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Interview with Masahiro Kodaira

Masahiro Kodaira was born in 1972, and graduated from Tokyo Zokei University in 1997. Kodaira has been pursuing photography since 1994, with several solo and group exhibitions to his name. In addition to his own work, Kodaira has recently been involved in making new prints of the late, renowned avant-garde photographer Kiyoji Otsuji.

In the following interview, conducted earlier this year, Kodaira discusses with Japan Exposures his two major series to date, “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly” and “Onbashira”, how he came to photography, and his relationship with Otsuji, a major influence on a number of Japanese photographers. In addition to the photographs represented here, you can also view an extended gallery of Kodaira’s work.

Interview by Yu Hidaka for Japan Exposures.

Japan Exposures: First of all, as a way of introducing you to our readers, I would like to ask you about your solo exhibition entitled “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly”, which was held at the AiDEM PHOTO GALLERY SIRius in Tokyo in 2002. For the show, you brought together work done over many years, didn’t you?

Masahiro Kodaira: Yes, “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly” was a major outgrowth of many years of work. I had some experience to have my work exhibited before, but this was the first exhibition where I had a clear idea of what I wanted my photography to say. I was looking for the place to show my work that didn’t already have a fixed style or image attached to it. That is to say, not galleries run by camera companies, not small underground types of spaces, and so on. Instead I was looking for a gallery that was open to all genres. Then, I came across an opportunity to try for an open call that was issued by SIRius, and I passed the review.

JE: SIRius has a quite large gallery space compared to other places in Tokyo. How many photographs did you exhibit there?

MK: I showed 30 photographs there. Although usually solo exhibitions held there feature about 45 works, I chose 30 images because I thought the relationship between the works and the white space of the gallery walls important to creating a kind of tension. But after the show, some people told me that fewer photos might have been better for that purpose.

Masahiro Kodaira: From "Dr. Lorentz's Butterfly" series

JE: For me too, as a viewer, I remember that exhibition as the first time I had a clear understanding of your work. When I looked at your photographs, photography’s particular way of representation was readily apparent to me, and I was slightly surprised at this. This was probably the first opportunity for you to highlight this aspect of your work, wasn’t it?

MK: Well, it’s true that I am interested in photography’s form, but strictly speaking, how my works look is not my goal. It’s just an outcome of pursuing what I want to express with my photographs. The particularity of photographic representation just helped me to say it. For example, take the abstract concept of “beauty,” which art can help to make concrete and easy to see and understand. I feel that the photographic form can be an essential tool to express photographers’ message.

JE: What surprised me about your show was that, in a sense, the formalism of your photography seemed too “classical” a way for a photographer to express themselves at that time. Around 2002, when I visited your show, photography of younger photographers rarely focused on formal things like composition. Subject matter, or such things like blurry images or grainy images stood out more in other photographers’ shows. Most photographers seemed to rarely care about photographic composition, and only use those techniques and styles that are popular at that time. Some didn’t know that formalism was one of the crucial means of expression in photography’s history, especially in the modernist period. Maybe this is, in part, a failure of how photography is taught in Japan. But your work is quite different.

MK: For me, art history is important. I think that the situation of young people born in the 1990s is different from that of my own generation. They happen to have been born into an information rich society that’s superficial. Because of that, perhaps they’re interested less in formalism and more in textures or the unexpected, by which I mean taking familiar, everyday objects and shooting them with medium or large format cameras, or in close-up, in order to create a raw “anti-everyday” reality. For those photographs, composition is difficult to create. I think that the fad of shooting 6×6 color film of the last few years represents the desires of both photographers and viewers. In my opinion, I think that the role of art has historically been and continues to be one of solving life’s mystery. I also belong to this history, but I use my awareness of what has been done in the past to forge my own way of art. Photography is also an art of form. I want to grasp the mystery of life with the help of the concepts such as beauty or formal “balance.” Why do people say that something is beautiful, or why do people find balance in something — what do such things mean to us?

