Category Archives: Japanese photography

Masahisa Fukase: solitude or loneliness?

The show ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (until 23 April 2016), has a bleak mid-winter feel. A profound sadness pervades Fukase’s images which were made over a ten year period following the photographer’s divorce. The images speak not just of solitude or being alone but of a deeper loneliness that may have become – or been caused by – a long-lasting period of depression.


The photographer Masahisa Fukase peaks at us from between two Raven images

I can imagine the photo series starting as a means of working through a traumatic period but inadvertently becoming a brake on emotional recovery; as if the photographer is mired in a self-perpetuating cycle of depression rather than finding an upward recovery towards a happier springtime.
The motif of the unfairly maligned raven recurs through the series as a bird of ill omen. The birds are frequently depicted in silhouette like shadow puppets subject entirely to the external control of the puppeteer, alluding to the lack of control the photographer may feel over his own life.
Sharpness and definition are rare commodities in these images, which are more about mood than content, about emotion rather than fact. There is a muted tonal pallet: black shapes and grey textures dominate even in the non-Raven images.


Limited tonal range, blur and grain typify the images in ‘Solitude of Ravens’

The photographs are not sequenced but several are placed close to each other to emphasise their similarity. Fukase originally made the series in 1982 but the images here are a re-working by a friend of his, with some additional ones. Most of the photos are printed beyond the image frame giving a rough-edged look with a hint of 35mm film perforations, reminiscent of a frame from a movie or a keyword chosen from a sentence: a staccato summary of a bleak period in life.


The show is not ordered like a narrative but there is an association of pictures that seem to speak to each other

Masahisa Fukase died in 2012 after being in a coma for 20 years following an accident. One is left with the distinct impression that his was not a rich and happy life. But the show is a masterful demonstration of how photography can be used to evoke emotional intensity and as such is well worth seeing.

Miyako Ishiuchi: “I took photographs to be in the darkroom”

Miyako Ishiuchi portrait

Miyako Ishiuchi in 2013. Video still manipulated in early Ishiuchi style by Malcolm Raggett

Miyako Ishiuchi (b.1947) has photographs in two exhibitions in London at the moment: Tate Modern and Michael Hoppen Gallery. If you are in London, they are worth seeing.

Ishiuchi didn’t take up photography until she was 28 when she came under the mentorship of Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. This influence is clear when you see her first collection ‘Yokosuka Story’(1976-1977), which is currently on display at Tate Modern (the Tate also has an interesting interview with her).

Girl in street

from ‘Yokosuka Story’. copyright Miyako Ishiuchi


from ‘Yokosuka Story’. copyright Miyako Ishiuchi

Her early style is very reminiscent of Moriyama but with an eye for interesting patterns and shapes that respond well to the gritty, high-contrast black & white approach common to the photos in this series. The images record a run-down town with seedy traditional architecture as well as western influences left over from the defunct US naval station. It is a town lost; bypassed by life.

Silken Dream #6. Michael Hoppen Gallery/Miyako Ishiuchi

Silken Dream #6. Michael Hoppen Gallery/Miyako Ishiuchi

The Michael Hoppen Gallery has 3 floors of exhibition space, all of which are currently devoted to Ishiuchi’s work. large images from her most recent series “Silken Dreams” are on the ground floor, black & white images from her early trilogy ‘Yokosuka Story’(1976-1977), ‘Apartment’(1977-1978), and ‘Endless Night’(1981) are on the first floor, and “Hiroshima” on the top floor. The display spaces are chosen well: the large windows on the ground floor and the ample skylights on the top floor are very appropriate for the colour images whereas the darker middle floor complements the dark grittiness of the trilogy pictures.

Hiroshima #9. Michael Hoppen Gallery/Miyako Ishiuchi

Hiroshima #9. Michael Hoppen Gallery/Miyako Ishiuchi

Some of the “Hiroshima” series (photographs of items recovered from the town after the atomic bomb was dropped) have a fragile translucency to them that reminds me of the old Polaroid image transfer technique. It is as if the ghosts of the owners are still present.

