Review

Discovering the Sensei Through the Pupil

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Taiji Arita - from First Born

Photo by Taiji Arita. Courtesy of Gallery 916.

Whenever I stumble upon, through old books or more often than not these days online, photographers of the past that were previously unknown to me, I feel a heightened sense of excitement. Excitement is of course common to the discovery of new up-and-coming photographers, but there’s an added thrill to come upon photographers who for one reason or another weren’t on my radar, yet who amassed long careers, were published, exhibited, written about at one time. It’s as if they were right under my nose but I went right when I should have gone left, or put the book back on the shelf instead of flipping one more page, leaving them to wait a bit more in obscurity.

A couple of weeks ago I clicked one more link on a web page and discovered Taiji Arita, who passed away last year at the age of 70. Arita (1940-2011) was a commercial and freelance photographer who had studied under Yasuhito Ishimoto and had worked in the 1960s at the Nippon Design Center advertising agency alongside other well-known photographers like Yutaka Takanashi and Hajime Sawatari. Arita would continue working commercially as a photographer through the 70s and 80s, but eventually turned his creative energy to painting and woodworking, moving permanently to the United States in 1991 and spending the last 20 years of his life there without returning to Japan.1

The famed Camera Mainichi editor Shōji Yamagishi encouraged Arita’s creative photography and from 1969 – 1975 he worked on the series of family portraits that would eventually be published over 13 issues of Camera Mainichi from May 1973 to September 1974 under the title “First Born”. The photos featured his Canadian first wife Jessica, and eventually the son Cohen they had as well. Now, the extended body of this work is being shown at Gallery 916, a relatively new exhibition space for photography in Tokyo. (If you’re in the city, the exhibition runs until December 28.)

[Please see the accompanying article about Gallery 916. — Editor]

I found the exhibition at Gallery 916 a bit hard to get into initially — the large exhibition space of the gallery combined with the relative smallness of the prints certainly was detrimental here, as was the fact that the early work in the series had a bit too much hippy-dippy-ness for me. (I kept conjuring up scenes from Zabriskie Point, or closer to home, Ikko Narahara’s Celebration of Life (1972)). However, as Arita began to place his wife in more contrived setups, and particularly when their newborn son began to be included, the series started to lose its late 60s trappings, becoming less a celebration of the body and sexuality and familial-ity and more a carefully constructed exploration of a complex triumvirate, Arita the unseen member we end up feeling we know as well as his wife and son. It is those images where the pose itself — that of his family-cum-models, the props, the conceptual thought — and the messy intimacy of family, are indistinguishable.

Photo by Taiji Arita

Photo by Taiji Arita. Taken from the accompanying catalog.

The photos where the son takes center stage are especially powerful, though not without an accompanying irritation at Arita for playing on our emotions. In one photo we see the baby boy in his carriage at the edge of the frame, while the background is a barren landscape with what looks like a massive concrete “A” on fire a seemingly unsafe distance away — with only some of his mother’s winter coat visible to let us know he’s not alone. (In fact we reasonably know he’s never alone — after all his father is taking the photo.) In another he’s in his child seat, this time mother nowhere to be seen — though one has to look carefully, for Arita loves the subtle inclusion of figures through reflections and shadows — and almost completely obscured by a curtain that looks to have blown on top of him. The image is at once serene, the translucency of the curtain showing a swaddled, calm toddler, and violent, the curtain ready to strangle a trapped, defenseless boy.

Amidst so many dark, carefully crafted photos, the most affecting image for me is one of the relatively few color ones in the series, a photo of real aching and tender beauty. Jessica is outside of the house in a rustic setting, hands on the glass window, looking in on the sun-dappled room as her baby boy is caught mid-crawl, his oversized head looking away, but with an expression almost uncannily similar to his mother’s. She temporarily outside her life, outside her model-ness, her motherhood — we can’t even be sure she’s at that moment actually looking at her child, so deeply in thought she seems — gazing in on a life (her’s, his) already beginning to recede away from her.

Photo by Taiji Arita

Photo by Taiji Arita. Courtesy of Gallery 916.

It stands out from the other photos in part because it seems one of the least staged — it can’t be staged, one feels the need to assure oneself. We’ll never know of course, but perhaps to wonder is to miss the point: Arita’s ultimate staging ground is not the rooms or the props, but the four walls of the frame.

The critic Kotaro Iizawa has written an excellent introduction to the exhibition which the gallery has made available on their site in both Japanese and English. Iizawa speaks to what must have been a creative relationship fraught with conflicting roles, especially as the series entered its later period:

Particularly among the later “First Born” shots are a number marked by a palpable tension, and an excessively staged look in reaction to it, to the extent that some of the images verge on the painful. Conversely, the feat of strength required to negotiate such a tightrope of emotions is perhaps the series’ greatest attraction.

