Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Ginkgos in Ginza

December 21, 2012


Trees have it hard in Tokyo. There aren’t very many of them (at least outside of parks), and those that do exist are often subjected to extreme indignities. Instead of being carefully pruned, they tend to be thoroughly de-branched. Victims of this treatment look more like lumpy telephone poles than living organisms. In the fall, as soon as the foliage changes color, it is common to see crews of workmen methodically knocking every leaf to the ground so they can all be swept up and trucked away as quickly as possible.

That is why it has given me so much pleasure to see the ginkgo trees along Showa-dori avenue in Ginza left unmolested. Here is a Tokyo street where trees are allowed to be trees.





Shirtless Ultraman

July 13, 2012

Ultraman is big. It’s one of his defining characteristics. But he’s especially big this month, with several Ultra-themed events happening around Tokyo.

One of them is a show at Zen Foto gallery in Roppongi, featuring works by Daisuke Matsumoto in which a shirtless Ultraman confronts a monster in the heroic style of Beowulf. I haven’t been to it, but it looks amusing. (I assume that’s on purpose.) The show runs through July 19. See details at their site or on the above publicity image.

Read about additional Ultraman events here, here, and here.

A censorship fight over “comfort women”

July 6, 2012

A frail old woman with white hair, a bent back, and a deeply lined face sits by herself in a small, shabby room.

That description would fit several of the black-and-white photos I saw at an exhibition last night in Tokyo. As mundane as the pictures are, certain people strenuously object to their being seen. And that’s why I had to see them.

To get into the exhibition, held on the 28th floor of a Shinjuku office building, I had to wait in a corridor while a uniformed guard used his arm to block the doorway of the small gallery space, allowing people to go in one by one. A woman ahead of me had a very large bag, and he looked inside it before admitting her. Once I got through the door, another guard watched as I walked through a metal detector.

And then I saw a bunch of perfectly ordinary black-and-white portraits of harmless-looking old ladies.

What was the big deal?

A certain number of women, many of them Korean, were forced to work as sex slaves for members of the Japanese military during World War II. They were euphemistically called “comfort women.” The ones who are still alive today are very old. A few of them are the subjects of the photos in this exhibit, taken by photographer Ahn Sehong.

The existence of “comfort women” is an accepted historical fact, but right-wing groups in Japan would prefer to sweep it under the rug.

The Nikon Salon in Shinjuku had planned to display Ahn’s photos, but then canceled its plan. It seems that no clear reason for the cancellation has been given, but you can sample the unofficial speculation and official evasions in coverage by The Japan Times herehere and here, The Wall Street Journal here and here, and Radio Australia here.

Ahn sued, and won. The court ordered Nikon to hold the exhibition after all, and it is now doing so. The show runs through July 9, this coming Monday on the 28th floor of the Shinjuku L Tower, on the west side of Shinjuku Station.

The gallery’s website states, “Although the originally scheduled photo exhibition by Ahn Sehong was canceled for certain reasons, the Tokyo High Court has issued a provisional disposition order allowing the temporary use of the Shinjuku Nikon Salon for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition. In accordance with this provisional disposition, the Shinjuku Nikon Salon will be temporarily used for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition.”

You can see a few of the photos at Ahn’s website, here. The images themselves are not particularly remarkable, but the effort to censor them is outrageous.

Admission to the exhibition is free.

Speech should be, too.

Scenes from a slaughterhouse

June 15, 2012

In 1989, photographer Seiichi Motohashi visited a Japanese slaughterhouse where cattle were being killed, gutted, skinned and cut up for meat.

Some of the documentary photos he took there are now on display at the Ginza Nikon Salon, a one-room gallery in Tokyo, through June 19. They will also appear at the Osaka Nikon Salon in Umeda, Osaka, August 9-22.

Having been to the show, I can report that the photos are not as gruesome as I had feared. Nor are they as educational as I would have liked.

