「ウメップ」(Umep) — Ume Kayo Experience at Omotesando Hills

An image from Ume Kayo's book Danshi (Boys)

Review and event images by John Sypal for Japan Exposures

The achingly fashionable shopping complex Omotesando Hills hosts the current exhibition of Ume Kayo’s latest work, an event which coincides with the release of her most recent photobook. The title of both the book and the show is spelled Umep but pronounced “Umeppu” in Japanese.

Ume-me book cover

Winner of the Ihee Kimura prize in 2006 with a cheerful collection of often bizarre little pictures entitled Umeme, Ume Kayo’s affable pictures have earned her an interesting position in popular Japanese photography. In addition to impressive book sales she has created an interesting brand which surrounds her artistic output garnering her many fans and admirers. She is a terrific street photographer, and since her debut with Umeme she has gone on to exhibit her photography around Japan and been treated to an admittedly enviable career of fashion shoots, collaborations, commercial work, and several more photo books.

Banners outside of Omotesando Hills advertising the exhibition

Banners for the Umep exhibition are hung all along the front of Omotesando Hills. Upon entering the complex and navigating your way down an improbably ambiguous set of oddly lit stairs, a 300 yen entry fee grants one access to the large space where her photographs have been enlarged and mounted in a variety of ways and sizes. The installation is comprised of 1500 photographs, a viewing space with a TV showing video shot by her (complete with pink pillows to sit on while you watch), a few tables where people can leave messages (with provided pastel colored pens) for Ms. Kayo in sketchbooks, and a photo stage where visitors can take their pictures surrounded by several enlarged cutout reproductions of her big white dog. Pictures are hung from the ceiling, mounted flat in rows as 1-hour style prints. Often they are complimented by doodles and characters drawn by Ms. Kayo. Other times tape or pushpins have been fixed to the walls to echo visual elements from within the frame of the photographs. During my visit the gallery was full of hip young men and women off the streets of the Omotesando and Harajuku neighborhoods and the average age of attendees would be closer to 20 than 30. People are there for the event, the experience of entering what is at one point referred to as Umekayo Hills.

Colored spotlights add to the particular feel to the show.

The show’s exit naturally passes through a gift shop which offers not only five full collections of her photographs and copies of the (many) recent magazines that she has been featured in, but also novels by other writers that have used her pictures for their covers. Additionally one can take home her pictures in the form of postcards, buttons, file folders, and even a special edition bottle of Ume Kayo plum wine, something, which is quite positively an intoxicating pun as “Ume” is literally “Plum” in Japanese. Some may scoff but the blatantly commercial characteristics of this exhibition are an apt match for a venue tucked into the first floor of a $330 million dollar shopping center located in the heart of Tokyo’s fashion scene. There seems to be a perfect balance between this energetic young artist and the flood of fashionable young people who frequent Harajuku.

The draw of her pictures lies in the fact that they are immediate, downright funny, and tuned with a particularly sweet sense of empathy. At their best, the pictures are gleefully and unapologetically photographic manifestations of “Look at that! “. The appeal I find in Ume Kayo’s pictures lies in her approach to photography. She obviously doesn’t fuddle with any preconceived line between life and art, and in that grand Japanese tradition understands that living and photographing is freshest when the two become inseparable. The work is a byproduct of her personal interaction with the people and world around her but what makes it more interesting than the usual sorts of these pictures is how her gift of anticipation and lack of restraint with a camera allows her to capture truly fascinating scenes from her local world.

Stage for visitor commemoration photographs
Photos will be added to this wall through out the duration of the exhibition

Though it’s hard to tell what was set for the camera or simply captured from the flow of everyday life in the end it doesn’t really matter because in it’s totality the charm of the work shines through. You can’t help but crack a smile when flipping through her collections. We need photographers like Ume Kayo to be the cheeky antidote to all the serious and boring and stuffy pictures out there. Indeed, Umep even features a picture of a man awkwardly stretching in Asakusa right on Hiroh Kikai’s very own photographic turf (red wall and all). However in this one simple snap Ms. Kayo has granted more life and human individuality to this man than any other Asakusa portrait you’ll find. She counters the Mapplethorpes, the Michael Kennas and the Ansel Adamses of the world with work that is of a different kind of photographic wonder.

I suppose that most criticism to Ume Kayo’s photographs and perhaps even more so her success is founded on the belief that photography must be Serious, or Beautiful, or Instructive. And that it should look all the other predictable Seriously Beautiful and Seriously Instructive artwork in the Photographic canon. While she does indeed shoot with a Canon EOS 5 on film, her work isn’t socially conscious nor is it something which is at ease with the traditionally accepted propriety of photographic Art with a capital A. The blatant marketing of her brand which surrounds the core of her creations is to me balanced out by a lack of pretension. I assume that to her pictures are just pictures. Sometimes that is all they have to be.

The fact that so many are as interesting as they are makes encountering her work quite enjoyable for those able to appreciate art rooted in an innocent interest in the peculiarities of the everyday.

John Sypal with Ume Kayo after a chance on the street encounter in Daikanyama in 2009