Naonori Oshima: What you see is less than what you actually get

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

If prices at auctions are anything to go by, it is not until relatively recently that photographic images have been treated as art objects in the same category as other more historically accepted media. This is even more true of the snapshot; once mainly a prosaic way for the family to record their daily lives, it has now achieved an aesthetic legitimacy because, not in spite of, its lo-fi quality.

Opponents of modern and contemporary art on the grounds that there is a lack of technique or craftsmanship have even more to complain about when it comes to photography. After all, what could be easier than just pressing a shutter button? Naonori Oshima’s exhibition at Tokyo’s Photographers’ Gallery is exemplary in showing that it’s not the camera, or even the subject matter, that makes the photo — it’s the person behind it.

“ON Harmonic Balance” is a dark, claustrophobic collection of images that, although they illustrate many of the tropes that are often associated with the snapshot aesthetic, come across as guileless and unforced. Oshima is not formally trained in photography, but the collective tension from the images, closely set in two rows going around the small gallery, is so palpable that the camera seems to have been used as a natural extension of the photographer’s senses.

The title comes from Oshima’s reflection on the opposite tugs of passion and melancholy and the desire for a “steady state.” While the series centers on his own experience (the “ON” of the title), it does not sink into self-absorption so much as present the viewer with a glimpse of a life disconnected from the normality of everyday activity. In a country that, relatively speaking, places so much importance on communality and social cohesion this is especially poignant. It also seems prophetic for young Japanese who today face a less rule-bound, but also more economically precarious adulthood than previous generations have experienced.

The few recurring faces and figures in the background of the images only reinforce the fact that Oshima has photographed one of the world’s busiest metropolises largely devoid of people. Photographic “flaws,” such as camera shake or poor exposure add to the feeling of abjection. However, if the photos are viewed as vertical pairs, it becomes clear that they have been carefully edited, and that the strong emotional impact of the series is not a matter of having accumulated a mass of random pictures, even though it may look like it. Hidden in the darkness, a strange harmonic balance does in fact reside, and perhaps the most striking point of Oshima’s exhibition is that it suggests that balance is not achieved by glossing over life’s difficulties, but through acknowledging them.

“Naonori Oshima: ON Harmonic Balance” at the Photographers’ Gallery in Shinjuku runs till June 8; open daily 12 p.m.-8 p.m. Free admission. pg-web.net