One of the first pictures shows a cow walking up a ramp into the building, but after that the real focus is on people. We see them doing a variety of jobs: removing skin, cutting up meat, loading trucks, cleaning the facilities, and cooking lunch for their fellow workers. One of them is seen at the end of the day washing and sharpening an array of knives. Another stands at a workbench, doing something to a cow’s severed head. It all looks like hard work, but most of the people we see are going about it matter-of-factly.

There are plenty of details to wonder about. What is that guy doing to the head on the table? What is the purpose of the various tools we see? Why are things done in the way we see them being done? Unfortunately, there is no text accompanying the photos, so we are left to wonder.

The most memorable person – in part because he is seen in several photos – is the man who kills the cattle by putting a gun to their heads and firing what appears to be a metal rod into their skulls.

In one image, he is standing on left side of the photo, holding his arm out toward a cow on the right. The photo was taken an instant after he pulled the trigger, with the muscles in his forearm tensed and the cow’s body reacting to being shot. Its leg muscles have contracted in such a way that all four of its hooves have left the floor. Looking at it, I couldn’t help thinking about Eddie Adams’ 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning photo, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon.” I’m not suggesting the scenes are morally equivalent, but the similarity in terms of action and composition was inescapable.

Another photo of the same man at the slaughterhouse shows him standing alone and looking rather unsure of himself with the gun hanging in his hand by his side. His job appears to be the least physically demanding of any we are shown, but it is probably the hardest of all.

Tokyo venue information here.
Osaka venue information here.
Motohashi’s “Toba” photo book here.

Pinhole photography in Ginza

February 24, 2012

Take a box. Put some photographic film in it. Punch a tiny hole in the side of the box opposite the film. Wait.

That’s the essence of pinhole photography. The light coming through the tiny hole projects an image of whatever is outside the box onto the film. The principle is the same as the one behind watching a solar eclipse with a shoebox viewer.

I’ve been aware of the concept of pinhole photography for a long time, but I never gave it much thought until yesterday, when I went to Edward Levinson’s pinhole photography show in Ginza.

Edward Levinson is a pinhole photography genius.

The exhibition, titled “Mind Games, Vol. 2,” is in a small gallery on the second floor of the Ginza showroom of the Eizo color monitor company, but the first works one sees are displayed on the landing of the staircase leading up to it. These are horizontal color prints about meter wide, and each is an arresting composite image that Levinson created with a “Pinhole Blender.” It’s a cylindrical box the size and shape of a cookie tin with not one but three pinholes, which project images onto different but overlapping areas of a single curved piece of film.

The results are bizarre and amazing.

The first photo is titled “Coffee High.” The central image is of a man drinking coffee, blended into images on either side of him that show a wavy decorative pattern on the glass of the coffee shop. Because of the curved film, the side images are slightly distorted in such a way that the wavy pattern almost forcibly focuses the viewer’s attention on the man drinking coffee. It’s actually difficult to move your eyes to any other part of the picture. You get kind of woozy just looking at it.

(You may or may not feel that effect looking at the image at the top of this post, but trust me — it works when you’re standing in front of a meter-wide print. Incidentally, you can click on any of the images here for a slightly larger view.)

Next to that is a photo called “Dharma Watching” in which the central image is a close-up of the grotesque face of a rather ugly-looking metallic Daruma doll. The other two images, both of which are lower down in photo, show the tops of some mountains (in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, where Levinson lives), making it look as if the Daruma is looming in the sky.

In the main room of the gallery there are many more blended pinhole photos, some of which look at one subject from multiple angles, while others juxtapose different subjects in interesting ways. All are in color.

In addition to the photos hanging on the walls, there are three Eizo monitors set up on a table, continuously running slideshows of Levinson’s previous work. And there are copies of his books laid out.

I should disclose that Levinson is an artist to whom I have a slight connection. Long ago, he and I were fellow members of a writing workshop that met in Chiba City. When I used the Golden Week holidays in 1991 to ride my bicycle all the way around the Boso Peninsula, Levinson and his wife kindly let me sleep in their barn when I passed through Kamogawa. But soon after that, I returned to the United States, and we fell out of contact for 20 years – during which he took up pinhole photography, in 1993. We ran into each other again totally by chance at the 2011 Japan Writers Conference in Kobe, and he encouraged me to come to his show.

With that history, I admit that I was inclined to think positively of his work. But I must say with equal candor that I was far more impressed than I expected to be.

In addition to his amazing “Pinhole Blender” work, I was stunned by the black-and-white photos in his book “Timescapes Japan: A Pinhole Journey,” which I sat down and leafed through at the show.

In pinhole photography, according to Wikipedia, a smaller hole in the box leads to a more sharply focused image, but since a smaller hole admits less light it also requires a longer exposure time. This can range from seconds to hours. When photographing buildings or landscapes, this is fine, but it poses a challenge when photographing things that move – like people.

In “Timescapes Japan,” Levinson found multiple ways to turn this challenging aspect of pinhole photography into a tremendous advantage. For example, two of his photos show monks standing on busy city streets with their begging bowls. In each photo, the monk appears to be alone. But then you gradually notice wispy, ghostly figures of other people passing by. The monks remained motionless long enough to appear solid and real in the pinhole view, while it is the laypeople flitting about on their daily business who appear ethereal and unreal.

In another photo, taken from a tall building and looking down at the Sumidagawa river in Tokyo, a boat caught in the act of turning around is blurred into a crescent shape that calls to mind a fat koi wallowing in a small pond. But a photo of actual koi on another page makes the white fish in their muddy water look like calligraphers’ brush strokes drawn in milk on slate.

“Timescapes” is a fitting title, not only because the passage of time can be seen in each photo, but also because at least one of them has taken on a layer of irony that only the further passage of time could supply. Called “Growing up,” the 1997 photo shows a boy standing beside a body of water while a high-rise building looms in the background. The building is recognizable as the Akasaka Prince Hotel, a Tokyo landmark. It looks as solid and as permanent as can be. The boy is not recognizable because he couldn’t hold still the way the building could, and thus is blurred and semitransparent. He looks fleeting and insubstantial.

Today, 15 years later, we can reasonably assume that the boy has grown up and is now a man.

The hotel is slated for demolition.

Practical details

“Mind Games, Vol. 2” will run at the Eizo Galleria Ginza, at 3-10-6 Ginza on Showa-dori avenue just north of Higashi Ginza subway station, through March 3, 2012. Levinson will give a talk there, mostly in Japanese, from 2-3 p.m. on Feb. 25. Admission is free.

Levinson’s website:
Eizo Galleria Ginza site:

Photographer Mao Ishikawa on the Japanese flag

February 6, 2012

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Mao Ishikawa has been taking photos of people with the Japanese flag at least since 1993, but her current show of some of those photos at the Zen Foto Gallery is especially timely now.

The Hinomaru flag, a white banner framing a large red circle that represents the sun, and the Kimigayo national anthem, a hymn to the Emperor, are both at the center of some very current but also deep-rooted political disputes.

Last month (January 2012), Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that punishing teachers who refused to stand and sing the Kimigayo during school ceremonies by suspending them or cutting their pay was “too harsh,” although the court also found that such teachers could be reprimanded. This ruling did not sit well with recently elected Osaka city Mayor and former Osaka prefectural Governor Toru Hashimoto. Hashimoto, the firebrand leader of a rising new political party called Osaka Ishin no Kai, wants to fire teachers who refuse to join in singing the Kimigayo more than twice. He has indicated that he still intends to fire such teachers despite the Supreme Court ruling. (News items here and here.)

A few days later, Hashimoto made more waves by ordering local officials to bow to the Hinomaru flag in the municipal assembly whenever the assembly opens or reconvenes, whenever they step onto the assembly’s platform and whenever they respond to a question. (News item here.)

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

In December 2007, Kim Koon Hee, a traditional Korean artist who lives in Osaka, placed a Hinomaru flag on the ground and stamped on it in a pair of white poson slippers, traditional Korean footwear with pointy, upturned toes. “Many Korean people died under the Rising-Sun flag,” she said. Presumably she is not a Hashimoto supporter. Ishikawa’s photo of her is part of the current show.

Photographer Mao Ishikawa speaks at the Zen Foto gallery in Tokyo on Feb. 5.

