite a long time. Pre-war photographers—Yasui Nakaji for one—show its depth, or quality. I have some reservations about how much they know about Japanese photography. With the development of the internet and this way existing with information, the world is becoming speedier and flatter, and the work of many Japanese photographers is more visible. I think this is a good thing, but, you know, even after doing lots of exhibits overseas—and of course this has been an interesting experience for me—to say how people look at my work? That’s difficult to say.
The May 2013 issue of Gendai Shiso 1 was entirely dedicated to Shomei Tomatsu. I’ve been making my way through the issue at my own pace; one of the texts that grabbed me immediately was an interview with Daido Moriyama. Of course Tomatsu is the focus of the interview, but there were a number of fruitful digressions, including this one. Here, the interviewer has asked him for a comment about the foreign response to his work, and I’ve translated his answer.
About a year ago, I wrote some small articles about Japanese photographers for a free paper that was published by IMA Magazine and distributed at Paris Photo, “Japanese Art Photographers 108.” (When the paper was re-printed for the 2013 Paris Photo Los Angeles, it was re-named “Japanese Art Photographers 107” to account for the passing of Shomei Tomatsu.) The goal of this paper was to broadly introduce Japanese photographers to a Western audience. The selection of photographers in this post, and the order in which they appear, are more or less arbitrary. For the most part, I was responsible for the younger photographers of the group, but there were a number of exceptions. The texts appear in the order that I wrote them, so feel free to read whatever you want into that.
Naoya Hatakeyama (b. 1958)
Hatakeyama’s approach to photography is both technical and thoughtful. The relationship between humans and nature is central to his work, with subjects ranging from Tokyo’s underground tunnels to hills of coal waste in France. His first major project (“Lime Works,” 1996) was a study of lime quarries throughout Japan, and even these early photographs show the meticulous attention to detail which has been carried through the rest of his work. Still, he is no mere technician; he has also published a book of his thoughts on photography. After the 3/11 tsunami wiped out his hometown, he produced a series of photographs which stand as the most impressive photos of the tsunami’s aftermath: despite his personal connection to the disaster, he was infinitely more careful than other photographers who traveled to the affected region. This body of work should only cement Hatakeyama’s place as one of the most cerebral Japanese photographers working today.
Mao Ishikawa (b. 1953)
Born in Okinawa, Ishikawa has taken up themes relating to her native islands and in particular to the issues surrounding the American military bases which remain a major presence there. Her desire to tackle these issues and support Okinawan causes led her to take up photography, and she started working at a bar frequented by American servicemen to create her first project, “Hot Days in Camp Hansen” (shot 1975-77). Later, she traveled to Philadelphia to visit one of these customers, spending two months there to experience his life at home. Her intimate photographs of this time (“Life in Philly,” shot 1986) show not only the full range of her subjects’ emotions, but also Ishikawa’s own willingness to become involved in the lives of the people that she photographs. She has continued to publish books and hold regular exhibitions, while her international profile has been rising. Still, her more recent success abroad is only coming after decades of hard (and largely unnoticed) work.
Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940)
For Araki, life is photography, and vice versa. His goal has been to bring his own personal experience as close to the medium as possible, and his work encompasses the entire range of human emotion. “Sentimental Journey Spring Journey” (2012), a touching elegy for his deceased cat, is an excellent example of his emotionally unrestrained way of photographing. It’s more than just a photo album; Araki’s connection with this animal comes through so clearly that the images take on a universal, almost cosmic significance. Of course, Araki has also made a name for himself as one of the leading photographers of eros, and nudes are an important part of his work. However, the range of his work has perhaps not yet been fully appreciated outside of Japan. He’s highly profilic: a recent exhibition tried to feature the more than 450 photobooks he’d published to date, but more have already come out. Araki is the face of Japanese photography around the world, and he’s already influenced countless photographers, both in and out of Japan.
Takuma Nakahira (b. 1938)
One of the most radical photographers Japan has produced. Nakahira is best known for his work in the late 1960s, during which time he helped start the influential “Provoke” magazine. His 1970 masterpiece, “For a Language to Come,” is a dizzying blend of found urban signage, blurred light and brutal composition, all rendered in a rough black and white aesthetic. At this time, he was also working as an extremely productive and insightful critic, writing hundreds of texts which are still relatively unread even in Japan. However, in 1977 Nakahira suffered an illness which left him unable to write, and almost entirely wiped out his short term memory. Despite this, he has recovered to photograph again, switching from black and white to color. A book of this color work, “Documentary,” was published in 2011.
