Published  31/08/2001

Illusion – Japanese Photography

Illusion – Japanese Photography

‘Illusion – Japanese photography’ at the Kulturhuset consists of the work of eleven Japanese photographers connected by a ‘surrealistic, dream-like quality’. The photographs on display are intended to act as ‘an exposé of Japanese photography from the 1930s up to the present’, but are not intended to be ‘a guide to Japanese society’. Project Manager, Ulrika Sten, states in her introduction, ‘… illusion is a very suitable name for an exhibition of Japanese photography that will tour Scandinavia. In Sweden there is considerable interest in Japanese culture, a fascination with a society that is similar to ours but geographically far away. It is, above all, the development of advanced technology in Japan that causes many people to see it as the country of the future.’(1)

Although the photographic work represents the individualism of the photographers, aspects of Japanese society and culture are, nonetheless, represented in this range of work. The images of Tokyo in ‘Car Maniac’ by Kikuji Kawado (1995–1998) are captured by photographing the city through which the car moves. The windscreen frames the images quite sensually, while the frenetic movement of the city dominates the image. ‘To describe Tokyo by means of its cars, paints an interesting portrait in which human beings are a secondary component. The city, which is invaded by innumerable anonymous cars, forms a new, illusory landscape … The series known as "Car Maniac" is not a collection of individual pictures but must be seen as a sort of feature film, a unified history in which a chaotic world is transformed into poetry with strong colours and unexpected angles’.(2)

The voyeuristic pictures of young girls in untidy, cramped apartments create unease in the viewer. The curator of this exhibition, Min-Jung Jonsson, quoted above, draws attention to the important role played by young female photographers in the 1990s. Their works were referred to in an unflattering light as, ‘Girlish Photography’. Yurie Nagashima, whose series ‘Family’ is shown in Illusion, dismisses the label, ‘I really dislike this kind of categorisation. It just limits my creativity and my way of working. By the way … I’m not a girl anymore. This Girlish Photography slightly insinuates that the young generation doesn’t work seriously, and that we are just taking pictures of our friends and daily life of no artistic value. This is a narrow-minded way of looking at it.’(3)

Jonsson defends their work, ‘The epithet did not always do their work justice. This unabashed and courageous attitude started with Yurie Nagashima’s work "Family" in which she exposes both herself and her family to the public. This personal, diary-like work is often seen as the legacy of Nobuyoshi Araki …This voyeuristic trend was taken over by other young women like Maki Miyashira who portrays young women’s rooms and their underwear.

Documenting normal people’s ordinary lives returns us to an earlier role of photography: that of portraying reality. Documentary pictures by the new generation do not have the same objectivity as conventional documentary photographs in which the photographer stands outside looking in, but here the photographer is often part of the world that is being portrayed. There is a sort of relaxed and spontaneous mood’.(4)

Maki Miyashira is the youngest photographer in this exhibition. Her goal is to present a contemporary reality, and it is indeed at odds with any notions of Zen or Feng Shui that one might expect in a Japanese interior. The interior chosen by Miyashira is the tiny, chaotic apartments of young women, crammed full with thousands of objects. She also draws attention to the fact that women’s role in Japanese society has changed, and that they have what Kotaro Iizawa calls a ‘dynamic sensibility … A sensibility that makes it easier for them to move readily between reality and fiction, between truth and illusion – to a far greater degree than men’.(5)

‘Untidied and untouched milieus are important to her work for giving an exact picture of how a young woman lives in an overcrowded city like Tokyo. Miyashira says that a woman is most relaxed in her underwear and it is thus that she seeks to look into their everyday lives … Miyashira presents a room that has a clear identity, lived in only by women of a certain generation. This is a time of transition and a temporary passage for women who carry these typical attributes.’(6)

Masao Mochizuki’s photographs of television images are an iconic recognition of the pivotal role of television in Japanese society. Technically, they are very complex and require a long period of preparation and care in order to photograph brief moments on the television screen.

‘He arranges a totally black room and divides the camera lens into 35 equal rectangles. Mochizuki uses a 6 x 6 cm TLR camera and exposes a large-format negative 35 times in front of the TV screen. This process is not as simple as it sounds. Photographing live broadcast news instead of using recorded material was a very complex process … Mochizuki registers with an extraordinarily exact method how a series of images can capture time as well as the TV viewer’s illusory experience.’(7)

These photographs may be primarily individualistic, as the Curator Min-Jung Jonsson states in her catalogue discussions, but they also add up to a portrayal of Japanese culture whether revealed by images from television, tiny personal spaces, erotic views of nature or poetic comments on traditional versus contemporary values in Japan. The exhibition is given a great authority and a certain gravitas with the inclusion of 30 vintage prints from the 1930s to the 1990s by Japan’s most legendary photographer, Shoji Ueda (1913–2000) to whom this exhibition is dedicated. His beautiful, haunting and surreal images are the most exceptional in the exhibition. Of Uedo, who died last summer, Jonsson writes, ‘How could he photograph the same scene so infinitely many times and yet with such enormous variation … Even if photography is something that registers reality, Ueda’s reality has a magical content that summons up nostalgia and a sense of mystery’.(8)

Shoji Ueda’s imagery and that of Miwa Yanagi are perhaps, out of this large and impressive exhibition, the most enduring in their capacity to define the illusion that is the exhibition’s stated aim. Miwa Yanagi’s series ‘My Grandmothers’, has a sad acceptance of change and of life’s vicissitudes. In an interview with the curator, Yanagi states, ‘The Japanese lost their ideology after the war and materialist values made their entry and confused the Japanese. In "Elevator Girl House" I wanted to show Japanese society which has no faith but which is flooded with consumption and material things. But in "My Grandmothers" it is rather a matter of all women’s last enthusiasms and dreams. All the pictures have been reconstructed, produced and manipulated using a computer in order to reproduce the exact dream-world that I want to create for everyone who poses in front of my camera. All the models are young women who have been transformed into grandmothers’.(9)

Photo historian Ryuichi Kaneka’s catalogue essay, Photography as a cultural systemJapanese photographic history during the 1970s, adds a useful, scholarly note to the excellent catalogue. In it, he traces the development of contemporary photography from the 1920s and 1930s through to the 1970s. Of the young generation of photographers in Japan in the 1970s, he writes, ‘Their approach showed a completely different awareness than had previously been apparent in Japanese photography. Their action was something of a revolution with the intention of liberating themselves from earlier, established photography. The works which reached the public through galleries was not of the highest quality from the point of view of photography. But the movement marked the start of a creative process … They wanted to assure themselves of a situation in which they could both work creatively as photographers, could show their work in public and acquaint themselves with contemporary visual experimentation … A photo is not merely a pictorial image. It has also gained a social existence which has both financial and cultural aspects’.(10)

In Suspended Reality, photo critic Kotaro Lizawa cites 1990 as a turning point in Japanese photography. Up until that point ‘both press photographers and art photographers made use of a realistic catalogue of motifs to provide an existential experience. But precisely at this time the new, computer-dominated information society became a reality: virtual signs came increasingly to cover the world. Computer graphics created images that were more realistic than the objects portrayed. The former conviction among photographers that what mattered was capturing reality with exactitude, as a photographic reality, has gradually evaporated’.(11)

Illusion operates on many levels, and it is possible long after attending the exhibition to ponder the many issues associated with the works on show. One experiences a vital juxtaposition of ideas and cultural elements that serve as a parallel to contemporary society. The mundane, the depressing, the spiritual, and the beautiful all co-exist. And the catalogue provides an excellent source of information and subtle perceptions.


1. Ulrika Sten, ‘Introduction’, Illusion — Japanese Photography, Riksutställningar, Stockholm, 2001, p.4
2. Min-Jung Jonsson, ibid, p.26
3. Yurie Nagashima interviewed by Min-Jung Jonsson, ibid, p.46
4. Jonsson, ibid, pp. 8-9
5. Kotaro Iizawa, ‘Suspended Reality’, ibid, p.15
5. Ibid, p.38
6. Ibid, p.42
7. Ibid, p.54
8. Miwa Yanagi interviewed by Jonsson, ibid, p.58
9. Ryuichi Kaneka, ibid, pp. 19-20
10. Ibid, p.11


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