Exposing new spins on old-school photography

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

For a truly fresh outlook on Tokyo, run, don’t walk, to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to see Sohei Nishino’s exciting photo-collages of Tokyo and nine other cities, on display through Jan. 29 along with works by other up-and-coming Japanese photographers.

The exhibition is the 10th in an ongoing series on contemporary photography and features five artists who have returned to early photography techniques — including collage, pinhole cameras and multiple exposures — inviting us to rethink how we look at photographs, according to curator Harumi Niwa.

Nishino, who at 29 is the youngest of the artists represented, began working with collages while still a university student. He creates what he calls “diorama maps” — highly personal recreations of cities as he himself experienced them. Walking a city for as much as a month, he shoots hundreds of rolls of black-and-white film with a 35 mm camera, taking photographs from all sorts of vantages.

Back in his dark room, he hand-prints contact sheets of as many as 10,000 photos from each city, then cuts and pastes them into a collage. The finished work is at once recognizable as a map of the city while also presenting highly idiosyncratic perspectives on the sights there.

“These are my personal memories of a city. The photographs I take and the way I assemble them are influenced by what I personally experienced: what I saw, whom I met and even what I ate,” Nishino said in a recent interview.

In London, for example, he was pickpocketed, an event that is recounted by a photograph of 50 bills placed on the map about where it happened.

Nishino’s most recent diorama map is of Berlin, completed in September, 2011. Unlike the other dioramas in the exhibition, it’s displayed in its rough form, just prior to completion, allowing viewers to see how the artist puts his pieces together.

“The very last steps, which I haven’t yet done for the Berlin map, is trimming the collage and photographing it in digital form,” Nishino explained. “The collage itself is three-dimensional, like a sculpture, but what I want is for people to view it as a photograph. This is why I trim each collage into a regular shape and then photograph it.”

In addition to Tokyo and Berlin, the exhibition includes Nishino’s views of New York, Hong Kong, London, Hiroshima, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and Paris. He has also mapped out Kyoto, Osaka and Shanghai, and in the future hopes to work on Bern, Barcelona and Venice, as well as revisit some of the cities he’s already done.

“It would be very interesting to go back to cities I’ve already portrayed and repeat the process 10 years later; not only to see how the city has evolved but also to see how I myself have changed,” Nishino said. “For me, photography is not about what I can create with photographs but rather what I can become through photographs.”

Also on show, and similar in size and impact to Nishino’s collages, are Ken Kitano’s massive “metaportraits.” These large-format silver gelatin prints, measuring 142 cm x 178 cm, at first appear to each portray a single person. But they are in fact aggregate portraits made by laboriously superimposing images of dozens of different people. Kitano believes that a portrait provides us with a means to change places with another person and briefly experience another life, and that for this reason a portrait should ideally be life-size so that it confronts the viewer like a mirror.

Unable to find a darkroom in Japan where he could work with traditional methods in such a large format, Kitano traveled to Beijing to develop his portraits. Kitano explores themes of culture and religion through works as varied as a composite portrait of 34 young women dressed as anime characters in Taiwan, and another of 23 Hindu pilgrims observing a sunrise at a sacred site in India.

Other works in the exhibition include 31 photograms by Kazuyuki Soeno, which are created without a camera by placing objects directly on or above photographic paper that is then exposed to light. Soeno combines light and liquid to create beautiful abstract images that are actually photograms of whiskey with ice and the foam on beer.

Yoichi Sano also uses extremely primitive equipment — a pinhole camera, which is a simply a light-proof box with a single aperture and no lens — to photograph places of natural beauty in color. By manipulating the size of the hole, he softens the focus to the point where the scenes are only just recognizable as trees and lakes, challenging the viewer to see nature, color and light in new ways.

When Maiko Haruki photographs people, she tries to capture the “anguished ambiguity” between the subject’s outer form and the inner being of either the subject or the photographer herself, according to the exhibition notes. There are 11 of her works on display, including an interesting series that shows a person walking on the street, partially obscured by a black slit as if the viewer had blinked.

“Contemporary Japanese Photography: elan photographic” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till Jan. 29; admission ¥700; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. There are also two concurrent shows at the museum: “Street Life: Chronicles of Europe by Seven Photographers,” ¥600, and “Quest for Vision vol.4: Beyond the Naked Eye” ¥500. For more information, call (03) 3280-0099 or visit www.syabi.com.