The tireless patience of a behavioral photographer

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

In Wim Wenders’ 1984 film “Paris, Texas,” Walt (Dean Stockwell) picks up his younger brother Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), who had disappeared in the desert four years earlier, to drive him back to Los Angeles. As Walt drives, Travis shows him a weathered picture of an empty plot of land he bought in some nondescript part of Texas called Paris, a place he vaguely remembers. Over the course of the film Travis’ memory returns as he connects his seemingly uninteresting photograph and the real vacant piece of landscape.

In a similar manner, “Kozo Miyoshi: 1972~,” the current show at Gallery 916, brings together photography and landscape to reveal an appreciation of passing time, the “personalities” of locations and the cultural backgrounds that define them. As MOMAT’s Curator of Photography Rei Matsuda remarks in the accompanying catalog, this show is very much an “unearthing” of both the history and culture of the places that photographer Miyoshi visits.

Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1947, Kozo Miyoshi graduated from Nihon University’s Department of Photography in 1971. With the aid of the government overseas training program, he moved to the United States for a one-year internship at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he lived until returning to Japan in 1996. His images give a brief glimpse of places that over time became barometers of a cultural change across the American Midwest, documenting a migrating culture that grew and receded against the ever-present landscape. In this respect Miyoshi is as much a behaviorist as he is a photographer.

In his series of images spanning the U.S. Midwest stretch of Route 66 (“In The Road”) and another of Tucson, Arizona (“South West”) — there’s a sense that Miyoshi waits for things to happen; that while he sets up his large-format camera, objects around him take on new meaning. Interestingly the show begins with his series “Exposure,” a set of fragments of life that appear out of our reach and at times out of focus — abandoned balloons, empty tables and chairs, for example. As the show progresses, his ideas are pulled into focus as his images become grander — depictions of Japanese farmland and cacti in greenhouses set against an American landscape.

The road is ever present and automobiles a recurring motif. “In The Road,” for example, introduces a pristine black Chevrolet and a dirt-ridden Saab Automobile, their backs to each other, both sitting in some nondescript truck stop. The landscape even gets framed from inside Miyoshi’s truck in an image where three table-top mountains are pictured within his windscreen. Later, a windscreen, too, is reduced to an image for “See Saw,” where the shattered remains of an abandoned car make a spectacle to look at, not just a window to look through.

The series “Conservatory” shows greenhouses full of cacti and desert plants which, when contrasted with his vast Arizona landscapes, appear like miniature recreations. In another oddity of the series, a single and probably forgotten fish tank sits against a leafy backdrop that looks as sinister as it is bizarre — the environment, frozen in time, showcases a giant fish clearly in need of a much bigger tank.

“Conservatory” was not shot the Midwest but is a sequence of places dotted across Japan — Shizuoka, Aichi, Gunma, Chiba and Hyogo prefectures to name a few. Timeless and placeless, these images of strange interiors perhaps suggest that the elusive landscape that Miyoshi searches for, is, like Travis’, one that can only really exist within his own photographs.

Miyoshi is not a street photographer, hastily snatching at moments as he wanders by car or by foot. He carefully bides his time, waiting until the scene comes to him. With patient observation, he waits for someone interesting to cross his path, or for a fork in a road to send him somewhere new and unexpected. Along the way, he asks questions about what surrounds him until possible images materialize. His imagery reflects a composure, such as “Roots,” a botanical study of radish roots that could almost be photographs of glacial flow or melted glass.

The nature of the world and how we relate to it is a source of image making. Some artists, such as photographers Tatsuya Shimohira and Go Itami, grab at isolated fragments from contemporary culture and exaggerate them. Others, like American-based artist Takeshi Murata, question how the ease and convenience of digital photography makes for a troubled relationship with the world it represents. Murata’s photo-realistic still lifes are entirely computer generated, and although they portray recognizable everyday objects, they remain strangely silent and unreal.

Miyoshi wants no part of urgency. His images reveal how someone in possession of a keen eye is willing enough to spend as much time watching as taking pictures. Like that lone fish in a tank in the middle of a dense conservatory, he sits and waits, and as he does, he visually pieces together the surrounding landscape, the figures he encounters and their subtle connections.

“Kozo Miyoshi: 1972~” at Gallery 916 runs till Oct 12; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m (Sat. till 6:30 p.m.). ¥800 (includes entry to 916 small). Closed Sun., Mon. www.gallery916.com