Letter from Tokyo #1

Hi, I’m Dan Abbe, and this is the first in a series of monthly columns about Japanese photography for LPV.

If nothing else, you probably have some image of Tokyo in your head, and to say that it’s a stimulating place would be an incredible understatement. This is true not just because of its famous neon, but because it’s the center of pretty much everything related to Japanese photography. Between the number of museum shows, gallery shows, camera shops, bookstores, pro photographers, amateur photographers, and regular people just snapping away on the street, the sheer amount of photographic activity here is difficult to comprehend. There’s even a photography bar in Tokyo. I’ve been here for over two years, and the idea that there are more photography shows in one month than I could physically attend still overwhelms me.

One of the best parts about Tokyo’s photography world is that it’s generally quite open. Photographers are usually present at their own exhibits, opening parties are casual, and people are really interested in talking about photography. Even the most famous photographers are accessible: Nobuyoshi Araki still puts up small Polaroid exhibits and shows up to the opening party, where he just hangs out and banters with whoever is brave enough to sit in front of one of the two “demigods” of Japanese photography. (More on Daido Moriyama later.) While it’s not like you’re actually going to start hanging out with Araki on weekends after chatting him up–unless, of course!–there’s a real community among photographers here.

I’m hoping to shed a little bit of light on this world, because I have a feeling that there’s a gap between the perception and the reality of Japanese photography. (Or maybe that there’s not much of a perception at all, I’m not sure.) There are pitfalls to being a foreigner writing about Japan, but I only want to say that I’m conscious of this, I don’t consider myself an authority, and I have no ”Japan axe” to grind!

The photos in this post are taken from Tatsuya Shimohira’s in-progress “Element” series. Shimohira is a young photographer who’s become interested in exploring spirituality through photography. The idea behind “Element” is to find a life force through different elements: water, animals, the sun, and so on. He told me he sees this series as a companion to his work documenting traditional Japanese festivals, or matsuri, in that they are each related to animism. Both of these projects, and many others, are up on his website.

There’s plenty of other interesting photography being produced here, so stay tuned for more.