film, Japan, street, Tokyo

photographing on the streets in Japan

April 11, 2024

But there a connection, for though the tourist in postmodernity doesn’t belong to the city they are visiting, the tourist life is to be on the move, to travel lightly, to be a wanderer, and to become adept at melting the solids and unfixing the fixed. There is no attempt to understand the Japanese photographs as they were seen 70 years ago in a war torn country that had experienced American occupation, was undergoing an economic boom becoming the new Japan swamped with waves of American consumer goods. How we understand this tradition now is quite different to how the photographs were interpreted by people in Japan in the mid-twentieth century. I had an open mind about what constitutes Japanese photography as I had little knowledge of the connections and pathways between the generation of photographers from the 1960s and 70s, with the more recent artists since the mid and late 1990s. 

My photographs were an experiment in a snapshot, candid style to see both what the streets as urban public spaces looked like in black and white in the early morning, as opposed to digital colour; and secondly, how could they be done within the increasing anxieties and restrictions on the practice of photography in public places, the current suspicions of street photographers and the right to privacy.

Could the black and white images avoid nostalgia? Would they look dated? Would they mean something different to the colour images made with a digital camera? Would the more studied approach work, as opposed to the speed, sidelong glances, and urgency of the stray dogs wandering the borderline spaces like Shinjuku? Could it help signify the rites de passage from tourist to neo-flâneur?

Leica M4 rangefinder
Minerev, Morioka, Japan

The fragmentary black and white photos of empty streets with the occasional person produced a grungy or gritty urban and architectural look whilst avoiding representing my emotions and feelings that I felt in the early mornings when I walked around and through the streets of Tokyo, Morioka and Sendai. Today’s street is multi-layered as it includes both the skywalk and the underground.

Leica M4 rangefinder
Sendai, Japan

I found the look of the snapshot black and whites appealing as what is of interest is not traditional Japan, but modern and postmodern Japan. However, the color is not opposed to black-and-white as the two are interrelated and complementary as forms of sense making of the small fragments of the urban life of a mega-city with its multi-layered spaces whilst avoiding any attempt to approach the city as a native with their authority of remembrance and the familiarity of their surroundings. Tradition and cultural knowledge need to be acquired.

The Japanese photography of the 1960s-70s can be historically interpreted as a significant current in the history of photography picturing cities in modernity; and more specifically a part of the European street photography understood as photographic flânerie. This photography was traditionally understood as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur in the early 20th century in Europe (eg., Atget, Kertész, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson)–walking without any goal and photographing anything that happens. The emphasis is on the random, the uncontrolled, the unknown, the fleeting moment.

In the early 21st century in postmodernity this photographic flânerie is reconfigured to incorporate the gaze of the tourist walking, exploring, experiencing and representing what creates an impression in the  rhythms and flux of contemporary urban spaces. An example is  negotiating, and becoming lost in, the  liminal spaces of Shinjuku Station’s large subway and railway hub that consisting of over 40 exits, major department stores and many of the other conveniences and advertising associated with Tokyo’s subway stations.The flâneur/flâneuse abroad is the tourist — a consuming tourist-flâneur who has the freedom to roam and experience being lost in the globalized, postmodern mega-city. A neo-flâneur in the conditions of postmodernity’s commodity culture, its moving mass of crowds, surveillance, global brands and garish mediascape.

Tokyo replaces nineteenth century Paris of Baudelaire and Benjamin for photographic flânerie.

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