Haruto Hoshi (b. 1970)
Japan has produced its fair share of hard-bitten street photographers, and Haruto Hoshi is the most recent heir to this tradition. Continuing in the vein of Seiji Kurata, Hoshi combines a handheld, flashed look with seedy neighborhoods of Japan, where he himself is no tourist. He’s originally from Yokohama, so this city in particular is well-represented in his work, but he also shoots regularly in Osaka and nearby Tokyo. He started out shooting black and white, and published a book (“Luminance of Streets”) from this work. In recent years, he’s switched to color, and has been holding shows at Tokyo’s Third District Gallery at a fevered pitch–six alone in 2012. Hoshi only shows photographs of people, and although you get the impression that he could get as close as he wants, his wide composition allows the flash to reveal not just his subjects, but their environment as well.
Daisuke Yokota (b. 1983)
Yokota’s photographs might look like classic Daido Moriyama images, but he has arrived at his style and method through entirely organic means. He claims director David Lynch and musician Aphex Twin as influences, due to the way they distort sensory information in their respective works. Yokota is attempting to introduce ideas of fade, reverb and echo to photography, and this is what’s led him to his unique approach. To create “Back Yard,” he used a painstaking method in which he printed out his photographs and re-photographed them up to 10 times. Through an intentionally careless developing technique, he introduced new distortions into the image each time that the film was processed. Along with this process of re-photography, he has also used modified versions of the same image in different projects. Yokota recently joined the photographic group AM Projects, which features a number of European photographers and is represented by Doha-based East Wing Projects.
Kazuo Kitai (b. 1944)
Kitai’s name is most familiar for his work in the late 1960s, in and around the student protest movements of the time. His early books “Barricade” and “Resistance” reflected the energy of this tumultuous period, while he later spent a significant amount of time in Sanrizuka, site of significant protests against the construction of Narita Airport. His photographs at Sanrizuka were quieter, showing the lives of the peasants on top of whose land the airport would eventually be built. After the end of the student movement, Kitai moved on to shoot similarly rural areas of Japan, perhaps with a premonition that their existence was also threatened on some level. He sent monthly dispatches of this work to Asahi Camera between 1974 and 1977, and it was eventually published as “Mura-e.” Kitai has continued to shoot up until the present day, publishing a book of work on Beijing (“Beijing 90s”) among several others. He still publishes a monthly column in Asahi Camera, and his international reputation has grown with a rise of interest in protest photography. “Barricade” was published in America in 2012.
Koji Onaka (b. 1960)
An heir to the Shinjuku tradition of photography as received from Daido Moriyama, Onaka has gone on to develop his own expressive style of snapshots. He started out shooting in black and white, but his color photographs are quite stunning, not just for the exquisite quality of their printing but also their composition. 2001’s “Tokyo Candy Box” is an excellent example of Onaka’s work. It’s a near-comprehensive look at a city in constant change, represented in brilliant hues of orange. Later books like “Grasshopper” (2006) and “Dragonfly” (2007) have shown a quieter side of Japan’s countryside, but with a similarly keen eye for color and form. He’s developed a following outside of Japan. Onaka has run his own artist space in Tokyo, Gallery Kaido, which supports younger photographers. He also recently launched his own publishing label, Matatabi.
Motoyuki Daifu (b. 1985)
Daifu could be seen as a successor to the wave of snapshooters that appeared in the mid-90s, led by HIROMIX. He shoots color photographs in a similarly unrestrained, flash-heavy way, while one of his major works, “Lovesody,” is a diaristic look at a summer fling. Still, even though Daifu is using the same style as these earlier snapshooters, his focus is somewhat different. Where these early works took an intentionally fast-and-loose approach to editing, Daifu has so far only shown well-defined subject matter. His best-developed series, “Family,” is a sometimes humorous, sometimes intense look at the small apartment he with his parents and siblings. Daifu has already published two books in America, “Lovesody” with Little Big Man and “Family” with Dashwood Books. He held a New York City exhibition of “Lovesody” in 2011.
