Letter from Tokyo #5: Non-conceptual conceptual

© Naoyuki Hata, from “Burn”

© Naoyuki Hata, from “Burn”

A Japanese photographer recently said to me, “it feels like Japan is so behind the times–we’re still here taking these straight photographs!” As a human being unconvinced that photography needs to be conceptual at every turn, I see this as a strength. I rarely find myself wishing I could read some of the critical theory lite which passes for artist statements these days.

All that said, explaining your work in an understandable way can be difficult. The faux-academic statements (and faux-academic blogs?) try get around this difficulty by substituting Art Mad Libs for clear prose. I’ve even heard of photographers cooking up an artist statement after the fact, as a way to justify the photos they already shot. Are we experiencing a land-grab of theoretical ground?

© Naoyuki Hata, from “Embers”

© Naoyuki Hata, from “Embers”

Take a look at the images in this post so far. The photographer burned his own pictures, and shot them while he did it. Now imagine him saying that there is absolutely no concept behind them whatsoever. Would you believe him? I couldn’t, at first. This is the work of Naoyuki Hata, a photographer who is about to study photography at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie for three years. (He’s also a haircutter at one of Tokyo’s top salons, and will be taking his proverbial talents to Amsterdam.)

He claims that his photos are completely straight, but he’s also understandably worried about how to explain this once inside the cold confines of the academy. While I might have laughed, professors may not see the funny side. He really believes his photos are straight, but if he says nothing, then he’ll just be leaving it up for other people to decide what his photos mean.

© Ryosuke Iwamoto, from “Untitled”

Ryosuke Iwamoto is younger than Naoyuki; he just graduated college this year and is now working as a photographer’s assistant. He has a couple of series up on his website. The first is called “Untitled,” a series of very straight photographs, mostly quiet moments shot on film. The second, “PpPpy,” is a more experimental series in which he plays around with digital images. Ryosuke has uploaded a ton of images to “PpPpy”; it’s become like a diary for him, and he says that he wants to overload the viewers who see it on his site. I’m interested in the relationship between Ryosuke’s two series. It’s obviously more painstaking to shoot “Untitled,” but I imagine that thinking about this series keeps “PpPpy” at least somewhat grounded.

© Ryosuke Iwamoto, “PpPpy”

I think the challenge for Naoyuki and Ryosuke is to explain their work to an audience that might expect them to have heavy statements. This is probably not an issue for Ryosuke’s “Untitled” series, because audiences are used to this kind of obviously straight work. (This is why Rinko Kawauchi doesn’t need to write anything.) But with material that looks so conceptual, having nothing to say could be a risk. Ryosuke went back and forth about wanting to include some of his thoughts about “PpPpy” for this post, but he decided to hold them back for now. Probably no big deal for someone who just started the series a few months ago.

© Ryosuke Iwamoto, “PpPpy”

© Ryosuke Iwamoto, “PpPpy”

After recovering from the shock of hearing Naoyuki say that his work wasn’t conceptual, we talked about how he ought to present it to his new classmates. I said, well, as much as possible, you should bring everything back to yourself, that should make it easy to understand. I thought it sounded like okay advice, but I had no idea if he’d find a way to do it. Later, he hit upon the beginning of a great (i.e. honest) artist statement, without any critical theory buzzwords. He said that he’d been working in a hair salon for 10 years, always surrounded by images of beauty. Casually, he mentioned that after all this time, he’d wanted to try destroying something beautiful.

This kind of personal formulation seems like a good way to communicate one’s intentions and build up some trust with the viewer. Of course, both Naoyuki and Ryosuke are aware that they are playing with photography, but they’re trying to avoid having their work become some kind of cliche. It’s possible that one or both of them may end up playing the heavy statement game, and if so I wish them the best of luck! For now, though, I’m hoping that they will be able to develop their own voices.

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  • Dan

    Yes, another friend sent me an email to call me out on this.  Instead of “cooking up an artist statement” after the fact, I should have said something like, “coming up with an ironclad concept.” I imagine every good statement is only written after the work is completed! What I was thinking about here is the example of someone taking a bunch of pictures, and then retroactively trying to say that they’re the result of such-and-such concept. I think you can have a statement without a concept. 

  • Marc

    I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with coming up with an artist’s statement after the fact. Sometimes the meaning can emerge as a result of the process. As far as the fear about having other people interpret what your work means if you don’t speak about it, you don’t need to know classic Foucault or Barthes works about authority to know that it isn’t the artist’s job (nor right) to create the definitive meaning of their work. Maybe the artist should simply quote Winogrand’s pithy (and somewhat obtuse) statement: “”I photograph to find out what something will look like when photographed.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/edwinfirmage Edwin Firmage

    We still take plenty of straight photos here in the U.S of A. See flickr -> Most Interesting. I’d love to hear an artist statement on how it wasn’t conceptual, but would that make it conceptual?