In front of me, the world spreads out, uncontrolled by my intentions. I had such a sense when I took these photographs, and wanted to take photographs where the past and the future meets.”

JE: Since art history is important to you, I’d also like to ask you about your own history. I believe that your education at Tokyo Zokei University, where you graduated, and your relationship with Kiyoji Otsuji, were crucial to your development, weren’t they?

MK: Yes, that’s right. Before I entered university I had studied the practical basics of art at a kind of “cram school.” So, I was able to concentrate on photography at university. When I was in my forth year, one of my professors, Kazuto Miura, introduced me to Otsuji-san, who many of my professors had studied under. At that time, he was already retired and pretty much confined to his home, and so some students including me went to visit him and to arrange his negatives in his house.
Masahiro Kodaira: From "Onbashira" series
Whenever I visited him, I always felt like I was visiting my grandfather. I visited his place almost every day for four or five years, before he passed away. What I learned from him is that I should continue to pursue my own way of photography. Like some other photographers who also had close relationships with him often say, I always ask myself, “If he were living now, what would he say about my photographs?” This question is a kind of litmus test for how I think about my own work.

Incidentally, “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly” wasn’t the title I originally had, but Otsuji-san pointed out to me that my original title sounded stiff, so I changed it. The day that I decided on “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly” was also the day that Otsuji-san passed away, so I wasn’t able to share with him the new title of my show.

JE: What originally triggered your interest in photography?

MK: When I was a kid, I already had an interest in art. The first book I bought when I was a junior high-school student was an anthology by Escher. Then I came across the book by Jung and Wolfgang Pauli called “The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche.” After reading this book, I felt that I had found a clue as how to articulate in art what had been up until then just vague thoughts.

JE: Does that mean that you were first interested in producing something artistic or cultural in the broad sense, rather than specifically photography?

MK: Well, first of all, I wanted to be a painter, so I thought it would be better for me to study painting. But some friends that I made at the “cram school” were able to paint precisely what they wanted to paint on canvas. In such an environment I realized that it might be difficult for me to be a painter. So, when I entered Zokei I chose to join the department of design and gave up my desire to be a painter. At that time I also had interest in typography and graphic design.

JE: Then you came to photography?

MK: Yes, that’s right. I tool some photography classes, and found that I wanted to pursue photography. When I saw my professor [Akihide] Tamura sensei’s work entitled “Afternoon” at a group exhibition in 1993, I was taken aback, and this work was the trigger for me to start concentrating on photography. I learned a lot from one class in particular. This particular class required me to visit about 100 galleries within a year and to write an essay about each exhibition I attended. Also at this time I was “collecting” photography and art magazines to supplement my studies. When I started studying on photography, I thought it was easy to take photographs. However, when I saw that taking photographs of the world around me was a way to represent myself, I came to realize the profoundity of photography as a medium.

JE: Your next exhibition after “Dr. Lorenz’s Butterfly” was “Onbashira.” I imagine that you had to take some risks to show “Onbashira.”

MK: Well, you know, the show “Onbashira” deals with a festival in Japan*, so quite a few people reacted like, “Why did you take photographs of festivals?” Many people who had visited “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly” expressed disappointment and said it would have been better if I had kept the direction of that show. But some photographers also appreciated this exhibition. Although basically I seldom take photographs of people, I wanted to experiment with taking snapshots of people for this series.

Masahiro Kodaira: From "Onbashira" series
JE: Certainly at first glance, this series appears to be different from “Dr. Lorentz’s Butterfly.” For me, as someone who knows your position vis-à-vis the history of formal art and photography, some parts of “Onbashira” seem connected with the conception of the previous show. Both exhibitions show an adventurous pursuit of the possibilities of photographic form. Yet each show is received by viewers as completely different. If people concentrate only on the content of your photographs, there is a danger of them missing the forms that are there for them to discover, though.

MK: It’s easy to miss this aspect of my photography, because they directly represent the past traditions of Japan.

