Greg Davis had lived in Japan since 1970, working as a photojournalist throughout Asia. His sudden death on May 4 of liver cancer at the age of 54 is a major loss to his profession and those whose lives he touched all over the world. He was always searching for the new frontier, trying to get out the stories that were not being covered and presenting a history between the lines that he witnessed. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Newton, Du, Der Spiegel, Critical Asian Studies and in many other publications. His most recent projects focused on Central Asia where he was working on both contemporary issues and disinterring the legacy of Alexander the Great.
It is fortunate that he leaves behind such an eloquent and captivating montage on Gunma, northwest of Tokyo, where he had maintained a residence since the mid-1980s. The 103 black-and-white images shot by Davis in 2001-2002 convey a deep understanding of Japan and what it is losing.
Like Hiroshi Hamaya’s best work in the 1950s, Davis wields his lens like a social anthropologist, capturing present moments that anticipate impending transformations. Hamaya’s classic photo books, “Yukiguni” and “Uranihon,” focused on everyday life in remote backward areas of Japan. The lifestyle, customs and traditional practices of that era have been swept away, leaving only faint traces of what older people can still recall, if only vaguely.
Inspired by Hamaya’s haunting images, Davis sought out what was slipping away, capturing the cycle of life amid the homogenizing forces of modernization and urbanization.
These are poetic images of ordinary people living ordinary lives, trudging familiar paths that are being gradually but relentlessly eroded. These monochromes capture the routine and ritual of individuals, family and community, held together ever more tenuously by the rhythm of seasonal festivals, rites of passage and customs that are ebbing away. Etched in these faces of Gunma are the contours of a society in flux; they tell stories of grief, loss, hopes, reverence and resignation.
Decades from now, it is hard to imagine what the grandchildren of the people depicted in these pages will make of what they see. Was this what life was like in the distant past of our present? There may indeed be some eerie echoes of our present in that future, oddly disembodied and out of place and time.
Even today’s young Japanese are likely to see scenes that seem remote and anachronistic: craftsmen still building houses in the traditional way, blacksmiths producing farming implements as their forebears did and Shinto and Buddhist rituals depicted as part of the fabric of rural life. There are pictures of silk factory workers standing before their looms, looking little different from scenes of a century earlier — except that the syncopations of silk are now mere vestiges in Gunma and that particular factory has since closed, unable to withstand the forces of globalization.
The picture at left of young men clad only in fundoshi loincloths marks one of the last times that the “naked” festival was held in Kawarayu Onsen as the village of their ancestors will soon be submerged under a reservoir, sacrificed to an unneeded dam dictated by the pathology of the construction state.
Sadly, much of what Davis presents and preserves in these pages is also teetering at the abyss. In this sense, he has left behind a rich legacy, a photographic archive of a place he called home.