“What remains is future” were words written on a bag I saw someone carrying at Yoshihiko Ueda’s new exhibition “A life with Camera.” It’s the same phrase that appeared on badges Patti Smith handed out in New York nearly 10 years ago. Fittingly, her portrait now hangs among 300 photographs, which were taken by Ueda from the age of 24 over a period of 35 years.
After assisting photographers Masanobu Fukuda and Taiji Arata, Ueda began work as a commercial photographer in 1982, and in recent years he has moved into film. “A life with Camera,” however, doesn’t present itself as a product of a commercial career spent working with the likes of Suntory.
Instead, the exhibition expresses a travelog of personal connections — from his “Portrait” series to images of India and of the Scottish lowlands, all arranged as expressions of desire and intent. Ueda’s imagery is intimate: Be it of the mountain paths of Yakushima or the Quinault forest of America, there is a ripple of querying detail that also winds its way through the dress of choreographer Ushio Amagatsu and even the face of Miles Davis.
Faces and figures map out a spectrum of social attachment like the pages of a personal address book, but they’re interrupted by other objects — birds, bones and fruit are also cataloged with care. At times, photos contain ambiguities, such as the unfocused, shifting and barely visible “M.Sea” (2013) — it is as if he’s in the process of dealing with the images’ wider meanings.
Women have the strongest presence. At the entrance of the show, Patti Smith, in a photo taken in Tokyo, 1997, looks down, her right hand reaching accross her body in a welcoming gesture of reassurance. Opposite, the figure of multimedia and performance artist Kathy Rose, taken in 1989, stands naked, arms crossed, eyes looking up. Look to the other end of the room and you see three women looking at each other or out to sea. They stand at the cliff side in boundless color, a response to Robert Mapplethorpe’s nudes who remained introspective and indoors.
The frame of each image in the exhibition has a character of its own. It either dominates the expression in a photograph or turns an unknown face or place into a potential star or landmark. Black backdrops, transparent frames gold leaf and industrial gray all heighten an awareness of the gallery’s normally bare interior.
The exhibition represents Ueda’s total achievement in the photography industry. There’s no distinction between what is commercial and what is not, or what is photograph and what is film still. It’s a show of glances, gestures and subtle postures. There are no priorities and images are not placed in order of importance. Nothing needs to be seen first or last. Like Patti’s badges, the sentiment Ueda works with is clear: the importance of moving forward.
“Yoshihiko Ueda: A life with Camera” at Gallery 916 runs till July. 26; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Sat. till 6:30 p.m.). ¥800 (includes entry to 916 Small). Closed Sun. and Mon. www.gallery916.com