Art

Tokyo: photogenic to its very core

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

Care to take a guess what the new exhibition “Tokyo, Tokyo and Tokyo” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum is about? In fact there are two exhibitions with the same name running concurrently, so it’s “Tokyo, Tokyo and Tokyo” and “Tokyo, Tokyo and Tokyo.”

It may be that someone at the museum took a leaf out of Matsuo Basho’s book, when the overwhelmed haiku poet could only exclaim “Matsushima ah!” repeatedly, when confronted with Matsushima’s famous scenic landscape in Tohoku. Or perhaps it’s a nod to 1980s pop hit “New York, New York (So Good They Named it Twice).” Wherever the inspiration came from, the title of the museum’s second big exhibition after a two-year break for renovation is resoundingly, exuberantly clear.

With Tokyo being the object of so many excellent photographers’ interest over the last 150 odd years, it’s entirely legitimate that the museum should be bringing it home. What’s on display in the first exhibition, displayed on the third floor, is a selection from the museum’s world-class permanent collection, featuring some of the biggest names in art photography, who also happen to have done some of their best work in Tokyo.

The other exhibition on the second floor is the 13th iteration of the “Contemporary Japanese Photography” group show, which is a regular platform for new talent.

The archive section of the third floor “Tokyo, Tokyo and Tokyo” exhibition uses images going back to 1946 and is divided into thematic sections. We go from street snapshots, such as Hayashi Tadahiko’s iconic image of writer and tearaway Osamu Dazai precariously perched on a bar stool, to large-scale, idea-driven works of the 2000s like Naoki Honjo’s “Small Planet” and Natsumi Hayashi’s “Today’s Levitation” series — both of which are exercises in creative innovation rather than documentary observation.

The work of Shomei Tomatsu, Seiji Kurata, Daido Moriyama — Nobuyoshi Araki, Ryuji Miyamoto, masters of the abject, aberrant, perverse and desolate — appear in this section. There may be no images from wartime Tokyo in the exhibition, but its legacy is evident when the work of this generation of photographers is seen next to that of younger artists.

Photography from the late ’80s through the ’90s, to which this part of the exhibition is heavily weighted, are more aesthetic and less confrontational. A sense of Tokyo’s postwar economic growth, combined with post-bubble abstemiousness, can be seen in Norio Kobayashi and Takashi Homma’s architectonic explorations of suburbia. Stylistically speaking, these works, and that of many other postwar Japanese photographers, mostly resemble the neutral and deadpan typographical photography of the German Dusseldorf School. The neutral and deadpan style of these works, closely allied to the work of Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2016) and their proteges in Germany, may be bafflingly banal for viewers who expect grand views of nature or sweeping panoramas in their landscape photography, but this is to confuse the beauty of a site with the artistry of exploring sight.

The last section of the museum collection, titled “A Multilayered City: Playing with Tokyo,” shows later acquisitions treating Tokyo as a kind of sandbox. The city is cut up, photo-montaged, used as a backdrop or transformed into seemingly miniature dioramas in a variety of godlike manipulations. In Kimio Itozaki’s “Kumitate Fotomo” series, everyday street scenes are turned into tongue-in-cheek cut-out shapes. Sohei Nishino uses hundreds of small black-and-white prints to make up complex and involved composite images. It’s just a pity that there is no work from the avant-garde of the ’20s and ’30s in the exhibition to compare these contemporary experiments with.

In the second floor “Tokyo, Tokyo and Tokyo” exhibition, whether by accident or design, there is a surprising return to “straight” photography, with no obvious post-processing or physical manipulation. With the exception of Shintaro Sato’s satisfyingly precise and detailed panoramas of the area around Tokyo Skytree, which have been created through digital stitching, the images are largely reminiscent of the street photography of previous generations. None of the photographers distinguish themselves by being groundbreaking stylistically, and this makes for an odd and not necessarily positive continuity between the two parts of the exhibition.

Takehiko Nakafuji’s black-and-white “Street Rambler” and Keizo Motoda’s “Open City” series look and feel like projects from the ’70s. Motoda has sought out greasers, bosozoku (biker gangs), yanki (juvenile delinquents), the homeless and ’50s vintage cars, while Nakafuji plays with strong contrasts of light and dark, reflections and serendipitous juxtapositions, and is consequently very “New York school.”

Kazutomo Tashiro’s portraits of random strangers going about their daily business seem to be a casual replay of August Sander’s often referenced typology “People of the Twentieth Century” (1892-1954). Tashiro’s work is not technically perfect, visually consistent or particularly beautiful, but the series has one crucially distinctive element that makes it innovative and engaging: the relationship between the photographer and the subject is manifestly awkward. Tashiro is interested in catching the brief gaze from his subjects after they permit him to take their photograph. It doesn’t seem like much, but the series stands in profound contrast with almost all the other work in the exhibition, which in various ways attempts to project some kind of visual hegemony over what is being viewed.

“20 Year Anniversary TOP Collection: Tokyo Tokyo and Tokyo” and “Tokyo Tokyo and Tokyo: Contemporary Japanese Photography, vol.13” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum run until Jan. 29; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. until 8 p.m.); ¥500 and ¥700 respectively. Closed Mon. and Jan. 2-3. topmuseum.jp