The Tokyo Photographic Art Museum exhibition “The Time of Photography” starts with kitsch late 19th-century Yokohama shashin — hand-colored photos of Japanese scenes for sale to foreigners — and ends with the evanescence of Rinko Kawauchi’s photography of everyday life made poetic through the artist’s particular use of light and color.
A late 1860s image by Felice Beato (1832-1909) shows three women sitting around a hibachi stove, on which are an iron kettle and porcelain teapot. Behind them is a painted backdrop of a mountain landscape. By contrast, a photo in the last room of the show, typical of Kawauchi’s style, has light glinting off the metal treads of steps leading up and out of the frame. School girls walk up the steps into the sunlight. Another photo shows raindrops falling on a daisy like rays of light.
In between these bookends of pathos — the 19th-century staged tourist photos lamenting the passing of a bygone age, and the 21st-century paean to holding on to moments of life — curator Masuda Kotoha has explored different aspects of time and photography. Three sections — time as a practical aspect of producing a photograph, time as subject matter and finally the duration of the viewer’s gaze — have been used to show off iconic landmarks in photographic history alongside some of the foremost examples of contemporary photographic art.
The epitome of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (1908-2004) idea of the “decisive moment,” the 1932 image “Behind the Gare, St. Lazare” capturing a man jumping over a puddle, appears in the first section, as do Kazuna Taguchi’s ghostly 2007 series of images “Look How Long I’ve Grown Waiting For You.” These look like monochrome, multiple exposure portraits taken in the studio, but are in fact photographs of paintings based on photo-collages. They provide an interesting present-day counterpoint to the production process of the painted photography of the Yokohama shashin genre.
The second section, titled “Image Time,” includes a selection of August Sander (1876-1964) images from “People of the 20th Century.” As a testament to the huge influence that Sander’s dispassionate, central framing of the subject has had on documentary portrait photography, his images of Germans of different social status, occupation and physical appearance share space with portraits taken in the Asakusa area of Tokyo from Hiroo Kikai’s series “Otachi no Shozo / Ecce Homo,” and Hiromi Tsuchida’s “Hiroshima 1945-1979” series, which both pay homage to Sander’s aesthetic.
Time is apparent in these works in the sense that they include evidence of fashion, technology and design to tell us something about the historical moment in which the photographs were taken. Works from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s well-known “Theaters” series, which show cinema screens bleached white after the negative has been exposed for the length of an entire movie, and Tomoko Yoneda’s “Between Visible and Invisible” photographs of texts taken through the spectacle lenses of renowned writers and intellectuals, test the boundaries of still photography’s ability to express time.
In the last section of the exhibition, “Viewing Time,” the gap between movies and still photography is referenced by including Ed Ruscha’s 7-meter-long foldout book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” and images from the late Jonas Mekas’ “Frozen Film Frames” series.
As critic John Berger suggested in his 1968 essay “Understanding a Photograph,” time can be manipulated in films, but not in still photography, “Yet this apparent limitation gives the photograph its unique power. What it shows invokes what is not shown.”
“Reading Images: The Time of Photography” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum runs until Nov. 4; ¥500. For more information, visit topmuseum.jp.