Ryudai Takano (b. 1963)
Takano’s work is carefully balanced between sensitive observation and provocation. While his photographs never hit the viewer over the head with a message, they do often have a slightly subversive edge. Takano’s early work was primarily concerned with sexuality: he won the Ihee Kimura Photography Award for his book “In My Room” (2005), which shows men in various states of undress and arousal. Still, his carefully-written captions and evident technical skill made it clear that he was not simply trying to shock his audience. A more recent book, “Kasubaba” (2011), is an expansive series in which Takano set out to document the ugliest places in Japan. The photographs do not show landfills, but rather entirely normal-looking streetcorners. Again, Takano is pushing the viewer to reconsider their assumptions in a subtle way. He continues to exhibit and publish regularly.
Kayo Ume (b. 1981)
Young female photographers first emerged in Japan in the mid-1990’s. Led by HIROMIX and Yurie Nagashima, among others, these photographers used the directness of the snapshot as a form of personal expression. Kayo Ume, however, appeared in the 2000’s, showing the humorous possibilities of this technique. Her first book (“Ume-me,” 2006) is a collection of snapshots showing absurd moments in the city: a pigeon in a grocery store, a businessman taking a nap on the floor of a train, a young girl making a face at the camera. Far from taking a cool perspective on these situations, it’s clear that Ume is laughing right along with the viewer. “Ume-me” was a runaway hit, and Ume’s later books have shown the antics of young boys (“Danshi,” 2007) as well as her own grandfather (“Jiichansama,” 2008). She is affiliated with the Japanese art collective Hajimeten.
Kenji Hirasawa (b. 1982)
Since 2008, Hirasawa has been based in London, after deciding that it was the most suitable place to develop as a photographer. His 2011 publication, “Celebrity,” has garnered positive attention in Europe. This work was shot with a heat-sensitive camera which represents hot and cold areas of the frame through colors. Aimed at the figures on display in Madame Tussauds, the resulting work renders the famous waxen figures in a vacant greenish blue, while the spectators around these bodies are a more vibrant red. In this way, the work comments on the way that people interact with celebrities in contemporary culture. Hirasawa has continued to use this thermal camera, capturing a different spectrum of what we might call “photography.”
Daido Moriyama (b. 1938)
Moriyama is known around the world for his out-of-focus, blurry and grainy black-and-white photographs. He emerged in the 1960’s, eventually joining the influential Provoke magazine starting from its second issue in 1968. Moriyama’s 1972 book “A Hunter” represents the now-famous style of this period well. However, there is more to his images than just this harsh aesthetic. Moriyama takes a highly material approach to photography: he re-presents phenomena as photographs, almost using a strategy of appropriation. This is why a seemingly insignificant object like a hat could end up as the cover of one of his well-known books, “Light and Shadow” (1982). A 1999 solo exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art helped to introduce his work to foreign audiences, while London’s Tate Modern is currently holding a large-scale exhibition of his photographs alongside William Klein’s. Moriyama’s recent book “Color” shows that even today, he continues to produce challenging work.
HIROMIX (b. 1976)
HIROMIX is a pioneer for female photographers in Japan. She came to prominence after winning the 1995 Canon New Cosmos of Photography competition as a teenager, where her work was championed by Nobuyoshi Araki. Up until this point, photography had largely been the province of men, but HIROMIX’s debut caused a sensation: her freewheeling, self-portrait heavy, snapshot-based style inspired no small number of young women to pick up a camera themselves. Her first book, “Girls Blue,” was published in 1996, and a self-titled book with German publisher Steidl followed in 1998. The Steidl book is an excellent introduction to her work from this period, and shows the casual style which was to influence a generation of photographers to follow. In recent years, HIROMIX herself has come full circle, to serve as a judge for the Canon New Cosmos of Photography.
Masafumi Sanai (b. 1968)
Sanai emerged in the 1990s, and has since established himself as a significant contemporary photographer. One of his early books is called “I Don’t Know,” and this title seems indicative of his enigmatic style, which seems to be driven more by aesthetics than the desire to communicate any one thing in particular. Sanai’s photographs are generally quite empty, requiring the viewer to find their own meaning. Still, he has his favorite subjects: suburbs of Tokyo, food and cars. (An early book has the memorable title of “My Ride,” with this roughness fully intended!) He continues to produce work at an impressive rate, and has started a publication series with the noted Tokyo design studio Match and Company.
Hiromi Tsuchida (b. 1939)
Tsuchida is an accomplished photographer who works on long-term projects; indeed, he’s now been photographing Hiroshima for almost 40 years. His 1976 book “Zokushin” shows Japan’s small rural communities, which would be replaced with urban crowds during the economic boom of the 1980’s. “Counting Grains of Sand” (1990), another black-and-white series, shows this very transition: it begins with photographs shot at eye level of a few people, and culminates in photographs taken at the time of the 1989 Heisei Accession, where teeming crowds literally fill the frame. “New Counting Grains of Sand” (2005) picks up from this point. Although these color photographs of crowds are shot from a high perspective, Tsuchida does not seem to be looking down on his subjects: he has inserted a small likeness of himself into each image. He continues to release new work: in 2011, he published a long-term project on Berlin, showing the city before and after the wall.
Lieko Shiga (b. 1980)
In her photographs, Shiga creates a dreamy, almost phantasmagoric world, but she doesn’t use Photoshop to achieve this strong effect. Instead, she has developed a unique method of working with her subjects to create the situations that become her work. She has said, “the scenarios I create for my work are a means to instigate moments of unpredictability.” Her book “Canary” (2008), which won the Ihee Kimura Photography Award, shows how these interactions can produce compelling results. Since late 2008, Shiga has lived in Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture, where she has served as the town’s official photographer. Work produced in Tohoku is currently the subject of a solo exhibit (“Rasen Kaigan”) at Sendai’s Mediatheque, and a book is forthcoming. Her work has received an excellent reception both at home and abroad; in 2009 she won ICP’s Young Photographer Infinity Award, while in 2012 she won the Higashikawa New Photographer Award.
Yumiko Utsu (b. 1978)
Utsu works with photography in an extremely playful way. Starting with found images, she then combines them with food, or other objects, to create unexpected effects. Through this technique, an octopus replaces the head of a woman sitting for a portrait, gourds mimic birds sitting on a branch, and a giant scorpion blocks traffic on a highway. Utsu has a particular fondness for using fish and other sea creatures, which lends her work a certain grotesque quality. Her compositions are generally quite colorful, which makes it seem that they’re not meant to be appreciated in an overly serious way. Because of her approach, Utsu has drawn comparisons to Surrealist art. Her works have been collected in a book, “Out of Ark” 2009). In 2012, she participated in a group show at London’s Saatchi Gallery.
Taisuke Koyama (b. 1978)
Koyama often works with everyday phenomena, but he presents them in extraordinary ways. In a signature series, “entropix,” he photographs the details of surfaces in Tokyo in such a a way that they come to resemble abstract compositions. However, he is not just attempting to uncover some hidden beauty in these surfaces. Instead, he views this work as a kind of microbiological exploration, as if these minute phenomena could contribute to a broader understanding of the city. To create “Melting Rainbows” (2010), Koyama left prints from a different series out on his balcony, and re-photographed them as the surface changed. This experimental usage of the medium makes Koyama a truly “contemporary” photographer. “entropix” was published as a book in 2008, and his work was recently selected by English curator Charlotte Cotton to appear in the 2012 Daegu Photo Bienniale.
Tomoko Sawada (b. 1977)
Sawada uses photography to explore the relationship between one’s inner life and outer image. Sawada herself is often the subject of her photographs, making herself up to look like a certain well-known “type” of Japanese woman: an office worker, “gyaru” or hostess, among others. For “School Days,” one of Sawada’s best-known works, she produced a series of images which mimic the typical class photo of an all-girls school. Everything seems as normal, except that every student–and the teacher as well–is, in fact, Sawada. Although many critics view Sawada’s work as a comment on popular images of women in Japanese society, others see it as a more personal exploration of the self. Sawada is based in New York City, and has exhibited extensively outside of Japan. In 2004 she received ICP’s Young Photographer Infinity Award.
Tags (20)Daido Moriyama, Daisuke Yokota, Haruto Hoshi, Hiromi Tsuchida, HIROMIX, Kayo Ume, Kazuo Kitai, Kenji Hirasawa, Koji Onaka, Lieko Shiga, Mao Ishikawa, Masafumi Sanai, Motoyuki Daifu, Naoya Hatakeyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Ryudai Takano, Taisuke Koyama, Takuma Nakahira, Tomoko Sawada, Yumiko Utsu
I can’t embed it, but there are some good quotes in this talk 1. I think I linked this somewhere before, but I’m posting it again in the interest of making this blog more functional as a research archive.
Kikuchi Kawada, “phenomena – 2011” at PGI
Kawada is known in the West for his classic book Map, but his new work deserves to be equally celebrated. As you can tell from the image above, he’s embraced digital technology in a very radical way. I was lucky enough to stumble into Kawada’s gallery talk, where he spoke eloquently about his current ways of working (including his great love of iPhoto slideshows) and the challenges of photographing today. At a glance, this series looks terrible, as if Kawada had just applied some bizarre Photoshop filters to his images at random, but he does know what he’s doing, claiming that he likes printing out his photos on inkjet printers because it adds to the digital effect of his work. I left thinking that this work could be easy to write off it was made by a 23-year-old photo student, but credit to Kawada for taking a risk. It’s encouraging to see an old master leading the way.
Kishin Shinoyama, “The People” at Tokyo Opera City
This exhibit was not quite a retrospective of Shinoyama’s photographs—more like a jumble of his portrait work. Shinoyama is a skilled photographer, and I was hoping to learn more about the development of his work, but the selection was poor: the show consisted mostly of celebrity portraits, and it is ironic that, in the same room where Takashi Homma showed his photographs of McDonald’s around the world, Shinoyama put up monumental prints of Tokyo’s Disneyland. Apparently, it was the first time that a photographer had been allowed to take such images, and perhaps it was a thrill for some of the (numerous!) audience, but after paying 1000 yen I felt cheated to look at photographs shilling for Disney. In talking with others later, I came to understand better the value of Shinoyama’s portraits as a kind of nostalgia trip. Still, his post-3/11 portraits are unconscionable, as if he’d hopped out of a van and plunked his tripod down in front of the first few people he came across.
Emmanuel Guillaud & Takano Ryudai, “Black Closer to White” at Yumiko Chiba Associates
An exhibition that derived its power from an experimental installation: Takano’s black and white photos were hung on a wall, while Guillaud’s almost colorless color photos were laid out underneath, some covered with white paper. Guillaud’s extremely dark images showed people on trains or otherwise glimpsed through Tokyo’s urban barriers, while Takano showed brighter photographs. Each body of work was quite subtle, requiring time to digest, and the unusual way of displaying these two series was successful in holding the gaze.
Daido Moriyama, “Labyrinth” at BLD
This exhibit was a pleasant exception to the idea that looking at a contact sheet will help you discover, in a romantic way, the “special” (OK, decisive) moment when the photographer’s vision perfectly met his or her subject. This is probably why someone thought it would be worth publishing the contact sheets of the Magnum photographers, the most romantic photographers of all. With Moriyama, though, there’s no romance: he shoots with a compact camera, but he is not trying to pick out “moments” in the Winogrand or Gilden sense. This exhibit shows only where he looked, and it’s enlightening to see Moriyama spend an entire roll of film on a theater sign, his famous tights, or the play of light on a tree. He really is the photographer of Light and Shadow.
Daido Moriyama, “Mesh” at Gucci Shinjuku
I might have been more upset about this show (installed in the event space of Gucci’s Shinjuku store) if I’d seen it a couple of years ago, but post-Color I can’t begrudge Moriyama for coasting. The exhibit itself was an unremarkable, screenprinted career retrospective featuring many of the hits which I’d already seen presented at BLD in a much more challenging way. The fishnet stockings, from which this show took its name, covered every available surface, but the effect was cheesy. At least a new audience will have discovered his work.
“On Photography” at Misa Shin Gallery
This was a three person show, featuring Seung Woo Back, Jio Shimizu and Tsuyoshi Ozawa. I’m not totally convinced by the title, but the photographs were excellent. Back was showing new work that will remind anyone of Sohei Nishino’s composite city photographs. It’s a kind of photographic collage, in which views of a city taken from a number of different perspectives are placed together to make a kind of “map.” Nishino actually puts his photographs together to mimic the form of a real city, creating the simplistic illusion of being able to “take in” the city as a complete unit. This makes it easy enough to look at the work from 20 feet away and move on. Back’s work, though, draws the viewer closer: he’s created new, fictional places, out of photos he shot in five cities across Japan and Korea, and I found myself looking carefully to try to figure out where exactly they were. Shimizu is producing images through intriguing experiments with physics, while Ozawa showed a series called “Vegetable Weapon,” in which he asks people to construct guns out of supermarket vegetables.