According to the gallery, the original intention was to mount Arita’s own prints from the 1970s. However, they were deemed not sufficiently preserved enough for an exhibition of this size.2 Instead, in an interesting twist, photographer Yoshihiko Ueda, who along with G/P Gallery director Shigeo Goto serves as Curatorial Director of 916, and who had served as an assistant to Arita in the early 80s before striking out on his own (he refers to him as “sensei” in a note in the exhibition catalog), took it upon himself to reprint the photographs that ended up in the exhibition. Ueda’s personal dedication to this task is of course admirable, but not necessarily dilemma free. He is not a hired craftsperson approaching this with a detached professionalism, but rather as a successful photographer with his own distinct vision mounting a show of the prints by his former mentor in a gallery he co-curates. “He was a photographer I loved,” writes Ueda.

Quinault is perhaps Ueda’s best known work outside of Japan, shot in the early 90s in the Quinault Rain Forest west of Seattle. It is not taking anything away from the work to describe it as one that works with limited tonal variations. His black and white portrait work that I have seen has a similar flatness to it, faces and figures barely raising themselves off the paper they’re printed on.

The prints on show at Gallery 916 do seem to have a distinctive Ueda-esque quality to them, a lovely subtlety of tonality to them where the figures, the faces, and above all the small details in the scenes are slowly discovered by the viewer over time. Not having seen the original Arita prints, nor any of the Camera Mainichi issues the work originally appeared in, I can’t comment on whether Ueda has enhanced the original work or hindered it in some way — whether, in the parlance of adaptation, Ueda has been faithful to the original, and to his sensei.

To speak to this tangling of sensei and student roles, and the intermingling of styles, it might be illustrative to look at Ueda’s series at Home that was shot from 1993-2005 and collected in the 2006 book of the same name. Spanning 13 years, from when he married actress Karen Kirishima through to the birth of their 4th child, Ueda documented his family. Document is perhaps too strong — these were family snapshots first and foremost (albeit taken by a very accomplished photographer). As Ueda writes,

The compulsive quest of my youth for total perfectionism, power and beauty was giving way to a need to engage with the uncontrollably boisterous glow of daily life, to notice, accept and above all to treasure the ordinary yet unrepeatable events before my eyes, to capture small slices of the fun.

Yoshihiko Ueda -- at Home

Yoshihiko Ueda — at Home. Published in 2006 by Little More.

It was only much later that the work formed itself into a series as such and became a book only at the behest of a publisher. There certainly isn’t the edge you find in many of Arita’s photos, and yet for all of Ueda’s “boisterous glow of daily life”, it isn’t without sadness and pain. (This comes through much more in the heavily edited set of photos presented on Ueda’s site than it does in the far larger selection of photos presented in the book, it has to be said.) But it isn’t anything remotely like the contrived and artful darkness we find in Arita’s series.3

So in terms of intention and approach, Arita’s and Ueda’s two “family” series couldn’t be further apart. Nor is it a given that Ueda was in any overt way conscious of his mentor’s earlier series as he took his family snaps. But the terrain is common enough to both to make one intrigued as to how Ueda must have felt as he negotiated this re-printing of Arita’s “First Born”, no doubt with the best intentions of paying homage to his former sensei and doing the original work “justice” — another loaded term like “faithful” that implies a value judgment.

Sacrosanct notions of “original” and “faith” seem misplaced here. Rather than sifting through the messy intersections of influence and inspiration, reproduction and reworking, I prefer to view this convergence of styles, themes, and teacher-pupil roles more as a collaboration, unwitting obviously on the part of one — or perhaps both, for this balancing act could not have been easy for Ueda, who says as much when he writes that he “battled for almost two months in the darkroom with photos left by my teacher.”

In his essay Iizawa expresses regret that Arita never really went further than his “First Born” series, or pursued photography in any meaningful way in subsequent years, while at the same time wondering if “the very absence of such a follow-up offering could also be what allows this series to retain its rare brilliance.” That last bit seems overly fanciful to me, suggesting as it does that Arita spared us from being let down by ending on a high note. That he didn’t do more with photography is perhaps regrettable, but rather selfish on our part. By all accounts Arita suffered no similar regrets as he channeled his creativity into painting and woodworking, leaving his “first born” to the past as he moved on, both in the context of family — we know he remarried in 1984 — and art. Fortunately for us, this hasn’t stopped the work from being re-discovered, or discovered anew, and his former pupil Yoshihiko Ueda deserves our gratitude for his part in that.



1. This period of Arita’s career is covered in a recently-published book entitled PURE – Taiji Arita in California: Life and Work.

2. Incidentally, the “First Born” portfolio of 68 photographs is owned by Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo, Japan, as part of their permanent collection.

3. I think an argument — and further investigation — could be made about the difference in tone having something to do with Arita’s first wife being a Canadian, an “other”, whereas Ueda’s wife is not only Japanese, but a well-known actress at that.

Author/Editor: Kurt Easterwood

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