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Hideo Takiura’s Tokyo Products

Due in part to the heat, and in part from being extremely busy of late, I haven’t been able to take in as many photo exhibitions as I would like. However, when I received a postcard advertising Hideo Takiura’s latest show, “Tokyo Products”, I knew that this was one show I would make a special effort for. And I’m glad I did.

The show, currently at the Konica Minolta gallery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward until August 10th, features work shot by him over a 10 year period. You may remember that back in April Japan Exposures featured work from Takiura entitled “Tokyo Bodies”. Both that series, and the work currently on show, were shot at the same time. However, when he began to shape the work into a series and ultimately his first photo book (also Tokyo Bodies), he focused on the “street photography” aspect where random strangers formed the central subject. However, for this show and a new photo book, Tokyo Products, there are no people present in any of the shots.

I say that there are no people, and on the surface that is very much true, but in reality, the people are everywhere — their presence is unmistakeable. This presence manifests itself in two ways: on the one hand, what often attracts Takiura’s eyes are shapes and scenes that bear a human-like quality (for example, a rubber glove stuck on the end of a pipe on the side of a building conjures up with nary a leap a human arm and hand); and on the other hand, Takiura is constantly providing us with scenes literally man-made, as if he had snapped the scene just after a set designer had finished setting it up (for example, an old washing machine that has now become an impromptu plant holder, or a shot of a door with two wires inexplicably snaking out from the door’s mail slot).

Like most photographers exhibiting their work there was a statement on the wall that Takiura wrote. To be quite honest, I rarely read these, whether they are in English or in Japanese. But this one was so short I was intrigued. Beyond what it said — something to the effect of “when I walk around I often notice that the landscapes and scenes I pass resemble something human, or on the other hand, perhaps they don’t” — what I thought was significant was that this statement was placed in such a way that it could have easily been missed, and in fact I didn’t see it until I had seen the entire show. Not surprisingly, Takiura confirmed to me later that he would rather not write anything and let the photos speak for themselves, but in the end bowed to a feeling that visitors might feel empty without some explanatory text, however oblique (and obliquely displayed) it might be.

Hideo Takiura

I felt fortunate to meet Takiura at the gallery. Previously we had corresponded via e-mail regarding selling his book and featuring his work on Japan Exposures, and it was clear from those interactions that he is very serious not just about the work itself but how that work is positioned, talked about, and put into context. Part of those email discussions revolved around the fact that Takiura would prefer that the work be judged on its own merits, rather than in comparison to other photographers. So, it was with some trepidation that I suggested to him — in response to his genuine query as to whether overseas photography viewers would understand work that didn’t feature any people in it — that his photographs in this current series reminded me of Hiroh Kikai’s two “Tokyo labyrinth” books (here and here). That is to say, beyond the superficial square format that both works share, there is a humor and irony in what both choose to capture, and that to my mind at least these “still lifes” of Takiura’s interact and resonate with his street photography in much the same way that I find Kikai’s people-less Tokyo cityscapes bounce off and inform (or are informed by) his better known “Asakusa Portraits” work. (For his part, Takiura was non-committal to this comparison, as I expected he would be.)

In person I found Takiura to be humble and soft-spoken yet with very clear, well-considered opinions that he no doubt had formed over a long period of taking pictures and thinking about photography. But by the same token, he was very keen to get my opinion on the photographs or on particular aspects of the exhibition. One thing that is very apparent from listening to Takiura is that this — taking photos, and publishing these books — is very much a labor of love. By that I don’t just mean that he doesn’t make money from these endeavors — although clearly he doesn’t — but that rather money or recognition doesn’t seem to interest him in the slightest. He wants to takes pictures, as time and the mundane business of making a living (from photography, but not his own) allow, and he wants to show them to people, both in shows like the current one (although I get the impression these exhibits are fairly “one-off”) and more importantly, in the two books he has so far self-published.

Hideo Takiura - Tokyo Bodies and Tokyo Products Photo BooksIn early June, Takiura’s Tokyo Bodies photo book was featured as one of 60 self-published photobooks at the “Self Publish, Be Happy” 2-day event held at the Photographer’s Gallery in London and organized by Bruno Ceschel. Takiura was candid with me that he could very easily pay one of the handful of small photography publishing houses a tidy sum to publish his work under their imprint (in Japan, the prevailing model is artists pay publishers to publish a book of their work, not the other way around), but has chosen not to. Aside from being cheaper to do it himself, there is the much more important aspect of control — Takiura is a control freak in the best possible sense of the phrase, and for him not only the editing but also the design, and the look and feel of the book, are especially paramount. No surprise then that the new work Tokyo Products is again of the same, considered design as Tokyo Bodies, with Takiura even going so far as to design a slipcase that will house both of them.

Before taking my leave, Takiura pulled out his camera, the one he used to take all these Tokyo “portraits”, the only camera he uses for his personal work — a pre-war Rolleiflex with Tessar lens (sorry, didn’t get the specific model, but this is one of the early Rolleiflexes with the “Rolleiflex” on the nameplate in an old semi-cursive font, not the later boxier font). While it’s true that these tools should hardly make a difference, I can’t deny that seeing this 75-plus year old camera, so obviously lovingly looked after, and seeing the excellent work on the walls that it had a small hand in producing, and meeting the humble but assured Takiura, who had of course the biggest hand in all this, heartened me to no end as I went back out into Tokyo’s sticky summer heat.

Both Tokyo Bodies and Tokyo Products are available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

Hideo Takiura Gallery

Hideo Takiura began his adult life not as a photographer but as a landscape designer. I don’t know much about this somewhat esoteric profession but it’s hard not to wonder how shaping the earth has ended up shaping Takiura the photographer. At the very least, these two vocations share the need to take a wild, amorphous nature and confine it within a defined, artificial frame. And if we are talking about frames, it strikes me that of all the various film formats, Takiura’s chosen format for his “Tokyo Bodies” series, the 6cm x 6cm square, represents the most artificial, self-conscious type of confinement a photographer can choose.

We have been conditioned for so long to see in rectangle that its frame lines have become second nature. But the square forces us to acknowledge the frame, and to acknowledge that what is presented in that confined space, like the manicured landscape, is only that which the artist wants us to see. This is not to say that we are left with mere contrivance, however. This is what is so charming about Takiura’s work — on the streets of Tokyo, there’s only so much trimming and pruning one can do. Takiura’s subjects are confined to their frames, but they are also fighting against them (and occasionally hiding behind them, or even stuck in them). Fanciful as it may be, I like to imagine that the reason Takiura traded in his shears for a Rolleiflex is because in the wild city streets of Tokyo, these trees talk back.

Signed copies of Takiura’s self-published book, Tokyo Bodies, are available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

Hideo Takiura — From Tokyo Bodies

Hideo Takiura was born in 1963 in Tokyo, and graduated from Tokyo Agricultural University in 1986. After working as a landscape designer for a few years, he began pursuing a career in photography. His photo book Tokyo Bodies, from which the above photo is taken, collects work shot by Takiura on the streets of Tokyo from 2000-2007 with his trusty 6x6cm medium format camera. A limited number of signed copies are available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

Please also see a gallery of Takiura’s Tokyo Bodies series.