Portrait of an artist or photographer?

by Jae Lee

Staff Writer

For Takashi Homma, being a contemporary photographer is very different from being a photographer.

“Most Japanese people don’t understand what contemporary photography is,” he says, explaining how he thinks photography comes with preconceptions that have kept it rigid as a medium. His first solo exhibition, “Takashi Homma: New Documentary” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery, aims to break some of those preconceptions with its mix of images, silk-screen prints and paintings — a combination of mediums vastly different from his early days as a magazine fashion photographer in London.

What was working in London like?

I worked for i-D magazine in London. It’s much more commercial now, but at the time i-D was quite radical. It used street fashion as an illustrative tool of documentary photography. That was a big influence on me — the concept of combining fashion and documentary.

When did you decide to come back to Japan? I took my own pictures of the city when I was working for i-D. They were mostly photos of night clubs and gay communities — they eventually became my “1991-1992″ series.

One day, I took those pictures into the office and showed them to my editor, who told me that they were good, but then asked, “Why British gay people? You are a straight Japanese male.” He told me to think more specifically about my identity as a photographer. That’s when I started to feel that I needed to go back to Tokyo, and that editor’s advice led to my series “Tokyo Suburbia.”

How different are the photos you took for the magazines and the works you produce now? While I was working on my own personal projects in Japan, I was approached by fashion magazines — but I always ended up fighting with the editors about the models. I questioned their use of foreign models and felt we needed to use Japanese ones. Besides that, though, the way I worked was the same.

Most Japanese photographers only take photos, they are not concerned about what happens afterward. But I always think about the editing process. For example, in the “Tokyo and My Daughter” series there are some pictures of a little girl displayed among others of landscapes. The original girl pictures were not actually taken by me. They are like “found photos.” They were taken by the girl’s real parents and were in a family album that I photographed. I then displayed those pictures alongside my own landscapes. That mixture of images is key to the editing process and how I present my work to the public.

How important is editing in relation to photography? I would say contemporary photography is about editing. Classic photography isn’t. Some Japanese critics have said that I edit too much, but I don’t care. My answer to that is: Why not?

My friend also asked me why I used silk screens for the “M” series, and my answer was still: Why not?

All this is just part of the way I edit my works. I want to show the diversity of photography. The Japanese are too strict about (their conception of) photography. I want to show more freedom.

If most Japanese photography is not concerned about editing, would you call yourself an artist rather than a photographer? I call myself an artist, but I don’t mind if people call me a photographer. It’s not that I wasn’t satisfied with photography as a means of expression and started painting or experimenting with silk-screening instead. I am discovering various other mediums as a part of the editing process (of my photography).

In your exhibition catalogue, the word “popification” is used to describe your contemporary works. What does that mean? Contemporary art in Japan is such a small category. I think the word “popification” defines a movement that attempts to popularize contemporary art in Japan, which is different from the “pop art” movement in America.

Can you define contemporary photography? Classic photography is just straight photography. Contemporary photography is not just about taking a photo; it’s about presentation. Classic photography is about taking shots, while contemporary photography is about showing them.

In Japanese, “shashin” means “truth” [literally, "true reflection"]. People believe in photos, like they do in religion, but photos don’t always show the truth. I want people to think about what is true or not.

At most photography exhibitions, images are simply printed on paper and the viewer only looks at the subject or scene. I, however, prefer to challenge the viewer. Photography is just one medium; it’s not the only medium. So why not be more open-minded about photography and explore different mediums?

This is your first solo exhibition, how have you approached it? This exhibition changes for each city it is shown in. In Kanazawa it had many more contemporary art works; for Tokyo I’ve focused a bit more on photography. I don’t know what I will do for the next venue. I might totally revise it.

For 10 years, many museums asked me why I wouldn’t do solo exhibitions. It was because I didn’t feel that it was the right time to show my work so openly to the public. But now it feels like the crowd is ready for my work. The audience has changed and so has my mentality.

Are you saying that audiences are ready to understand contemporary photography now? No, but they are starting to. It still confuses viewers. People question whether it is art or photography.

In what way do you plan to progress in your style or work? I will continue to use film photography as a medium, but I am also still discovering new ways of presenting it. So there will still be two artistic personalities.

As you’ll be able to tell from the exhibition, I like to be in-between: I like the gray zone between art and photography.

“Takashi Homma: New Documentary” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs till June 26; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.operacity.jp.