All of Ishiuchi’s images have a studied imperfectness about them, whether this is due to, for example, blur, grain or tilt, or simply the subject matter. In “Hiroshima” she shows she can produce sharp, full-tone images when it is appropriate but, in the other series, is quite capable of using camera and process controls to achieve an altogether different emotional impact. Unfortunately none of her images about body scarring is on show; what a shame as this is a long-running theme of Ishiuchi’s and would complement her studies in time and timelessness in the work that is on display. The scar images can be seen online but I suspect the impact of these as an exhibition would be much greater, so something to look forward to!

Diado Moriyama playing games at Tate Modern

Tate Modern, London, has a well-executed exhibition of Klein and Moriyama’s photographs running until 20 January 2013. It is really 2 exhibitions in one; both artists’ careers are reviewed, and although the 2 artists are distinct, the more graphically inclined Klein is known to have been an early influence on Moriyama so it is appropriate that these two exhibitions are closely associated. The exhibitions are arranged thematically rather than strictly chronologically. This means that artistic development can be explored more explicitly, and is to the curator, Simon Baker’s, great credit.

part of the Moriyama-Klein exhibition at Tate Modern

The Klein and Moriyama exhibitions overlap in the centre of the display where visitors looking at Moriyama prints can see through to the Klein exhibition and vice versa.

My main interest was to see the Moriyama exhibition since, as I mentioned in a previous post, I am curious about Japanese photography. While there is a lot to like about the William Klein photos, I’m going to concentrate on Daido Moriyama.

Enlarged images in the Klein exhibition show the use a mixed media. Something that Moriyama eschews.

Moriyama (b.1938) not only learned the craft of photography from renowned Japanese masters, but explored artistic influences around the world. Here we see 4 images from 1954 (when he was 16) called “Holland=Mondrian” where he mimicked Mondrian’s grids, exploring the ability of the camera to produce abstract images.

Although Moriyama’s early work shows a thirst to explore the photographic application of techniques used in painting, he soon began pushing the boundaries of photography without too much reference elsewhere. Adopting new techniques and ways of seeing means he quickly acquired the label “avant garde” .  He abandons the idea of conventional composition and, like Klein, uses only the frame of the image to direct the viewer’s attention. In a sense this parallels Edward Weston’s idea that composition is simply “the strongest way of seeing” but with very different results. Moriyama’s images usually have more than one centre of interest to draw the eye, and in some images the interest is diffused across the entire frame so that the viewer’s eye explores ceaselessly.

Moriyama shows the grubby corners of everyday street life (he is strongly drawn to cities) as if glimpsed while passing by. He emphasises this by putting his frames off-axis. He adds degrees of abstraction by using black & white film; by processing for grain and high contrast; by tilting the image, even as far as 90° or in one case, 180°; using close-focus to distort perspective; using such tight framing that we are left to guess the majority of the scene; blurring the image by slow shutter speed or out-of-focus settings. This is the “rough-shake-no focus” (are-buri-boke) style for which he is famous/infamous.

He plays games with himself and us using scale and form, repeatedly asking “what is it?”. And this is not just in the literal sense of “what is the object?”, but through the layers, so the question becomes “what does it represent?” or “what does it mean?” or even “what could it mean?”. So we find him photographing

  • the creases not the poster
  • the puddles not the road
  • the rails not the railway
  • the scales not the fish
  • the foam not the sea
  • the rust not the wheel
  • the wheels not the vehicle
  • the fur not the dog
  • the slipway not the ship
  • the waterline not the bathers

In Japanese photographic theory, images can have “adhesion” or “fixation”. Araki believes that Moriyama has added “settlement” to this list [Araki interview in Diado Moryama: Stray Dog of Tokyo. 2001]. I take this to mean that even when taken and printed, an image is still a dynamic thing, open to interpretation and re-interpretation. We see an example of this in room 6 where Moriyama’s Stray Dog is repeatedly re-interpreted.

Stray Dog by Moriyama

8 interpretations of Stray Dog, Moriyama’s signature image, which suggests his restlessness, dissatisfaction, and a striving for something different and better.

Looking back through my notes, I notice that words like “game” and “play” crop up frequently in relation to Moriyama’s (and Klein’s) images. This, I think, is the most important lesson to take from Moriyama – not to lose a sense of play when exploring photography (or life, for that matter! (is there any difference!?)).