Photographically, Tokyo is a city open to many interpretations. It is sex, it’s shopping, elevated highways and kids playing at the end of quiet streets. It’s futuristic, hyper-real and postmodern. It’s a series of villages and an isolating, soulless landscape in demise.
Gray or green, working class or rich, inside or outside the Yamanote Line — pick your lens and take your pick. Photographers past and present, native and not, have played with all these ideas to varying degrees.
Edgar Honetschlager, an Austrian artist and filmmaker who has lived 17 years in Japan, nine in the capital, adds to Tokyo’s photographic dialogue in his wonderfully titled book “Tokyo Plain.” In it, he draws our attention away from the usual cliched images of the city and focuses on what he argues is the “real” Tokyo — the back roads, shotengai (traditional shopping streets) and lanes of Tokyo’s 23 wards. For him the city is not a distant crowded landscape of never-ending urbanity, but rather a human and intimate space. As he puts it, it’s “plastic, one-family houses with 2-foot garden strips”; it’s “wild and untamed”; a “marvelous, vivid jungle, organized by means of numbers rather than names.”
Shot early in the morning before the city’s commuters pump through its veins, Honetschlager’s images highlight the city’s textures and forms; the beautiful and fragile to the functional and bold. Commonplace rundown buildings of wood, sheet metal and moldy concrete are given center stage alongside sprouting and stunted greenery, real and plastic, both purposely and incidentally placed.
There is a relaxing, straightforward ordinariness to Honetschlager’s imagery that obliterates his photographic consciousness. The book is very much point and shoot. For those well acquainted with the city, there is nothing special, nothing that grabs your attention in many of the photos — his shotengai images could be labeled repetitive — however, the silent dreamy haze of the gray, sometimes unfocused morning light weaves a meditative unity into the simple approach.
Honetschlager further builds on this mood by randomly interspersing his thoughts and encounters on small white sheets of paper inserted into his book’s binding. Typed in various fonts, lightly as if on a wornout typewriter, his words add a human element to his silent landscapes. Written as fragments and not-quite-right poems, they work like fiction, adding emotion and a level of lyricism that static camera images alone cannot always catch.
“5:30 — on my way to breakfast at Denny’s,” he types on one sheet. “All over the place, old ladies are sweeping the narrow alleys in front of their houses; students in uniforms on their way to school; hookers on their way home wearing sunglasses to cover the hardships of the night; yawning daddies walking their dogs and young good-for-nothings smoking on their way to the station.” This is not a photographic moment but it’s still one that is special to Tokyo, a landscape we could call the world’s largest film set by virtue of its enormous size and the 40,000 million people who live here.
Compared to other recent Japanese interpretations of Tokyo, such as those shot by Daido Moriyama, Takashi Homma, Masataka Nakano and Hideyuki Uchiyama, Honetschlager’s view is less critical and visionary. Like the much-loved word natsukashi (to feel nostalgic), Honetschlager’s work lovingly accepts the status quo and marvels in it without judgment.
Is Honetschlager’s personal angle any less relevant than local-grown views? Is nine years enough to know a foreign city and claim it as your own?
Perhaps “yes” is the answer to both questions. As Hiromi Nakamura, curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography wrote in her introduction to “Tokyo Seen by Magnum Photographers” (2007), “Magnum photographers show us images that we [natural born Tokyoites] may tend short-sightedly to overlook because they are so familiar.”
Honetschlager is not Magnum, but his foreignness could be said to sharpen his view.
Photographically there is no “real” Tokyo. By its own constantly fluctuating nature, it is indefinable. It is everything mentioned in this article’s introduction plus more. As Nakamura wrote of Magnum’s impossible attempt to find a definitive Tokyo image for its Web site, “not coming up with an answer does not mean zero — it means infinity.”
Infinity. That is Tokyo. From people to fashions, to expressways and food, everything varies in multiple forms like shotengai lights. Unlike other established world capitals with their fixed history, Tokyo is breathing faster and changing as we speak. Any artistic or documentary photographs of a city can only add to the dialogue that may be gone or subtly transformed tomorrow. Honetschlager’s images deserve to be added to the record of Tokyo’s back streets, even if, as I’m sure you’ll agree, Tokyo — despite the book’s well-suited title — is anything but plain.
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