Light Reading

The Deteriorating Condition of Silver in Ginza

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Eikoh Hosoe season at BLD Gallery in Ginza

Eikoh Hosoe season at BLD Gallery in Ginza

In between jobs the other day I stepped in to the BLD Gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Ginza is Tokyo’s High Street where all the fashion brands have their flagship stores. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Shiseido, etc. are all here. During the 80s bubble, the area featured the highest real estate prices in the world.

That bubble has long since burst but it still retains its hoity toity air, and to be honest I’ve never felt entirely comfortable there, though I often go there and used to find it a fertile ground for shooting as well, back in the days when I actually took photos. It also happens to be a good place to take in photos, featuring a few good galleries in the area, and it used to be a camera fetishists dream with several used camera shops.

BLD Gallery is one of the newer spaces, going back just three or four years I believe. It’s on the eighth floor of a building that houses a Zara brand shop on the first floor, but fortunately the entrance to the elevator is on the side so I don’t feel so self-conscious about my rather less than foppish attire. Their shows feature established artists, particularly Daido Moriyama, but also including Toshio Shibata, Takuma Nakahira, Masato Seto, and Michael Kenna, and although they are not exlusively a photography gallery, that is what they exhibit in the main.

One thing about BLD is that their shows are always extremely well-presented. Whoever is curating their exhibits definitely seems to make the best of the space, which is one large-ish room and an awkward smaller room off to the side, in addition to a small bookstore/merchandise area. The Shibata show I saw there last Fall was simply exquisite, with large 40×50 inch prints deftly mixed in with 40 or so smaller pieces.

Currently on view is the first of a five-show Eikoh Hosoe retrospective which will run until May. The first installment features work from Kamaitachi, shot in 1965 and first exhibited in 1968, and collected in the 1969 limited edition photo book of the same name. Thankfully due to the republication of this book in 2009 by Aperture in the US and Seigensha here in Japan, more people have become familiar with this work, although sure enough some of the images have become iconic over the years.

In 1965 Hosoe accompanied Tatsumi Hijikata, who along with Kazuo Ohno basically founded the post-WWII Butoh dance movement — to Yamagata prefecture where Hosoe spent his youth (Hijikata himself was from Akita, the prefecture north of Yamagata).

From Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe

From Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe

The resulting work is basically various photos of Hijikata interacting with the landscape or with the local residents in this rural part of Japan, ostensibly playing the part of a kamaitachi or “weasel-like demon who haunts the rice fields and slashes those he encounters with a sickle” according to Aperture’s description of the book. We see Hijikata perched on the fence-like structures used for drying straw, or traipsing through fields, sitting on the roadside with local farm workers, or interracting with what seem like other members of his troupe. (You can hear Hosoe — in English — briefly talk about the work in this Aperture video.)

The work is playful and irreverent, a departure from the dark brooding portraits of Yukio Mishima in Barakei, and perhaps my favorite part of Hosoe’s extensive oeuvre. There is a free-wheeling sense to the work — like much of what was being produced in Japan at the time (think Provoke) but yet in some of the portraits and landscapes, a classicism as well.

What’s particularly special about this BLD exhibit is that they are showing the same prints from when Hosoe first showed the work in March, 1968, under the title “An Extremely Tragic Comedy”, exhibited where else but in Ginza, at the Nikon Salon (still operating today in Ginza, in a newer location as both showroom and gallery space). That is to say, the very same pieces of paper that hung on the Nikon Salon walls 44 years ago. Not knowing this at first I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on — why the prints had this strange discoloration around the edges (due to the oxidation of the silver into silver ions), as well as these peeling circular labels with numbers on them that were affixed to the bottom corner of each print. (This .pdf from the Eastman House is a nicely thorough guide to gelatin silver print conditions.)

Having seen a few years ago some plantinum prints from Barakei that had been done by Hosoe and his son, I thought initially that these prints were a result of some vintage printing process, but the fact that they were just simply vintage was not a let down but in fact extremely interesting from a visual point of view, and fit in perfectly with the work and the emotional connection I was having as I walked around the room. And I found it refreshing that Hosoe could see the emotional value of these messy, deteriorated prints rather than getting hung up on pristine and prissy print quality.

One of my photos, taken in the Ginza in 2004

One of my photos, taken in the Ginza in 2004

After leaving the gallery, I passed by one of the used camera shops I used to window shop at, marveling at how far prices had fallen for some of the cameras I would lust after in the past, like a Wista 4×5 Field camera, or the Fuji Papageorge Special 6×9. No customers were inside, and no other window shoppers either, for that matter, and I wondered how much longer for this world were shops like these. Amidst some vague self-promises to start shooting photos again, I continued on my way thinking about a fleet(ing) Hijikata and Hosoe’s deteriorating silver particles.

(Update: January 30, 2012) You can see some examples of the prints via a few pictures from BLD Gallery’s Twitter feed: here, here, and here.

Author/Editor: Kurt Easterwood

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