I first came across the work of Hiroyo Kaneko earlier this year when I received my copy of Lay Flat, the new photography magazine started by Shane Lavalette. Included with the journal were 20 or so photographs by various artists, each printed individually on card stock. When I came to Kaneko’s image from her Picnic series (reproduced here), I was given a little start — here was a scene that was unmistakably of Japan, and yet somehow not of it at the same time. I was intrigued.
It was only a couple of weeks later that I read a blog post somewhere noting that Kaneko had won the prestigious Santa Fe Prize for Photography for her series Sentimental Education. It seemed almost too much of a coincidence. (So too did learning the fact that Kaneko had attended the school I had spent four years of my own educational life at — San Francisco Art Institute.) I wanted to know more about this person who was exploring such threads of the Japanese cultural and societal fabric as hot spring baths and cherry blossom viewing parties while removed in part from the day to day-ness of life in Japan.
This interview was conducted over email in May. Please also see our Cover Photo featuring Kaneko.
Japan Exposures: I would like to know how you first became interested in photography. You majored in French Literature at Meiji Gakuin University. How did you go from that to attending San Francisco Art Institute and earning an Masters of Fine Arts in Photography there?
Hiroyo Kaneko: When I was in Meiji Gakuin, I took some classes about the visual arts and film. That was because the period that I was studying within French Literature was early to mid 20th century, a time when all the cultural movements interacted each other. I was interested in the relationship between writers, visual artists and filmmakers, such as Andre Breton, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Luis Bunuel.
I was also into French New Wave films, especially Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut as well as Japanese film makers, like Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Seijun Suzuki. All those visual experiences got me involved in a filmmaking circle and I made a few 8mm films with my classmates. However, after we graduated it became difficult to get together to continue the activity, and then I gradually shifted to photography which I could do on my own.
After working in an advertising office for a couple of years, I went to London to study English and photography. I attended a small art college and got a diploma in photography, then went back to Tokyo and started working as an assistant photographer, and eventually as a freelance photographer and writer for some culture and photography magazines. At the same time, I kept working on my own photo projects. This was from mid-1990s to the turn of the 21st century.
The more I had chance to have exhibitions, the more I became interested in focusing on art photography for myself. Then I decided to go to the United States to pursue photography further. San Francisco Art Institute was one of the schools that I applied to, I was interested in it because a few interesting photographers had gone there, such as Lewis Baltz, Annie Leibovitz, Jim Goldberg, Catherine Opie, etc.
“I got interested in seeing how our ordinary daily experiences nurture the ways we communicate with each other.”
JE: You still live in San Francisco. How long have you now lived in the U.S.?
HK: I have lived here since 2002. San Francisco is a comfortable place to live. Compared to Tokyo, New York, or other bigger cities, it’s slow and relaxed. But at the same time, the art scene is quite active. Although there are not many commercial galleries — actually I guess it’s almost the same size as Tokyo where the contemporary art market is really small — there are some alternative and community art galleries and organizations over the city which offer various events all the time. If you go over to the East Bay, you can see a different type of art scene as well. I should also mention that the Pacific Film Archive in the UC Berkeley and a few other independent movie theaters let me stay here as they always show a variety of film programs.
JE: How often — and for how long each time — do you return to Japan?
HK: I go back to Japan about twice a year since graduating, and stay for a couple of weeks to a month each time.
JE: Although based in the U.S., your projects themselves seem to be based very much around Japan and subjects close to Japan, such as cherry blossoms or hot springs. Do you think living outside of Japan lets you look at these familiar aspects of Japan in a different way?
HK: Although I said before that San Francisco is a comfortable place to live, for the first couple of years after I moved here, I experienced severe difficulty communicating with others. This doesn’t mean that the people in the US are more severe than people in Japan. I guess that any community in contemporary society should be same more or less, even within families. But for me, it was more obvious here because I was a stranger, had a language barrier, and faced cultural differences, etc.
