Collaborating on Japan’s photography masters

by Angela Jeffs

Mumi Trabucco and Kanji Embutsu share a passion for photography. Which is why — if not how — they have come to be working together on the two-day exhibition “Modern Masters of Photography — Japan” to be staged at Prudential Tower in Tokyo’s Akasaka-Mitsuke on May 28 and 29.

The name behind MMoP is Tim Porter, the Canadian photographer (currently Tokyo bureau chief for Camera Press) who has taught so many living in and passing through the capital how to take pictures. It was his idea in collaboration with the Swaminathan Foundation in Tokyo to put together for sale to museums, galleries and private collectors a limited-edition portfolio of 12 archival digital prints by famed contemporary Japanese photographers in a specially designed box.

All proceeds are destined for the foundation, which in Tokyo is under the leadership of architect Dr. Geeta Mehta and former Indian Ambassador Aftab Seth. Seeking to bridge the income and digital divide between the affluent and poor in South Asia, it helps establish microcredit banks, sends used computers for IT training and information centers, and supports day-care centers and schools.

Mumi, Kanji and I meet in March, with the selection of 12 photographers still not finalized. As curator, Kanji — who retired last year after a career with Polaroid and working as curator for Photo Gallery International — admits to having a hard task: “There are so many wonderful photographers to choose from in Japan. My task is to try and find a balance — in style, subject matter, philosophy.”

Mumi uses Polaroid products in her own photographic work. But there is little time for this right now because in early May, just returned from three weeks in her native Argentina, she is turning in circles. With the list of 12 photographers for MMoP now finalized, and all major decisions made, she is trying to tie up a hundred and one details. “I am in the middle of hell,” she says, but laughing.

From Adrogue, Argentina, but with her family to the north in Buenos Aires, she describes her ancestry — Italian, Chilean, British — as typical. “We Argentines are a mixed bunch.”

She came to Japan with her then boyfriend (now husband), who had a scholarship through the Ministry of Education. “We lived in Sendai from 1993 to 1995. Before going back to Argentina I bought a camera, and then started studying photography in Buenos Aires. In 2001, I had my first solo exhibition, and in 2002 I came back to Tokyo. Back then I didn’t know why I found it all so interesting; I was just drawn.”

Mumi has never been interested in what she calls “straight photography.” She explores pinhole techniques and also alternative printing methods, with “Polaroid helping me a lot.” Right now she is shooting amusement parks — and enjoying experimenting with a Holga camera that Tim Porter gave her. “It’s Chinese-made, plastic, held together with duct tape. I like using poor things — connected maybe to being from a country constantly trying to overcome obstacles?”

She is used to working without the correct tools, having to improvise to get the effects she wants. She believes it helps her work, gives it a better energy. “Struggle can be a good thing. In this respect Japan is anesthetized — people don’t have to think. By contrast to Tokyo, Buenos Aires is a fragile city (after the meltdown of 2001); you never know what will happen when you leave your house.”

Being one of the very few women on the MMoP project, and most certainly the youngest, she has only good things to say about her male colleagues. Tim is wonderful. And “everyone adores Embutsu-san.”

As for the photographers whose work will be on display, she is in awe. “They are the gods of modern Japanese photography.” Ranging in age from 50 to over 80, they include, for example, Masahisa Fukase. “I was working for a law firm in 1996 when a friend gave me his most famous book, ‘The Solitude of Ravens.’ Later I translated it from English into Spanish. Ten years on, here I am working with him.”

She describes the expression on the face of Daido Moriyama’s dog as “amazing, somehow possessed.” And is touched by Yoshihiko Ueda’s shot of his daughter’s hands and feet. “It’s a big thing here for artists to expose their private life.” And while Eiko Hosoe’s butoh dancer leaves naturally bright and bubbly Mumi nearly speechless, she has lots to say about the technique used by Tokihiro Sato for scattering a pile of concrete blocks on a beach with points of light.

All 12 photographic plates have been donated by the artists. “They gave their very best pictures, too. . . . So generous.” Each picture in each set is signed and numbered. The cases they are contained in, designed by Frank la Riviere in blue anodized aluminum, are, Mumi says, “just stunning. So beautiful.”

The project team are hoping to make history with “Masters of Modern Photography — Japan,” the aim being to attract the serious interest of museums and galleries. To this end, archival products such as acid-free inks have been used, so that prints will not be contaminated or degrade. “This is art. It is forever.”

Mumi, formerly an assistant professor at the Instituto Universitario Nacional de Arte in Buenos Aires and now a photographer and translator, is so busy she has not had time to develop recent pictures taken in Argentina.

She also looks forward to experimenting with a camera passed on by her recently deceased British grandmother — a Kodak Petite, manufactured from 1929 to 1934. Promoted to women as “little gems of color,” it came in blue, green, gray, lavender and old rose. Mumi’s camera is green.

“I was shocked when my aunt gave it to me. I had no idea my grandmother had a camera, that photography was in my blood. Now I’m wondering where her pictures are . . .”