JE: People tend to look only at the surface content of photographs and overlook the aspect of photography as a transformed reality. But such way of looking is not enough. At a festival which is very dynamic, you look at the movement of the world in front of you through your viewfinder and release the shutter.

MK: In front of me, the world spreads out, uncontrolled by my intentions. I had such a sense when I took these photographs, and wanted to take photographs where the past and the future meets.

JE: Finally, could you let us know what you are doing now?

MK: I sometimes do black and white printing, and I had been making new prints of Otsuji’s work for the show called “Jikken-kobo,” (“Experimental Workshop”), which will be held in the UK in this October. I myself am preparing for a solo exhibition called “Tsuzukinokawarini” to be held from June 9 (Tues.) to 15 (Mon.) at the Gekkoso annex KONPARU Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo. Then, if possible I would like to publish a book of my work.

* Onbashira (literally “honored pillar”) is a festival that takes place in Nagano Prefecture once every six years.

Yu HidakaYu Hidaka is an Assistant Professor at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, where she teaches on visual culture. Her book, Reading Contemporary Photography: Toward Democratic Vistas, will be published by Seikyu-sha this June. She has written on photography and other forms of visual media for various Japanese publications, including Studio Voice and Asahi Camera. She received her MA in the Course of Culture and Representation from Tokyo University.

Three delightful new books

Three New Books: Tamura, Tsuda, Shibata

I‘ve recently had the fortunate opportunity to acquire for myself, and for the bookstore, three lovely photo books by Akihide Tamura, Nao Tsuda, and Toshio Shibata. These are the kind of photo books you want to carry with you all the time, to show anyone with a smidgen of interest in photography or quality publishing, anyone who loves looking at photography by turning pages, feeling the texture of the page corner between their finger and thumb. The kind of books you imagine Martin Parr or John Gossage have by the shelf load in their abodes.

Akihide Tamura: Base (1992)
When I said “new” books in the title, I was fibbing a little. Base by Akihide Tamura is in fact not new at all, either in content or in publication. The content was shot by Tamura in the late 60’s. The book itself dates from 1992, and was published by Mole.

However, apparently from Tamura’s own stock, brand new copies of this 1992 book have recently been made available, and this is a very fortunate thing. “Base” in this case refers to the U.S. military bases that to this day continue their elephant-in-the-room existence throughout the Japanese Archipelago. In the 60s their presence raised considerably more overt opposition than they do now (though this by no means implies they are any more welcome by today’s majority), and not surprisingly they proved a fertile ground for many a Japanese photographer, with Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama leading a long list.

Unlike many, however, Tamura’s camera remains on the periphery, often employing on one hand extreme zoom lenses to capture the Air Force jets that feature in several images, or wide angle lenses that help to give the book a landscape feel. Whether this was of necessity, or of artistic choice, you feel the isolation of the bases from most Japanese, even as they could never escape their ubiquitous presence. I found Tamura’s close-ups of the jets particularly striking. Like Fukase’s ravens, we can instinctively hear their obnoxious, intrusive screeching emanating from the page.

These are the kind of books you imagine Martin Parr or John Gossage have by the shelf load in their abodes.”

The book itself is a thin volume, with just 16 black and white photographs plus two color photographs that illustrate the books front and back covers. The cover is an off-white textured card stock that feels lovely in the hand, with the title foil stamped in silver. The interior pages are printed on heavy weight, non-glossy paper, and suit the high-contrast and very grainy photos beautifully. The book is bound with two staples. A simple but elegant book.

Captions as well as technical details of the photographs are in English. Inserted unbound into the book is an eight-page booklet with essays by critic Koen Shigemori (who incidentally passed away the same year the book was published) and photographer Shinzo Shimao, but sadly these are in Japanese only.