Ishikawa was born in Okinawa in 1953 when the islands, which even now host the majority of U.S. military bases in Japan, were still under complete U.S. control. Before Okinawa’s official reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, Ishikawa says, any U.S. military personnel who committed crimes against local people simply disappeared to America without facing local justice. She wondered how the Japanese government could allow this to happen, and this led her to the deeper question of, “Are Okinawans Japanese?”

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

That question grew into a project in which she photographed a variety of Okinawans – and members of other minority groups, such as Ainu, burakumin and zainichi Koreans – posing with the Hinomaru flag in ways meant to show what the flag means to them. In some cases, such as the artist with the poson slippers or the group of right-wing political activists seen immediately above this paragraph, the answer is relatively clear. In others, it is more ambiguous, such as with Okinawan drama student Wakana Oshiro, seen at the very top of this blog post, who said, “I feel easy and relaxed in the ocean for some unknown reason.”

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Some of the photos have a warm and cheerful feel, such as one in which beaming young parents display their newborn baby on a Hinomaru blanket. Others are shocking and harsh, such as one in which a physically disabled performance artist creates a splattery Hinomaru on a sheet with what appears to be blood from a chicken whose head she appears to just have bitten off. In one portrait, of a fashionable teenage girl, I had trouble spotting the flag at all – until I saw that it was painted on her fingernails.

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Ishikawa took some of these photos from 1993 to 1999, the latter of which is the year that the Hinomaru and Kimigayo, until then only Japan’s de facto flag and anthem, officially became such through enactment of the National Flag and Anthem Law. From 2007 to 2011 she took more photos with the aim of making them into a book.

The book, which contains 100 of her flag portraits, is available through Amazon’s Japanese site, and it can also be purchased at Zen Foto, where the show of 16 large prints of photos from the book runs through Feb. 26, 2012. The photos are accompanied by brief statements from the subjects, in both Japanese and English. Admission is free.

A red circle on a white background is a simple design, but Ishikawa shows that no two people who gaze at the Hinomaru flag see exactly the same thing.

Links for futher details

Zen Foto site, with access information, here.

Ishikawa’s official blog here.

Ishikawa on Amazon in Japan here.

Ishikawa on Amazon in the U.S. here.

Review of an earlier Ishikawa book here.

Article on an earlier version of this show here.

“Calling All Shadows”

September 29, 2011

This past Sunday night I went to a book launch party for “Calling All Shadows,” a collection of 97 photos by Leigh Norrie with poetry by Adam Touhrig on the facing pages. Leigh is a friend of mine, so I won’t pretend to be an impartial observer.

Nonetheless I will say that I was impressed by the moody quality of his photos, which are mostly black-and-white and were taken in a variety of melancholy places around Japan, plus a few in Britain. Leigh shows us waves crashing on a desolate coast…a cast-off store mannequin lurching zombie-like through a rice field where it was repurposed as a scarecrow…and a couple of nocturnal street scenes from the city of Fukushima, with not a soul in sight.

“Fukushima” is a name most people outside of Japan had never heard last year, but now the emptiness of the streets in Leigh’s photos will be striking to almost everyone.

One of the few color photos in the book is of the Nagasaki peace statue. When personified, “Peace” usually appears as a graceful woman, but the Nagasaki statue is a muscular man in a dynamic pose. Leigh photographed him as a slightly wavy reflection in some rain-slicked paving tiles. In this image, Peace, seemingly sealed off under a blue glaze, looks distant and unreal. Leigh took a concrete representation of an abstraction, and made it abstract again.

Many of the pictures have been manipulated in deliberately noticeable ways, mostly around the edges. In one example, a jumbo roller-coaster car with passengers sitting eight abreast has just begun a steep plunge at the top of the photo. The space around it is bleached as white as the surrounding page, so that the car and tracks seem to be hovering in infinite space. And the tracks below and ahead fade raggedly into the nothingness like the trailing end of a calligrapher’s brush stroke. Where will the passengers be a moment from now?

“Calling All Shadows” is available through Printed Matter Press at