On the other side
In the forest
draped in uncertainty
I am alone,
gazing in admirationâ€
— Masako Miyazaki
When presenting and discussing Japanese Photography I often wonder whether myself and everyone else share our definition of what Japanese Photography is (or is not). Whether there is even a need to ask for a definition or leave it open to everyone to substitute their own. Still, sooner or later someone might ask “what do you like about Japanese photography?” or “what do you think is different in Japanese Photography?”. Then you would have to ask back, what the person means by Japanese Photography at the first place. Is it a signature style or technique? Probably not. Or simply a Japanese photographer, or a photograph taken in the country of Japan? Possibly, but that’s not all. Could a non-Japanese person produce Japanese Photography at all, or a Japanese person be unable to do so? Probably yes. There are no obvious answers, only clues. I have been looking for such clues for a while and even though my answer is not complete, I feel that gathering traces is a legitimate way to approach it.
Masako Miyazaki’s book The Other Side, published in late 2011 by Tosei-sha, offers such a clue. Not too unlike Manabu Someya’s Nirai (incidentally also published by Tosei-sha), I very much enjoyed looking at this book as it felt like being taken by the hand onto a journey into different places. That is not just physical locations, but places in the mind. Studying the images closely, they were taken in a variety of locations. There are images of Japan and elsewhere (I suspect the Mediterranean and/or Central Europe). Despite that variety, the image content, texture and style allowed them to be presented together while maintaining a common theme between them. Location or subject is not what strings them together.
On a depictive level, a commonality between the images soon becomes apparent: the square black and white images almost all seem to be focussed on the very remote distance, irrespective of whether the near distance contains a subject of interest. Additionally, a very close distance object is often obscuring our view slightly – a wall, high-grown grass, a tree, bushy vegetation or similar. We are often peering over or around those obstructions with a sense of safety as if guarding us from the scene from waist level (presumably due to the use of a medium format camera with waist level finder), like a child who stumbled upon a scene accidentally while running after a ball or a butterfly. Now we find ourselves slightly outside our comfort zone, exactly on the thin line of being equally thrilled and curious to move further while at the same time frightened and wanting to go back to familiar grounds. Here we stand still now, hearing only our own breath and the sounds of nature, frozen in time by our minds and in turn by the capture of the photograph. We have become one with the scene, with the environment, except that unlike the trees or bushes around us we have a gaze into the scene and our view is set on the horizon, the infinite distance.
Few people appear in Miyazaki’s photographs and if they do then they are largely coincidental and visually insignificant. These are introvert photographs, but not of self-importance or exhibitionism. A wanderer in a foreign place is strolling across the landscape with a hint of melancholy. The scene is alive yet abandoned, as if everyone just left to go home for lunch or dinner time a short moment ago. We are still out here, perhaps nobody is expecting us to go home or we just want to enter slightly into the lapse of time and be “too late”, that is not return home on time. Not too late for anyone to worry about us or to scold us, yet enjoying once again finding ourselves on the border between what we should or shouldn’t do.
Towards the end of the book the nature of the images changes slightly. We are now in motion, gazing out of a moving train or car. Are we leaving a place we enjoyed so much as described above? In the final pages we are indoors, the same low level views towards or out of windows and doors. A peek into the living room, over the window sill seeing the roofs of opposite buildings, or inside a shop, church or boutique. Have we returned home from a summer vacation in the countryside back into the hometown, perhaps? The feeling is once more on the middle ground of being saddened by our timely return, yet inside ourselves treasuring the experience of the weeks we roamed on our own on The Other Side.
Miyazaki’s photographs represent just some of the things that Japanese Photography are for me; a quiet yet strong undercurrent of expression that does not present itself to the viewer too easily and besides sensitivity requires patience. At the same time there is an element of child-like honesty and innocence that make the images more than simple documents of localities; we are being offered access to someone else’s inner self as a companion or visitor, just close enough to share some personal time together and not too close to offend or invade the privacy of our host.
Please also see a special gallery with more images from Miyazaki’s book.
Signed copies of The Other Side are available for purchase in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.