One mark of a skilled artist is the ability to create something fresh while working within a classic framework. Photographer Robin Haseba has an exhibition through July 21 in Tokyo called “Suma: The Japanese Beach,” in which he does just that.
As you can see from the promotional postcard below, the exhibition is a series of portraits taken at a temporary open-air studio he created by setting up a white cloth backdrop on a Japanese beach. To be specific, it is Suma beach in Kobe, which Haseba described to me in an e-mail after I visited his show as “one of the best beaches in the Kasai region. It’s a famous place that attracts a lot of Kansai people. It’s an urban seashore that looks just like a busy city street, full of local Kansai folks.”
The photos are all the same size and shape, and appear to have been taken from the same distance, so that the white cloth backdrop occupies the exact same portion of each image. Over the course of the series, this uniformity of format creates a sense of scale that helps make the figures more real to the viewer. For instance, Haseba does not move in close when the subject is a child. Instead, he allows the backdrop to dwarf them. For a little person, the beach is a big place.
A tightly themed series of photographic portraits of diverse subjects is a well-established pattern. In the 1950s, Philippe Halsman published a series of photos of famous people – including Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – whom he shot in midair after telling them to jump. In the 1980s, Kevin Clarke and Horst Wackerbath hauled a red couch across the United States and asked a variety of people to pose with it or on it in a variety of settings. In the 1990s Peter Menzel travelled the globe for his “Material World” project, in which he photographed rich and poor families in front of their homes with their material possessions arrayed around them. (Last year, Menzel followed up with “What I Eat,” photographing people around the world with a typical day’s supply of food.) There are countless other examples.
And now we have Haseba’s “Suma: The Japanese Beach.” Like the collections mentioned above, it uses a thematic gimmick to draw you in. The human eye is naturally attracted to patterns. But since no two people are alike, intriguing differences emerge even when you try to put people into patterned groups. If the pattern gets us to start looking, it’s the tension between similarity and difference that keeps us looking.
Some photographers, like Menzel, use this tension for social commentary. But Haseba, like Halsman, uses it to make us smile. Some of his photos are charming, some are sweet, and some are goofy. Some of his subjects are happy to just stand and look at the camera, while others overtly ham it up. In one photo, a young man comically hitches up his board shorts in a way that reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp pants. In another, two bleachy-haired boys face away from the camera with their trunks lowered to show off dramatic Coppertone tanlines.
Girls in bikinis are the most thoroughly represented demographic. One photo shows two of them laughing as they stand on either side of a friend who is hunching and scowling as she tries to hear whoever is on the other end of her mobile phone – or pretends to. In another, a young woman holds gigantic cups of kakigori (shaved ice with colorful syrup) in such a way that they form a line with her rather large breasts, which are made equally colorful by her bikini top. Whether that composition was fortuitous or intentional, the results are amusing.
In response to my question about how he got people to pose, Haseba said that when he had his white backdrop set up on the beach in 2008, 2009 and 2010, about 80 percent of the people he asked to be in his pictures agreed to pose for him. However, “I hardly asked anyone to [strike a particular] pose. To overstate a bit, Kansai people are all comedians. On the white cloth stage, the Kansai people posed as they liked, and showed me a performance that was entirely their own.”
Many of them brought objects into the picture, including one guy who rolled his motor scooter onto the cloth stage.
In another photo, one of Haseba’s bikini girls is holding a watermelon-patterned beachball. (Watermelons are spherical in Japan.) A real watermelon appears in a photo of a man in his 20s demonstrating the popular Japanese beach game of suika-wari, in which a watermelon is placed on the ground and blindfolded players take turns trying to whack it with a big wooden stick, piñata style. The blindfolded man in the photo, stripped to the waist and with the thick wooden rod seeming like an organic extension of his muscle-knotted arms, looks like a kendo master. The poor watermelon doesn’t stand a chance.
Another food-related photo shows an obese man grinning bashfully as he holds a big KFC bag in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. But whether he is grinning about getting caught with his supplies or about something else is an open question.
One very fit man with a very deep tan holds up a fanned-out hand of playing cards whose stark whiteness makes his skin look even darker. How did he get so toned and bronzed sitting around a card table? He clearly leads a multifaceted life.
The humor in many of these photos is intentional. Haseba said: “I set up my white-backdrop stage at Suma beach because I wanted my photos to expose the power, personality and nori no yosa of Kansai. These photos are a treasured record of the flamboyantly attention-seeking Kansai people Robin Haseba loves.”
“Nori no yosa” is a key concept, but I’ve left it in Haseba’s original Japanese because it defies succinct translation. It means something along the lines of being easygoing and outgoing, having contagious good feelings, being cheerfully adaptable, or living life at a good tempo.
Not all of the Haseba’s subjects appear alone. Several photos show boy-girl couples embracing. In one case the boy is so enthusiastic that he seems about to knock his girl over. There are also two shots of boy-boy hugs, one of which looks like a pair of pals clowning around. The other is more ambiguous. Are those guys a couple, too? Since the images are not accompanied by text, you’ll have to use your imagination to fill in the details.
One standout among the group photos showed about a half-dozen teenage boys wearing dark swim goggles, standing behind one other with their heads arranged in such a way that the lenses of their goggles lead one’s eye around the picture in a spiralling pattern. It’s the kind of picture you can stare at, marvelling at how the visual dynamics work. Another group photo is dynamic in a more literal way: It shows a human pyramid on the verge of collapse, at least to judge buy the pose and facial expression of the guy right in the middle.
The only tattoos I noticed were on one of the only foreigners in the photos – spiky “tribal” decorations on the ribs of a shaven-headed thirty-something white guy. (See my previous post for why tattoos might be rare at a Japanese beach.) But another form of body modification was evident in a photo of a grinning Japanese man of about the same age who presented himself to the camera while making a frame with his fingers to call attention to his pierced nipple.
Moving counterclockwise around the gallery, which seemed like the natural direction, I came at last to a photo of an old man with a missing tooth and a floppy hat carrying a semitransparent trash bag full of aluminium cans he had collected. This one-man clean-up crew was the tail end of the beach parade. But even he was smiling.
And so was I.
Admission “SUMA: The Japanese Beach” is free. The one-room Epsite gallery is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., but is closed on Sundays. It is part of the Shinjuku, Tokyo, offices of the Epson printer company. It is on the first floor of the Shinjuku Mitsui Building, a tall black skyscraper between Tocho-mae Station on the Oedo subway line and Nishi-Shinjuku Station on the Marunouchi subway line. As shown on the access map (which you can click for a larger view), you can also reach it via Shinjuku Station on various rail lines. Be aware that the building stands on a slope; if you enter at ground level on the north side, you will actually be on the second floor and will have to go down to find the gallery.
Visit Haseba’s website at http://www.robin-jpn.com/