Finally hitting the local


It occurred to me recently that in the more than five years I’ve been covering contemporary art for The Japan Times, I’ve never once written about the gallery I visit most frequently — The Konica Minolta Gallery in Shinjuku.

There are three galleries on site, which are focused, not surprisingly, entirely on photography. Each is as spacious and well-lit as the leading contemporary art spaces in Tokyo. Admittedly, it’s not a blue-chip, next-big-thing spot, but you can see some pretty good stuff. Many of the participating photographers are young, and although the tendency is naturally toward traditional, “photographers’ photography,” many of the shows are surprisingly fresh.

For those who have never been (the gallery is scarcely 30 seconds from the East Exit of Shinjuku Station), this is an excellent time to drop by, as there are a couple of good exhibitions on, along with a selection of the prize-winning photographs from the Konica Minolta Foto Premio Competition.

Shin Yamagata is — like many if not most photographers I have met — soft-spoken and unassuming. In the evenings he works in a Toronamon izakaya, while by day he tours rural Japan with his 35mm camera. This year, his keen eye for composition and superior grayscale monochrome printing earned him 1 million yen and center stage at the Foto Premio. His photographs are marked by a perspective which the artist says he hopes will approximate that of a bee buzzing round in the air. Yamagata makes no intervention on his subject matter — fences, light posts, retaining walls, rivers and trees — instead his camera simply exists in the midst of the quiet collision between nature and man that characterizes the Japanese countryside.

Also showing in this room are selections from the runners-up in the competition. Kumiko Shimizu returned to her hometown to photograph the old folks she regards as a sort of extended family, and she must be highly regarded by them, as there is a pronounced sense of both relaxation and cooperation in the outdoor portraits. Another runner-up, Yuki Ichinose, presents a decidedly dark portrayal of the human condition — brooding, atmospheric images suggestive of film noir, all shot in Europe.

Next door in Gallery B is a completely different approach to photography — a set of supersaturated color photographs of daily life in Shanghai, by Shao Xiao Quan. Generally shot without direct sunlight, the lack of shadow allows a thorough examination of details in the busy street-commerce persisting in the rapidly modernizing metropolis. A white-coated man and his female assistant install false teeth in the mouth of a patient sitting on a folding chair at an outdoor dentist’s office situated on the sidewalk of a busy, dirty street; a vegetable vendor catches a nap amid a teeming market. The pictures take full advantage of photography’s ability to compress depth onto a flat plane to effectively communicate the changing face of the Chinese urban landscape.

In Gallery A there are a series of black-and-white photographs shot in Israel and Palestine during four visits last year by Daichi Koda. “Living in the Conflict” takes the new Israeli “separation wall” as its point of departure, but doesn’t take sides in the actual conflict that exists around it.

“Of course, I know the wall creates many difficulties for the Palestinian people,” says the artist, “but when I met Israeli soldiers I realized they were just regular people as well. My sympathies are with everyone living in this environment of conflict.”

One of Koda’s photographs shows a Bedouin farmer tending to his goats beside the wall, which stretches off to the horizon. A pasture, previously used for grazing, now lies beyond the wall, inaccessible. In another photograph, a group of Israeli soldiers relax against the wall — I wouldn’t say they look like thugs, but neither would I invite them over for tea. I will say this — I’d like it if they had a look at Koda’s portfolio, which does its best to take the viewer past preconceptions and to the human side of what is happening in a beautiful land scarred by conflict.

Some would say Koda’s perspective is naive, detached as it is from the history of the region — but he’s been on both sides of the wall, and he has brought back a worthwhile documentation of what he saw. Carefully photographed, the work brings an appreciation lacking in mainstream media coverage.