Issei Suda: everything but square

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Baring its teeth and twisting awkwardly as it struggles against a rope around its neck, the distressed goat in Issei Suda’s 1976 photo appears slightly demonic. Its white fur glows uncannily against a mass of dark branches, while its mud-streaked horns and hooves make it all the more ominous. Trapped in the claustrophobic confines of a square, viewers might imagine this is a depiction of a mythic creature facing its demise.

In reality, it’s a photo of a domesticated goat tangled up in a makeshift lead at Ginzan Onsen (Ginzan Hot Springs) in Yamagata Prefecture. The photo is one of Suda’s best-known works, part of his “Fushi Kaden” series, a group of images that during the 1970s established him as a photographer with a remarkable ability to highlight the theatrical in everyday life.

“Fushi Kaden,” which includes photos of festival performers, locals and everyday objects, was inspired by and named after an artistic treatise on noh theater by the 14th-century playwright Zeami, but it also followed Suda’s work documenting the most avant-garde of Japanese theater troupes, Shuji Terayama’s Tenjo Sajiki.

Influenced by both highly stylized traditional theater and radical modern performance, Suda’s work became a dramatic art form of tightly framed, high-contrast images that led to 6×6 photography becoming synonymous with his name. Today, the square photo is more popularly associated with mobile-phone snapshots, which when altered by Instagram or Hipstamatic effects filters can be appealingly similar to those taken in the ’60s. But it would be a mistake to think of Suda’s work as merely snapshots — even if his subjects are always of the quotidian.

Suda’s framing is precise. He reins in subjects and makes them stand out, lit up not only by serendipitous lighting but also by an expression, a movement or an odd angle. More importantly, unlike snapshot photography, whose purpose is to familiarize the viewer with an experience, emotion or personality, Suda’s images do the exact opposite. They de-familiarize the subject by means of unusual viewpoints, uncomfortably cropped compositions, fractionally mistimed shots, strong textural contrasts and little or no explanation. While other photographers attempted to expose the extraordinary traits of familiar sights, objects and people, Suda took away the context to reveal innate extraordinariness.

In the introduction to his “Monogusa Syui” series (1976-82), Suda describes this approach to photography as being similar to working as a rag-and-bone man: “For the person who does the collecting, these objects are definitely not ‘rubbish,’ rather they provide the excitement of a ‘treasure hunt’ and offer an inexhaustible source of discovery.”

Today, as he confesses a need to slow down, to “stand still and enjoy the texture of the essence of things,” Suda’s focus has turned to unpeopled landscapes and architectural details. But even here, despite his subjects’ essential mundanity, he continues to produce images made unique and timeless by deliberate anonymity.

“Suda Issei: Nagi no Hira — Fragments of Calm” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography” runs till Dec. 1; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. till 8 p.m.). ¥600. Closed Mon. syabi.com