Yutaka Takanashi’s Field Notes

Yutaka Takanashi’s current retrospective at The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, — it runs until March 8 — is a great opportunity not only to view the trajectory of a career that has spanned close to 50 years, but also to trace the city of Tokyo from its pre-1964 Olympics days up to the present day. Over 11 different series, we can follow Takanashi’s varied takes on the loose theme of “The City”.

Figures of commuters solitarily ensconced in the bubbles of private space on a packed train.”

Early on we have Takanashi as “economic miracle” chronicler in the mold of Shomei Tomatsu with the series “Tokyoites”, a series of 15 photos all taken in the year 1965. The photos are not all about boom and prosperity, to be sure, but the mood is generally upbeat. The images for the most part are intimate, a single figure captured in his or her world — a boy peering into a doll house, a woman nursing a baby in a speeding Mazda, or the figures of commuters solitarily ensconced in the bubbles of private space on a packed train.

Yutaka Takanashi: from "Towards the City" series
Yutaka Takanashi: from “Towards the City” series

But on the other side of the wall, literally and figuratively, we have the series “Towards the City” of photos from the 60’s and 70’s. It is one of the few series where the capture details — when the photos were taken, the locales, etc. — are not provided, an aberration for the inveterate note taker Takanashi (the exhibition does after all bear the subtitle, “Field Notes of Light”). Takanashi was one of the founding members of the short-lived avant-garde group Provoke, known for their grainy, blurry black and white aesthetic, and these pictures, like that of the other “Provoke” artists of the time, are grainy in the extreme, poised between carefree and careless, and without any focus (both types). In contrast to the “Tokyoites” photos, the images here are generally long distant scenes, landscapes in a way. The angles are skewed, sharpness definitely a bourgeois concept. You get the feeling these were taken out in the country, from speeding cars, no doubt traveling “towards the city”.

Takanashi settled down after that heady time, and we don’t see again the same level of angst in his later work — but the restlessness is there in the ways Takanashi has taken on various projects and adapted various modes of working to accomplish them. Some more successful than others, it has to be said, in part I think because some of this work was driven by series published in the camera monthlies of the time, and carries with it vestiges of Takanashi’s commercial photographic work.

Along a long wall of the exhibit is the series “Hastukuni: pre-landscape” shot from the mid-80s to the early-90s, across the whole of Japan from Okinawa to Hokkaido, often taking as its focus various shrines and temples, as well as festivals. It’s a difficult series to grasp, in part because many of the photos for me are not compelling in their own right. You get the feeling it is a project that comes better across in book form, though personally I’m not familiar with Takanashi’s 1993 book of the same name.

Empty, people-less spaces, yet stolid, girded for the coming decades.”

Yutaka Takanashi: From the series "Visages of the Metropolis"
Yutaka Takanashi: From the series “Visages of the Metropolis”

The series Visages of a Metropolis, from the late 80’s (published in book form in 1989), are photos Takanashi shot at night with a 6×7 camera, focusing on Tokyo buildings and structures that date from the 20s and 30s. They have a film noir feel to them — empty, people-less spaces, yet stolid, girded for the coming decades we know in retrospect they have survived. Though in earlier series on view — Machi (Town, 1977) and Text of the City: Shinjuku (1982-83) — Takanashi explored space as a type of city-dweller in and of itself, both series (one of storefronts and store interiors, the other of bar interiors) seem a bit cold and inaccessible, the various tightly framed, claustrophobic spaces more typological than individual. In the “Metropolis” photos, we get something in between the ephemeral gobs of grain of Towards the City and the specificity of these two series.

In the current decade, Takanashi has continued to explore the spaces of the city, alternating between a static, formal mode of exposition, and a decidedly more fluid one. In Nostalghia (2004) and Kakoi-machi (2007), he uses color film to explore the modern urban landscape of Tokyo and its environs. These two series are presented together, and unlike any of the series on view at the exhibition, here the photos are printed large and hung mosaic-like along three walls, so that walking through this semi-enclosed space indeed does feel like walking through a city where city planning has been thrown out the window, a city moving forward by accumulation rather than regeneration.

Yutaka Takanashi: From the series "Kakoi-machi"
Yutaka Takanashi: From the series “Kakoi-machi”

In both series, but in Kakoi-machi in particular, many photos use as a visual motif those blue billowing tarps that are used to enclose buildings as they are being constructed, or the solid fences that enclose — and cut off — construction sites from the rest of the city. (We can translate the title as “enclosed city”). Takanashi uses these veils, as it were, to explore the fact that while the intention is to keep these places from view until their unveiling, we as dwellers of this place can’t avoid what is in effect the proverbial elephant in the room.

Takanashi has taken the idea of enclosed space in a completely different direction in the two other series that close this retrospective, WINDSCAPE (2004) and silver passin’ (2008), both a return to black and white and a more hand-held aesthetic. In the former series, which was included in book form as a supplement to Nostalghia, Takanashi shoots the landscape, both urban and rural, from local trains throughout Japan. (The series was shot between 2001-2003). There is no attempt to hide the fact that Takanashi is behind the glass of a train car, often incorporating the reflections and glare into the photographs.

Yutaka Takanashi: From the series "silver passin'"
Yutaka Takanashi: From the series “silver passin'”

Likewise, Takanashi’s most recent work has been a series of photographs taken while riding Tokyo’s city bus system. Taking advantage of his age to qualify for a “silver pass” — a reduced-fee bus pass for senior citizens — Takanashi haunts the city in an entirely different way. Unlike the train journeys, here he is in the midst of the city, only a meter or two from the sidewalk, and while there are one or two photos that give away he’s on a bus, the overall effect is a disconcerting one where Takanashi is both on the street and above it.

We have the catalog for this exhibition in the bookstore. While not outstanding by any means, it does reproduce every photograph in the exhibition and therefore serves as a good overview of Takanashi’s career. We also carry Takanashi’s 2007 book Kakoi-machi.

Takanashi’s early books like Towards the City (1974, self-published) and Tokyoites, 1978-1983 (1983, Shoshi-Yamada) are works of art in their own right that would cost you dearly if you can find them (expect to pay upwards of $2000 for the former, Takanashi’s first book). If you ever have the opportunity to see these books in person — the library at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is one such place — I recommend you seize it.