However I also became more grateful and found it precious when I saw mutual respect or understanding. For those reasons, I got interested in seeing how our ordinary daily experiences (rituals) nurture the ways we communicate with each other and how we interact emotionally with each other. Rather than showing the tough side, I wanted to show something more neutral, basic or more positive and warmer aspects of it.
Then I came up with the idea of photographing people in bathhouses in Japan which seemed to me an ideal setting for my purpose. The cherry blossom pictures stem from a similar idea. I photographed them in Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, where I was born and spent my childhood. I was interested in reviewing and recreating my early experience which, I guess, helped to create my emotional makeup.
JE: In one of your artist statements [The Three Cornered World, 2006 — Ed.] you talk about moving around a lot due to your father’s work, and seeing yourself as a stranger. Can you talk more about how this idea of being a stranger manifests itself in your photography?
HK: As I wrote on that statement, the idea came from a novel by Natsume Soseki, who I like a lot. In his novel “The Three Cornered World”, he wrote:
Objectively you may feel that the love of a man for his wife or his parents is beautiful, and that loyalty and patriotism are fine things. When, however, you yourself are actually involved with them, the violent flurry of pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, will blind you to all beauty and splendor, and the poetry will be completely lost to you.
In order to appreciate the poetry, you must put yourself in the position of an onlooker, who being able to stand well back, can really see what is happening. It is only from this position that a play or novel can be enjoyed, for here you are free from personal interests. You are only a poet while you are watching or reading, and are not actually involved.
(From a translation by Alan Turney; original Japanese text below.)
He talked about how important it was to see things as an onlooker for dealing with “love”, “faith”, “pain”, etc., being free from your own interest. In this novel, he repeated the phrase “standing as the third person” as well as “being detached” (he distinguished the meaning of these words from “inhuman”), telling how to sublimate emotional issues into art. And I totally agreed with his idea.
As people know, many of his novels actually deal with the emotional relationship between friends, couples, lovers and families. Sometimes, they are very touching and painful but at the same time they always keep some kind of dryness or a objective point of view, I think that this ambivalence or two sidedness is what I care about his work and I would like to apply for my work as well.
JE: I’m sure many people ask you this question, but how hard was it to get your family to agree to be photographed for the bath house series. You could of course have photographed other people at hot springs, but you chose your family. Why?
HK: At first, it wasn’t so hard. I just explained to them how I wanted to photograph in the bath house and they just agreed. I guess it was because they liked going out to hot springs to begin with and they wouldn’t have taken this photo session so seriously. But later, especially my mother became more hesitant to be a naked subject. So I had to make more of an effort to convince her. But they are basically pretty open minded and very helpful in general. I really appreciate their collaboration. Besides, the fact that I live abroad and show the work only in the US makes them less shy.
Initially, I didn’t particularly intend to make the portraits of my family but only to use them as models because I didn’t think that strangers would allow me to photograph them naked. Besides, I needed to demand of them some kind of posing as 1) I used a 4×5 camera and 2) I didn’t want this work to look like a documentary. So asking my family seemed to me the only choice for the situation. However, since then, I started to include their images in my other series also. I think that the more I photograph them, the more I am able to gain an objective and artistic view of them. So it has become less of an obstacle to deal with my family in my work.
JE: Could you tell us about some of the people (photographers or otherwise) that have been important to you, that inspire you?
HK: I am much more influenced by painting than by photography, I suppose. Especially the paintings by French impressionists like Manet and Cezanne (also Renoir and Bonnard too) teach me how I should deal with the natural light and color that are reflected from the subjects. For the way of seeing the relationship between people and family, I also learn a lot from movies by directors such as Mikiko Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Manoel de Oliveira, as well as others.
As for photographers, I admire these people: Eugene Atget, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Thomas Struth, Kineo Kuwahara, and Ihei Kimura.
Original Japanese of Soseki quote: