With the advent of the digital camera, mobile phones and social networking, the world is now drowning in photographic imagery. This raises the question: Can photography survive as an art form in a world where it is ubiquitous?
The exhibition of work by Kayo Ume, under the title “Umekayo,” at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery offers a partial response to this question, and suggests how photography-as-art might maintain a synergy or at least an uneasy alliance with photography-as-social-networking adjunct.
Rather than seeking to differentiate herself from the Instagram generation by developing technically difficult or artsy photography, Ume embraces the photography of the people, focusing on friends, family, and strangers encountered in everyday situations.
The only thing that really distinguishes her from someone posting pictures on Facebook is her apparent dedication to her art — she is reportedly never without her camera — and her visual flair, which results in some astounding images, such as the one where a small child on the back of his mother’s bicycle leans all the way back so that his head is effectively upside-down.
The exhibition is well designed, with the first main room dedicated to a ludicrously enlarged selection of shots from Kayo’s earliest series “Junior High School Girls” (2001).
If she were male, this series might lead to controversy, as the shots of junior high school girls in a variety of poses — lifting up their skirts, posing with various fruits and vegetables — are somewhat risqué. However, the innocence of the pictures is maintained by humor and indeed stupidity, which circumvents any creepy vibe.
Ume’s humor runs like a thread throughout the show, and we gradually get the impression of a photographer who is moved to click by something that puts a smile on her face; whether it is playful pictures with her grandfather or shots of kids in the street acting up and pretending to be zombies by showing the whites of their eyes.
This element of increased self-awareness of the photographic act is strongly evident, and is the culmination of a number of trends in Japan dating back to the 1990s. At that time the purikura photo-sticker craze and the advent of cheap disposable cameras presaged the Instagram era we now live in.
Previously, women had often been passive subjects of photography, but the 1990s saw the rise of “girly” photos, cheerful pictures, often of women making ironic or even vulgar poses. The image-conscious nervousness created by the act of photography was “displaced” by jokey poses and mild buffoonery in photos used by girls to define their network of friendships.
Ume’s work is a perfect echo of these trends, something that gives her photography social relevance. It can also be read as a form of sexual empowerment, with women no longer being the passive subject.
However, the dominant impression one gets from this exhibition is that photography has become an overly self-aware act, something that can become tedious for the viewer. This is why Ume’s best works are those candid shots where the subjects remain unaware of her laughter-driven finger.
“Umekayo” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs till June 23; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri, Sat. till 8 p.m.) ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp