Kyoto photography show pushes the frame

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Mars has landed in Japan and is best viewed from a beanbag in the annex of The Museum of Kyoto. “Mars, a Photographic exploration” is the worthy headline event at this year’s Kyotographie International Photography Festival, which brings together remarkable photos of the red planet, with imagery captured by NASA probes and distilled into photographs by French artist Xavier Barral. Seen together with Shiro Takatani’s captivating video installation, this is an exhibition that will be remembered long after the festival finishes mid May.

We live in an age defined and dominated by the image: pictures of ourselves, pictures of our cats, pictures of our cooking. Photographs are everywhere, but not necessarily photography. Kyotographie, now in its second year, aims to bridge that gap by putting photography as an art form and a narrative front and center in the court of the public.

The overarching theme for this year’s festival is “Our Environments”; the plural “S” is both telling and accommodating, as the photographic subjects are as diverse as the exhibition sites. Besides Mars, Kyotographie features exotic pets, Nigerian women’s hairstyles, French men’s hands, Japanese photo books, nuclear power plants and photographs from some of the worst conflict zones in the past 30 years. The venues, many of which are worth a visit anyway, are spread throughout this compact city and include a World Heritage shrine, Kyoto Station, several teahouses and, of course, machiya — those beguiling town houses endemic to Kyoto.

The best way to see Kyotographie is by bike. Be warned, though: Kyoto’s overzealous wardens will “lift” bicycles parked where they should not be and leave you with a fine.

There are 13 official venues and it would be possible to cover the entire festival in a single day. Whether you’d want to is another matter. The pictures in the exhibition fall broadly into two categories: photographs you would hang on your wall and photographs you wouldn’t. This sentiment is echoed by the work of Stanley Greene, a veteran photojournalist, and Tim Flach, whose highly stylized portrait of a white Bengal tiger has become the poster image of the festival. While their photography is as distant on the spectrum as you could imagine, both photographers have been making political and provocative images to foster debate, and both attended the opening weekend of Kyotographie to discuss their work as part of a comprehensive public program of events.

Flach’s exhibition “More Than Human” is showing at Shimadai Gallery, a stunning 400-year-old machiya. He has consistently taken animal portraits in a bid to define, or discover, our relationship with animals — or, increasingly, our relationship with the image of animals. His photo you probably wouldn’t want on your wall is of a featherless chicken in “flight” — the bird was bred by a university in Israel. Coming to supermarkets soon?

Greene has been documenting war zones for more than 30 years. His show, “The Thin Line Between the Eye to the Heart,” is a retrospective of sorts and is weighed down by images of despair, tragedy and wretchedness, only somewhat tempered by a few photographs from Greenland that aim to humanize the consequences of global warming. It’s tough viewing, but important lest we forget.

Nearby, in likely the best pairing of the festival, Werner Bischof’s exhibition “Eternal Japan” is on show in Mumeisha, a beautifully restored machiya. Bischof, one of the original shooters for Magnum Photos, arrived with his camera in Japan during the final year of American occupation, and the exhibition in a few photos captures that transitional and momentous period: show girls lounging around in a dressing room, an atom-bomb survivor revealing his wounds in Hiroshima and a simple everyday image that shows the depth of Bischof’s immense talent — a group of men crowded on a box trying to glimpse the action at an event happening in Tokyo Stadium. Exhibition designer Oliver Franz deserves praise for a beautifully mounted and curated show.

Other highlights include Fukuoka-born Akiko Takizawa, now living in London, who brings her show “Where We Belong” to Toraya, a famed confectioner and teahouse and yet another stunning location. A lucky encounter with a family friend led me to an impromptu tour of Takizawa’s photographs. Her work is partly defined by her printing technique: collotype, an archaic photographic process that is rarely used today. Her photographs of family and places are haunting.

If Kyoto Station is as far as you make it in May, you still have a chance to catch at least one exhibition. Kansai native Sohei Nishino constructs dioramas of world cities: Part jigsaw, part collage, these “photo maps” offer a new and intriguing panoramic view of our metropolises. The diorama of Tokyo, defined by its train networks, is particularly memorable.

Buyers or browsers should take note of KG+, which runs concurrent to Kyotographie and features the work of local, national and international photographers. Approximately 50 venues including galleries, shops and cafes are taking part in this satellite festival.

The Mori Yu Gallery is showing the work of Tomoko Jindo, a painter turned photographer recently returned form Italy. Her photographs have an ephemeral and a rich painterly quality, revealing her fine-arts background. Jindo is displayed beside French artist Alexandre Maubert, whose show “Le Temps d’Apres” prods the viewer to “imagine” — for me they brought up a swell of loneliness.

Here’s hoping that Kyotographie keeps coming back for as long as it takes humankind to make “one small step” on Mars.

Kyotographie runs till May 11 at sites around Kyoto. A festival passport is ¥2,000 and can be used at all venues. Individual tickets are also available. All exhibits in Japanese and English. www.kyotographie.jp