Over the summer, the International Center for Photography, here in New York, hosted an exhibit entitled Heavy Light – Recent Photography and Video from Japan. I missed the exhibit, but attended a talk given last night by the curator, Christopher Phillips, in which he addressed – appropriately enough for Halloween – costumes, fashion, and identity in the photography of four artists from the show.
The first was Tomoko Sawada, whose work I know I have seen before, though I am not sure where. Sawada’s key motif is that she photographs herself as a myriad of characters, their personalities as revealed solely through their appearance so different it is hard to believe that they are all the same person.
One of many images from Tomoko Sawada’s “School Days” series, in which she poses as each and every different young girl in a whole class (and as the teacher as well), each with a different hairstyle, facial expression, and personality. I’d thought this was the only work she did like this, but there’s actually quite a number – different classes in different uniforms in front of different backdrops…
She presents these images in a variety of formats, most of them the kinds of things you would see in normal real life – a class photo from school, ID card pictures, formal posed photos to represent yourself to potential suitors – making her characters seem more real than if they were simply art photos, framed and displayed in a gallery. Rather, these are the kinds of things you can imagine these characters, if they were real people, using in their everyday lives.
And there’s something I really appreciate about this approach. While at first Sawada seems perhaps a one-trick pony – everything that she does revolves around these concepts of identity, of costume, of creating new characters and photographing herself as if she were all these different people – it’s not about the “trick”, the acting ability, the costuming and makeup, or the digital manipulation that she uses to put multiples of herself together in one class photo. It’s not about the trick. It’s about what she is trying to say with it. And I feel that by continuing to explore different types of photographs of ourselves, she expands the realism of her characters, and the questions of identity that photographs raise. Out of all of these photographs, which one is the real Tomoko Sawada? Out of all the photos we have of ourselves – how many different versions of ourselves do we represent to the world every day?
The next artist we discussed was Miwa Yanagi, whose work I had definitely seen at the Yokohama Museum of Art. She is perhaps best known – if we can say she is known at all – for her Elevator Girls series, in which she created elaborate environments, many of them purely digital, into which she placed hired models dressed as elevator girls.
A lot has been said, I am sure, about her intentions to explore the role of women in Japanese society… but I must admit I just don’t get it. Some of her pieces are truly gorgeous, and for that alone I quite appreciate her bright, vivid colors, and beautiful imagined settings.
Perhaps something could be said for the way she treats the elevator girls as dolls, which are just sprawled out lifelessly on the ground when there are no customers to greet, who seem emotionless, and trapped in these beautiful settings; their only purpose is to serve, and to look pretty, and not to appreciate or make use of these environments.
The other two artists discussed last night fall into a separate camp. While Sawada and Yanagi stage their photos completely, essentially creating art and then photographing it, or creating art through the photograph as a medium, the following two artists are more like what might be called “documentary photographers”, their work expertly executed and beautiful in terms of composition, lighting, and such, but their true value and meaning shining through in the real-world society which their images depict.
Masayuki Yoshinaga, a former bôsôzoku (speed tribes gang member) and son of a yakuza gangster, photographs members of Japanese subcultures, from the bôsôzoku to the goth-lolita, providing a very real look at real people and their real fashions and lifestyles, as over-the-top and incredible and unbelievable as they may be.
Here, it’s not about the art per se of the individual shots, but about a glimpse into the philosophy, attitude and aesthetic of groups of people from a different sub-culture, a different sub-section of society, from your own.
I also like Yoshinaga’s work, particularly as published in a book such as this one – “Gothic & Lolita” by Phaidon Press – which really isn’t quite an art book. The book isn’t about Yoshinaga the Photographer, in the way an Ansel Adams book would be; it’s a book about Gothic & Lolita which happens to feature photos by Yoshinaga. I’m not entirely positive where I’d expect to find this in a Barnes & Noble if not the art section, but really it’s not an art monograph, it’s in that other section just a few feet away, that “fashion/style/design/photography/misc.” section, in between the coffee table books of photos of 9/11 and the Fruits magazine.
Hirô Kikai was the last artist discussed at last night’s talk. He’s a fairly shy man, who has never really associated with photographers/artists’ circles (most of his friends are fiction writers and scriptwriters), and who has gotten very little exposure until recently. The first monograph of his work in English (or in the West) was published quite recently, and, reportedly, a major fashion editor for Vogue was quoted as saying that his work is going to be influencing menswear design within the next two weeks (after the publishing of the book), and that every designer should have it.
Kikai has been for the last 30 years photographing people in Asakusa. Always in the same place – standing up against the relatively bare and plain temple wall – always in black and white, and almost always in individual shots, not groups. He picks people who stand out to him in a particular way – judging from his pictures, it’s mostly people who seem just very real, very normal and down to earth. He does not photograph people wearing the latest fashions, nor does he photograph people of particular subcultural types – goth, punk, biker – but looks for people who, outside of any of those trends, those genres, have a personal style, more functional than attractive perhaps, more grungy than crisp and clean… And while his work does not quite function as a record of changing styles in Asakusa over the years, as it might if he did choose people wearing particularly fashionable or trendy clothing, it does record in a more timeless way perhaps the people of the neighborhood, and the spirit of the neighborhood.
For most tourists, for most Western scholars of Japan, Asakusa means the Sensô-ji Temple, and the streets of traditional goods shops leading up to it. It’s one of the best places in Tokyo to experience a taste of traditional Japan, in particular of traditional Edo. But, really, for the people who live blocks away from the temple – because there is surely more to the neighborhood than just the one tourist spot – it is known as a very working class neighborhood, representative of the true downtown of the common man. And this, I imagine, is pretty much what Kikai is trying to capture and to record.
Perhaps most interesting about his images is that each is accompanied by a single sentence about who the person in the photo is, drawing the viewer in, perhaps, and helping them imagine a whole backstory to who this person is, what they’re doing there that day, or what their life story is… it’s like reading a series of short stories about the most regular, ordinary, everyday people possible, each with their own unique, personal, story.
I never thought photography could be this interesting. What’ll it be next? A surprisingly fascinating lecture on ceramics?