Known for its independent stance on photography, the agency Magnum Photos has been home to some of the world’s most prominent photojournalists, starting with its legendary founders, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger.
Since its start in 1947, the agency’s photographers have been regarded as visionaries. They are known for the visual impact of their war-zone documentaries, the eloquence of their commentary and the emotive power of their works. In celebration of the agency’s 60th anniversary, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is holding an exhibition of 150 monochrome and color photographs of Tokyo, seen through the eyes of Magnum photographers from the 1950s through to 2006.
For an audience familiar with local shooters such as Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki and Shomei Tomatsu, who have an innate knowledge of their home town, some of the recent works might feel cliched, concentrating on the easy subject matter that the West obsesses over: Harajuku’s cosplayers, Akihabara’s otaku (geek) culture, and Tokyo’s sex clubs. This may make it seem that — as well documented as Tokyo already is — it is difficult for photographers to come without preconceptions; that what often guides them is not an openness to local character and its universality but their own expectations of the differences they will find. One Magnum photographer even expressed “disappointment” when he came to Tokyo on a residency and found that most of the city lacked the excitement that many photos of it portrayed.
But Magnum President Stuart Franklin, who spoke to The Japan Times talks during his one day in town for the opening of the show, thinks a photographer’s approach to any city is more about individual perceptions and choices than preconceptions.
“When I came out to Tokyo in 2002, it was because of (the book “La Citta Dynamica”), and I didn’t see it as particularly distinct from the other 39 cities that I went to,” he says. “They were all about people, often young, who come often from the outside — from a smaller town — looking for an opportunity. Tokyo, in a sense, is simply another manifestation of that.
“Daido’s work around Shinjuku is a particular type of street photography, nobody is posed, nothing has changed; it’s a journey through the street, a juxtaposition of shapes and forms and people,” Franklin continues, discussing the famous Tokyo photographer. “That is simply one approach to a city. You could do it in a totally different way. I think the most important thing is in the end how it gets you, how it hits you.”
Franklin’s own photos from 1987 and 2002 reveal his vision of a high-tech, modern megalopolis. They also capture the human, sometimes gritty side that is less celebrated, as in his 1987 print of unemployed laborers loitering on the street in the midst of the bubble economy.
“I could come to Tokyo just with the idea of being interested in how people cope with the rush hour, or I could come to Tokyo just with the idea of the 24-hour electric city, what happens at night,” Franklin says. “You could come to the city with a number of questions, each of which would demand quite a different approach.”
The chronological layout of the exhibition does act as testimony to the changes in approaches. Often witness to history, in Tokyo Magnum’s images start with Wayne Miller capturing the American military presence in 1956, and subsequently show images such as the 1964 Olympics as documented by Ramond Depardon and a protest against the construction of Narita Airport photographed by Bruno Barbey in 1971. Since such early attempts to simply provide unbiased, documentary information, the agency has loosened up so that photographers may have their own agenda.
Martin Parr’s 1998 and 2000 images strike out in an artistic vein with intense, gaudy colors and statements on consumerism that are laced with sarcasm. Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s photographs from 1996 are lonely, atmospheric studies in oversaturated yellows, greens and blues. The agency has also followed the trends in subject matter that have become international stereotypes of quirky Japanese existence. Paul Fusco finds the salariman of 1989 in his natural morning habitat — commuting. Dennis Stock receives a bow from three hostesses in kimono in 1956.
“We look for people with a vision or a curiosity, which is more fundamental, to go out into the world and document in a respectful way what they see,” says Franklin.
Coming from Magnum, expectations for the exhibition will be high, and given time, they are paid off. While at first the photographs slip easily into what one expects to see of Tokyo, as a whole they become a broad and comprehensive representation of a city in flux and of a photo agency in transformation with it.
“We have a number of people who are over 50, over 60, so we’re trying to bring more younger people in. It’s still a real struggle for photographers to get by,” Franklin says. “It’s not hard to take photographs, it’s not even hard to take good photographs. What is hard is to put them together in a way that says something compelling.”
Besides their proven ability to work with commercial clients, the agency’s vision — a project-based approach that takes the long view — keeps it relevant. Willing to experiment, Magnum is moving from contemplative still photos popular from the 1930s to multimedia experiences that include moving images and sound. Such projects are now posted on the popular U.S. Web site Slate.com.
“With Magnum in Motion, we are posting every day on Slate stories that are still photographs with voice-overs and sounds, so we are able to bring back more as documentarians,” says Franklin. “We are working on a group project on global, contemporary slavery, so we have been in south Sudan recording the testimony of people who have been slaves. If you came to this same show in 10 years’ time, there would definitely be a sound element to it.”
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