Profile by John Sypal for Japan Exposures
The Japan which Aya Okabe presents in her work is perhaps too familiar to those who live there and not nearly Japanese enough for those who don’t. Visually she would fit in the Street Photographer pool although her work is most likely maddeningly dull to that genre’s most righteous practitioners. Owing nothing in influence to the gritty contrasty black and white photography to which so many others with a camera in Tokyo follow, she plainly and clearly photographs events and places with a New Color sort of palette. All of those trite, tired, and worn Traditional & Modern, Old & New, East & West dichotomies are of little interest to Okabe. Her pictures refreshingly lack attempts at employing visual documentary drama but that contemporary photographic buzzword “deadpan” would be inaccurate in describing her work. These photographs are more complex and deftly framed than a first glance might determine. With the proper amount of consideration their charm shines through.
Okabe’s Japan is clearly lit, steadily focused, and often amusing. Cultural and visual elements come together within the frame often at the same physical distance from picture to picture but her skill at keeping everything just out of reach adds to their perplexity. The entire frame is the subject, not any one easily recognizable person or thing. Even when the Japanese national flag is prominently featured in stark red and white within the frame, it isn’t ever enough to make the image “about” Japan’s particular type of nationalism. Kimonos do not simply denote “tradition” any more than power-lines express a fondness of “electricity”. Faded signs of post-war local shops aren’t explicitly about the past or a desire to return to it. It would be easier to be fed meanings and stories but Okabe rightly avoids stooping to this sort of image making to provide the viewer with something more interesting.
The key to my own personal understanding of these photographs is the enjoyment of their ambiguity.