Several months ago, at an exhibition titled “Matsuri,” I purchased a print by American photographer Vincent Morris.
The shot, of men carrying mikoshi in Tokyo’s shitamachi area Monzen-nakacho, as viewed through a shower of water thrown by spectators to cool them down, is titled “Purification,” and its refreshing beauty continues to soothe and mystify.
Morris, who lives in Tokyo with his Japanese girlfriend of 12 years, mounts two or three shows of his work a year. The next, which starts June 1 with a party to run through to the end of the month, is “Eros i’belle” — 16 large portraits of entertainers and personalities who have come into focus over the last three years.
“Yes,” he admits. “Very different to photographs of festivals.”
He says the concept of “Eros i’belle” was to advance his photography to another level. Eros, from the Greek, means, of course, erotic; i’belle derived from the French for “I am beautiful.”
“I want to excite peoples’ emotions. I feel beauty and love are one in the same. However, it’s a person’s inner beauty that makes them erotic. I guess I’m a bit of a romantic.”
The emotions of the not-so-open-minded are likely to excite riot. Not everyone responds positively to pictures of nude women wrapped in rope or roughly handprinted in black ink from top to toe. But Morris is unapologetic.
When he asked a Japanese fashion designer to pose for him, she stripped off so fast even he was surprised. When he suggested they then try something with rope, she took one end, whirled like a dervish until it was coiled around her body and then lay down carefully, so nothing too personal was exposed.
“I think the result is both innocent and knowing. I like that.”
As for the photograph of the girl used to advertise the exhibition “because it’s the most likely to cause comment,” it was she who suggested the handprints and they are her own. “People in the world of entertainment and fashion tend to be creative and provocative in the way they present themselves to the world. They’re naturally exhibitionist.”
Morris grew up in San Francisco. His father was a Texan African-American and his mother’s ancestry was such a mixed bag, including Creole, that she would never talk about it.
“Photography entered my life in junior-high school, when I took a course in developing black-and-white film. My sister gave me her old camera, but I can’t remember anything about it except it was American-made.”
Morris brought the camera with him to Japan in 1985, and had it promptly stolen, which was his own fault, he acknowledged. He put it on his chair in a club in Roppongi and when it turned back it was gone. And that, he muses, was the last time he thought about photography for several years.
“I came here first in 1980, with the U.S. military, based in Yokosuka on the Midway as a weapons specialist. I’d signed up hoping to be an aircraft mechanic, but instead spent two years pushing bombs backwards and forwards for up to 48 hours at a stretch during crises. The travel was good, but not much else.”
His country wanted him to rejoin, but Morris said “no way,” and made his way back to Japan on his own. Sitting in a game center in Shinjuku with ¥20 in his pocket, he got talking with the guy at the next console.
“When I saw he had only part of his pinkie, I realized he was Japanese mafia. But he was friendly, and said if I needed a job he’d introduce me to his boss — a nice guy, but unstable when he got (upset)! Anyway, that’s how I came to sell food in Yoyogi Park on Sundays, among rock ‘n’ rollers, bands and Iranians.”
When he got tired of his nickname, Tarzan, Morris worked as a DJ and a model, then went home for a stint.
“I came back finally in ’92 to work at Berlitz — a nice job even though the bubble had burst. But after eight years, the eikawa scene had changed and I was frustrated and unhappy. What the (heck) can I do, I wondered. Get on my bike? Go work on a fishing boat? And then I remembered — photography.”
With a new camera, he began taking pictures in the summer of 2000, starting with temples and urban Japan, all the little streets and alleyways that are disappearing quickly. Four years later, he staged his first exhibition, and has shown on a regular basis ever since.
Initially, he showed a mix of pictures — of Japan and other Asian countries well-traveled — “because I didn’t really know what I was doing.” But still he sold four pictures, and a man offered him $300 to stage another exhibition soon after.
“I’ve never really made money, but I break even. There are people who regularly buy my pictures and photography provides the balance in my life that I need to counter-balance working as an English-language level checker for a major recruiting company.”
Unlike many seminal photojournalists who are willing to wait hours for the shot they want, Morris is happy to use unlimited amounts of film and then pick the shot that works best. To get the shot in Monzen-nakacho, for example, he took over 300 pictures.
“I’m interested in people, and places with people in them. And while my new exhibition is composed of portraits, they’re also still lives, and art glamour. The people I worked with exuded an aura or energy that I found really attractive. I never feel as comfortable as when I’m taking pictures.”
Most people know little to nothing about drag queens. Also a lot of women don’t want to take their clothes off. But there are individuals out there who actively seek him out, the five nude guys in one photograph, for example. One had seen Morris’ show “L’artiste Nu,” which focused on women, and asked if he could do the same kind of shots with men.
“When I asked where he would find guys willing to pose, he said, Don’t worry about that!”
Another picture features Gaston — an Argentine choreographer who is constantly moving between Japan and the rest of the world — in a quietly meditational mood.
Others focus on the Cat Bunny girls — four dancers and entertainers who work in Tokyo.
Another shows his girlfriend, scantily clad in black leather, leaning out of a window.
When accused of shooting porno-graphy, Morris laughs.
“If anyone says that, I know their third eye isn’t open. I’m not out to shock. I take pictures to expand people’s consciousness at what I believe to be an acceptable level.”
He used to like the work of Japan’s enfant terrible Araki, “but he’s lost me recently with all his kawaii stuff. I remain most influenced by Andy Warhol, especially his photos and art work of Elvis, Marilyn, and Liz (Taylor).”
While he remains committed to taking (and exhibiting) what he calls “human culture photographs” in Cambodia, Korea, Laos, Thailand, the U.K., France, Belgium, India and of course, Japan (“I’ve been to over 60 matsuri”), he sees himself moving into what he calls a period of neo noir, in which his use of light and shadow reflects his own creative style.
“Loving the purity of black and white, I was devastated recently to learn that Ilford is no longer making monochrome stock. Their film was just magical, with a quality all its own.”
He’s also forever seeking to reflect Japan’s Showa vibe, which he describes as “intriguing. Today everything’s the same.”
Still he knows he has to move on. “Eros i’belle,” he insists, is a visual portrayal of people who move in a particular world that attempts to transcends artistic nudity for a glamour all its own.
Eros i’belle, June 2-30. Art Bar Hijoguchi, Shinjuku. Web site: www.vincentmorrisphotography.com