Letter from Tokyo #4: Shinjuku Amateurs

Two days before the earthquake hit Japan, I visited a few galleries in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. There are at least 10 or 15 photography-only galleries in this area, and what’s interesting is that most of them only show work by amateur photographers. At many of these galleries, the photographers rent the space; others are run as collectives, by a group of members who trade off solo shows. (Totem Pole Photo Gallery is a hybrid of these two types.)

The Shinjuku amateur scene can be hit and miss; for each revelation there are a few shows that probably needed some more time to develop. Still, after seeing five or six shows in a few hours, I usually come out with some new ideas of what’s happening here. I’m going to break the shows I saw down into a few different categories.

Radical young ladies

When I think about young Japanese female photographers, the first name to come to mind is Hiromix, who blazed a trail for an early kind of “lifestyle” color snapshot photography in the 1990s. Hiromix was well ahead of her time, but it’s now pretty common to see a cut-rate version of her work, with plenty of focus on the “lifestyle” element but not too much on the actual snapshot!

Koyuki Tayama and Noriko Chiba (no site) were doing interesting things within the daily snapshot form. Tayama in particular really impressed me with her subtle black and white compositions, and her entirely handmade (!) books, which sold out very quickly. Chiba has been studying with master photographer Issei Suda, and while her work is still a little bit rough, it was darker and more poetic than I’m used to seeing.

Koyuki Tayama, “Ariadne’s Thread” @ Totem Pole Photo Gallery:

Noriko Chiba, “Horoboro” @ M2 Gallery:

Derivative stuff

I started my walk off at two shows which were a little disappointing for their lack of originality. Yu Nakamura (no site) showed photographs of a small river which cuts through the middle of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s biggest and loudest neighborhoods. It would make for an interesting photo project–if the brilliant and internationally famous Naoya Hatakeyama hadn’t already done the same project years before! Takehiko Nakafuji is a good shooter, and I like the first photo here, but he also painted himself into a Daido-shaped corner.

Yu Nakamura, “Down Town River” @ Roonee 247:

Takehiko Nakafuji, “Street Rambler” @Niepce Gallery:

Guy out of left field

This is not a “Japan thing” at all, just a 25-year-old guy with a project about weird daily excesses. The title is “The Edge of the Ordinary.” I love it.

Daichi Asahi, “The Edge of the Ordinary” @Place M:

Although many (not all) of the Shinjuku photographers are non-“professional,” they’re also far from casual “amateurs.” It’s common to hear that someone develops their film and makes prints in the bathroom of their cramped apartment. Many studied photography in college, but like in the West, there’s no pot of gold waiting for them. Most everyone works a day job unrelated to photography. Common goals I hear are to put up the next show, enter a competition, eventually publish a book. Being part of the community here is important: there are many ongoing photography seminars and workshops, including a famous one at Place M. I think having so many other people interested in the same thing keeps people motivated to continue working, even if an external reward may never come. As a lively secondary scene which is often more interesting than the fine art world, the Shinjuku galleries are an important platform for the young and serious.

  • Dan

    I think there’s some of both. On the one hand, you’ll probably pick the gallery for your show based on the people you already know. Maybe you’re already close with the gallery’s crew, or maybe you get introduced through someone. Still, I don’t think that there’s so much schmoozing to be done – galleries need to pay the rent too, and at a certain point they’ll take pretty much anyone. There is some bar to getting this kind of show, but it’s not too high. 

  • Peter

    The nature of those galleries makes me wonder: do you think personal connections play a big part in being able to host a show at such galleries?
    On one hand it seems like you would be able to share your photos at a gallery as long as you can afford to pay the rental yet at the same time the collective aspect comes across as a bit intimidating, especially to those not intimately involved in the scene.