Almost as soon as I arrived in Japan, my overall estimation of Daido Moriyama took a plunge. 1 I’d come with nothing but admiration, but the quality of the work he was releasing seemed average at best, while at the same time Daido paraphernalia 2 was flooding the market. Above all, I doubted that he had anything new (and relevant) to show us early millenials.
Moriyama’s latest show at Taka Ishii Gallery, “Color,” had me going back on all that. This exhibit (and really, one particular wall of the gallery) not only shows why Moriyama should be taken seriously as a contemporary photographer, but also provides a way to understand his previous work. I wrote a review at Tokyo Art Beat 3 which more or less expresses why I responded so well to the show. There may be no saving “Nagisa” 4 for me—and I can’t even recommend the book version of “Color” because of the way it’s printed—but I’m definitely interested in what Daido is doing again, after a 3 year break. Of course he may disappoint again, but even so, this exhibit was an important one.
These are notes for a more detailed post, which outline how I’m thinking about Japanese photography at the moment.
1. Most Western photography audiences are primarily aware of Japanese photography through Provoke, and other groundbreaking photography publications (such as Kikuchi Kawada’s “Map”) of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
2. I’ve heard it said that Japanese photography is difficult to understand. I think this has to do with a broader idea of how Japan has perhaps, for Westerners, assumed the image of the most inaccessibly foreign place in the world.
3. Japanese photography audiences do not look at Provoke even 10% as much as Westerners. To put it plainly, Provoke is just not part of the conversation here.
4. Provoke came out of a political moment (1968, obvs) in which the student-led protest movement seemed capable of striking a blow against the government. This is important. (This movement was put down by the army at Sanrizuka, where students were trying to prevent the forcible construction of Narita airport on the land of farmers who had lived there for generations.)
5. Provoke had Takuma Nakahira producing both as a photographer and as a theorist. I’m only just now starting to try to dig in to his texts, so I won’t try to tell you exactly what they were about. He wrote quite a lot though, and was looking to critical theory of the time to inform his writing.
6. Over the last 10 years (15? 20? I can’t say for sure), Japan has developed a style of what I might call an unconscious photography. This really just means, shooting casually observed moments of everyday beauty. Araki is the patron saint of this type of photography, except that he’s taken it to a point where it’s gone way beyond anything aesthetic, and is doing a sort of cosmic dance with his own personality. (Can explain more later but I do mean this as a compliment.) Hiromix might represent the beginning of this kind of photography as a popular trend, and we shouldn’t forget that Araki bestowed his personal blessing upon her.
7. Forgetting Araki, the most perfectly crystallized example of this unconscious photography is Rinko Kawauchi, who, when at her best (Utatane and Illuminance), seems blessed with the ability to find staggering beauty in anything.
8. There is no political movement in present-day Japan. There is no meaningful context out of which photographs are being produced. There is no Nakahira-like photographer/theorist figure, not even close.
9. Kawauchi’s success abroad is a positive sign for younger Japanese photographers, because there is no need to grasp a particularly Japanese context in her work. This helps everyone: Kawauchi’s photos are providing hands-on training in how to view Japanese photography that’s not taken by men born before 1950.
10. 3/11 is a very, very different story. Precious few photographers have grasped this.
[This was posted to LPV Magazine a few days ago, with a whole bunch of images to illustrate some of the books I’m talking about.]
At the 2010 edition of the Higashikawa Photo Festival, I met a photographer named Iino. We were both getting drunk at the annual barbeque, where everyone gets together and eats a bunch of free food. Iino was a fun guy, and as we talked he showed me a project he was working on, a series of portraits in which he was always shaking hands with his subject. The people in these photographs represented a real cross-section of Japan: there were nerds, punks, disabled people, salarymen, children and foreigners. Some people seemed a little surprised or uncomfortable to be photographed in this way, but the mood was light. With a laugh, he said he wasn’t going to stop until he’d taken a thousand of these portraits–a latter-day, unserious August Sander! He pulled out his cheap SLR, took my picture as we laughed together, and then we talked a little more before wandering on. I want to bring up Iino to introduce my thoughts about 2011 because it seems to me that his project represents a kind of photograph that we’re not seeing so much in Japan anymore. To put it simply, I’m wondering if Japanese photographers are losing interest in people.