Nao Tsuda: Smoke Line Exhibition Catalog (2008)

You might be surprised to know that Shiseido, the Japanese cosmetics giant, is the oldest cosmetics company in the world. But perhaps even more surprising, and more germane to the discussion here, is that the Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza area is the oldest existing art gallery in Japan. They do have a long-established reputation for supporting the arts, and young artists especially, and this was on evidence at the recently staged Nao Tsuda “Smoke Line – Tracing the Windstreams” exhibition I attended a couple of weeks ago. The exhibit featured work that Tsuda created during travels in China, Mongolia and Morocco, and was divided into two parts. The first, perhaps main part of the exhibit, featured large diptych-like landscapes. Off this space, in a darkened, curtained-off space, was “Smoke Face”, more spontaneous pieces accompanied by poems written by a Moroccan poet named Omar, with whom Tsuda spent some time traveling together.

But I’m here to write more about the catalog that accompanied this exhibition, for it is an exquisitely put together package that does justice not only to the work on exhibit, but to the exhibition itself. This is because the catalog is actually two books, each corresponding to the two different parts of the show. The larger book, which is bound, features the landscape diptychs. Inlaid behind this is a much smaller book featuring the “Smoke Face” work as well as the poems (in Japanese and French) that were on view in the smaller room. It is paperback size, bound by staples, and is secured by a ribbon rather than the rubber band as seems standard in Japan.

Sewn into the front fold-out cover is a 16-page booklet in Japanese and English, featuring a piece about Tsuda’s photography by world-renown Japanese novelist and poet Natsuki Ikezawa, in the form of a prose poem, as well as an essay by Shiseido Gallery’s curator Miho Morimoto.

In the back fold-out cover, which I didn’t even notice at first, are two separate fold-out pages, one for each part of the exhibit. One side of each details the pieces (media, sizes, etc.) in the exhibit, and the other features photographs of the exhibition itself. There is also a personal statement by Tsuda, again available in both Japanese and English.

The cover is basically a thin gray matte board that has been covered by fabric on the outer side, with the title and artist’s name embossed on the front. My description may make it sound cheap and inelegant but in actuality, the catalog feels anything but. The only thing “cheap” about this catalog is the price, which is extremely reasonable and makes me think the gallery produced these at a loss.

Often photo exhibition catalogs seems more like typical photo books, and while the works shown may be the same as the exhibit, there doesn’t seem to be any real correlation between the two. But here, you feel like you are getting what is, for lack of a better word, a true souvenir of the exhibition you attended.

Toshio Shibata: Still in the Night (2008)

Lastly we come to a very newly-published — two weeks ago in fact — small book featuring early Toshio Shibata photographs, published by the Soh Gallery to accompany his Still in the Night exhibition there. At the moment, Shibata is enjoying a major exhibition of his recent Landscape work at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and there are a couple of smaller exhibitions going on in Tokyo to coincide with this show. Soh Gallery’s exhibition of some of Shibata’s early 4×5 work is one of them.

The work centers around various structures and scenes connected with the motor expressway, such as service areas, gas stations, and toll booths. Shibata shot these at night, and they date from 1982 to 1986. With the exception of one image, which was shot in Utah and is used to illustrate the book’s cover, the photos were all taken in Japan. Here we see the deceptively quiet, people-less places that are “off the road” or the gates to the road, yet full of their own life, their own motion.

Whether it is a row of empty but fully lit telephone booths, or a brightly lit but empty service area restroom, you get the sense that something is about to happen, that this is the scene of something. In the short essay about Shibata at the back of the book, by Yasuhide Shimbata, curator at Yokohama Museum of Art (translated into English), we learn that an early influence of Shibata’s were the films of Peter Bogdanovich, and indeed there is something of The Last Picture Show in these pictures.

This is a small, hardcover book about the size of a paperback (but in landscape orientation), featuring just 13 photographs (cover included). Although the prints on display were large-ish, here they measure just slightly larger than what an actual 4 x 5 negative would measure (a conscious choice, according to Soh Gallery’s owner).

Each of the three books are available in the Japan Exposures bookstore. You can also preview more of each book at the links below:

Base, by Akihide Tamura
Smoke Line Exhibition Catalog, by Nao Tsuda
Still in the Night, by Toshio Shibata