The March 11 earthquake and its effects will necessarily loom over any attempt to think about Japan’s 2011. These effects are not going away anytime soon, even if it’s entirely too easy for Tokyoites to forget about what’s happening up North. For their part, photographers have made an effort to show people what’s happening in Tohoku, but I’m not sure that much of the work being produced so far is all that useful to anyone. I think it’s possible that my general disappointment with post-3/11 photographs so far could be linked to a broader turn away from representing people in Japanese photography.
I don’t want to go down the path of “the old days were so much better,” but if you look at photographers like Hiromi Tsuchida and Kazuo Kitai, their primary interest was other people–and I think this was not so much because of something “beautiful” or “interesting” in the people themselves, but because they could produce some kind of effect by showing these people to an audience. Tsuchida’s “Counting Grains of Sand” is an easy example of what I’m talking about. The book examines crowds in 1980s (“bubble”-era) Japan, building up from groups of just a few people to a fairly dramatic conclusion, in which hundreds of faces are packed into the frame. Outside of Hiroh Kikai, it’s hard to think of prominent and contemporary Japanese photographers who are equally interested in people; Kikai himself is probably more respected outside of Japan anyway.
A newer type of photography, represented by Rinko Kawauchi and Masafumi Sanai, favors abstract, object-based explorations. I like this work: I recently found a used copy of Sanai’s “Ikiteru” the other day, and I think it’s very good. But I don’t think this type of photography is well-suited to deal with something like a natural disaster which is affecting hundreds of thousands of people. I haven’t been moved by his recent work, but I really respect Daido Moriyama for saying in this video [skip to the 50 minute mark] that, from the beginning, he decided absolutely to not shoot any earthquake-related photographs, because it wouldn’t make any sense for him personally. What a sensible thing to say! Meanwhile the amateur shooters at ROLLS TOHOKU have been showing up most professionals, for the simple reason that they are able to show us people in a natural way.
Asahi Camera Magazine published a special magazine of post-3/11 photography, and it sums up the weak response. The photographs mostly show objects and houses, to varying degrees of poignancy. I can’t understand why these photographs are all that we’re seeing. I want to know what people are doing!
Hirokawa Taishi’s series of family portraits is the one exception here. His portraits of families living in evacuation centers are the most powerful photographs in this magazine. Perhaps it makes sense that a guy who had thought for years about the ‘craziness’ of nuclear reactors in Japan would come up with a good response.
I am still convinced that the most useful photographs to come out of this disaster will not even be taken for years, because the scale of the destruction is so big. I want to know how relocated families are integrating into their new communities, whether or not people are rebuilding their homes next to the coast, how long people will be living next to rubble. Is photography even the right way to find these things out?
A few months ago, I had a small job shooting some event photos. I got to the place, saw Iino on the other side of the crowd. He was shooting for a newspaper, but I caught up with him later and asked him how the project was going. He said something to the effect of, “after the earthquake, it’s not a good time to be taking those photos, is it?” I told him that, given everything that’s happened, it might actually be the perfect time, but it didn’t look like that was going to change his mind.
From September 10 to October 29, Jablonka Pasquer Projects in Cologne will be showing an exhibition featuring four Japanese photographers: Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, Yutaka Takanashi, Shomei Tomatsu.
Here’s my knee-jerk reaction to reading about this exhibit: this is exactly the kind of conservative, “Moriyama syndrome” show that major galleries or institutions put on when they want to “go Japanese.” All that’s missing is Hiroshi Sugimoto, just for good measure—SFMOMA actually did this a couple of years ago. There’s no attempt to draw some kind of link between the four dudes, just “here’s some famous Japanese photography—please buy some!”
To be fair, Priska Pasquer is heavily invested in Japanese photography, and they recently gave the excellent Lieko Shiga a solo show. From a business perspective, I can also understand why it is necessary to put on a big boring show: this stuff will sell more than an up and coming artist. Yet I feel little sympathy at the moment. This exhibit only perpetuates the idea that “Japanese photography” is equal to “the work of men breathing around 1970.”
My second column for the La Pura Vida blog is up. Yamashita Tsuneo is the featured photographer, but I used his work as a way to discuss Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama, two photographers who I think may, for some people, stand in for the idea of “Japanese photography.”
I was pleased to see this image get some attention on Tumblr, wasn’t sure if it would work online.
Of course I’m hoping to get some comments on these posts, though I’m not holding my breath. I accept that being slightly inflammatory is the best way to get comments.