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Takashi Homma: New Documentary Review by Prajna Desai

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Prajna Desai, a writer and academic editor based in Tokyo, gave her review for Homma’s traveling exhibition “New Documentray” on the Fall 2011 edition of aperture.

aperture FALL 2011号に掲載された、Prajna Desaiによるニュー・ドキュメンタリー展レビュー記事を転載させていただきました。

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Takashi Homma is a top-order Japanese photographer who first came to wider notice with his 1998 project Tokyo Suburbia, featuring suburban developments and impassive young adults. The series was exalted for its reserve toward subject matter, won Japan’s prestigious Kimura Ihei Contemporary Photography Award in 1999, and launched Homma’s international career. Since then, his lens has ranged freely across waves, mountain peaks, Italian women, storefronts, and wildlife corridors in California, recently homing in on the split icon Tokyo/children.

New Documentary, which originated at Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and was then presented at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery, is Homma’s first museum solo show. In Tokyo, six rooms displayed representative series, including Widows (2009) and M (2000–2009, 2010–11), as well as the film Short Hope (2011) and Reconstruction (2011), an installation of books containing images of magazine spreads and covers rephotographed by Homma.

Three major works chart Homma’s career from Tokyo Suburbia to the present. The first, Tokyo and My Daughter (1999–2010), which contains architectural exteriors, city shots, and a girl at varying ages, is a paean to vernacular and popular photography. Despite the title, the girl in the images is not Homma’s daughter—a mild fraudulence hinting at Homma’s position on photographic record as a sliding scale of meaning. The series deploys an archival format, interweaving rephotographed images of the girl sourced from her parents with Homma’s own images of the city and some of the girl. One view originally shot on an automatic device shows the same girl at a petting zoo. An overhead portrait of the sleeping child, legs thrown apart, captures the ero-romance of new parenthood. Another image, filled with mouth-watering color, shows her seated at a table, her fingers clasped around an empty glass jar. With very few exceptions, who shot what in this series is largely unclear. Amateur practice and professional facility blur together, though Homma’s trademark attention to creating visually comforting frames seems to prevail, an impression that results partially from the viewer’s inclination to attribute works in a series to one authority. But the converse may also be said: Homma sourced only those photographs consistent with his own formal proclivities— symmetry, centered subjects, and good-looking (but humorless) characters.

Regardless of the method, these pedestrian images of mundane things could be mistaken for parodies of a layperson’s grasp of photography. Even the images of Tokyo city in this series, which are certifiably Homma’s, are no less ordinary. One city view, for instance, shot from a commercial aircraft with the wing visible up top, is classic tourist photography. Another image, of a Tokyo highway, mimics the tendency of front-seat car passengers to shoot through the windshield for the vivid blue hue its filter imparts.

The show’s catalog further implies intent behind the “de-skilling.” The images are meant to look ordinary because Homma has a bone to pick: he wants to demonstrate that photography’s documentary prestige has slid away and now lives within this ambiguous realm of half-genuine document and half-invention. (Still, it seems reasonable to question an idea that, more than twenty-five years since it was first widely argued by critics, is now textbook knowledge.)

The second set of images is Together—Wildlife Corridors in Los Angeles (2006–8), a series with a far simpler message. Fifteen photographs, each paired with detailed text by Los Angeles–based artist Mike Mills, feature tunnels built under desert highways for mountain lions to commute between habitats. The dominant trope here is the trace after the fact. Sites in the photographs were determined by GPS data of mountain lions’ movements in the area.

 

There are long shots and semi-close-ups of the tunnels, views shot through them, and images of animal footprints in surrounding areas. While this is ostensibly a collaboration, Homma showing and Mills telling, the text does most of the work, while Homma’s images are weighted down by specific, repeating locations where mountain lions have crossed. Consequently, the images lack variety; one or two views would have sufficed where there are fifteen.

The imbalance between text and image is worth belaboring, not because art photography should be self-explanatory, but because Homma is wearing a cap that does not fit. Other work based on an archival format—such as Tokyo and My Daughter and Widows (both in this show), and Hyper Ballad: Icelandic Suburban Landscapes (1998; not in the show)—suggests Homma is not a natural raconteur, that he borrows good stories. It also shows how much the overall non-threatening quality of his work depends implicitly on the in-built elements of scene—chubby girl, pretty room, and interesting architectural shapes. In contrast, the Southern Californian desert in the mid-afternoon sun lacks comparable scene-setters. Here, the light bounces off the asphalt, and shadows, especially in the semi-close-ups, lend the desert brush the appearance of unsightly blobs. Poignant issue notwithstanding, this series is about as gripping as land-survey photographs.

Fortunately, Homma’s talent for creating a pretty picture out of a few strategic details resurfaces in the final room of this exhibition. Trails (2009–11) records Homma’s experience of accompanying a deer hunter on a spree. Dark, leafless bramble, bloody-looking streaks, and brilliant snow recur in every image. Ten large color prints, twenty more color prints divided across a diptych, and a set of small, acrylic drawings create variations on the themes: more or less bramble, fresher or more congealed blood, and smoother or rougher snow across which something (presumably the deer’s carcass) was dragged. The work in this series might not be exceptional, but it is not without some pleasure. Moreover, the textures, patterns, and tones stand on their own without a verifiable backstory, which seems absent by design. With the hypothetical dead deer nowhere to be seen, the visual puzzle—Is that really blood, or am I being had?—returns us to the issue of record and authenticity intimated in Tokyo and My Daughter.

A meta-reading of this issue and of the show’s title appears in the introductory catalog essay by Noi Sawaragi. Apparently, Homma’s work is trying to render photography’s mortality, or increasing superfluity. He is documenting its contemporary predicament, and in so doing creating a “new documentary.” Although the proposition of Homma as photographer-philosopher is persuasive as an idea, it materializes only in very few works, such as the early Tokyo Suburbia, an exception to the rule of thumb dictating the more typical Homma in New Documentary. The works here make up with familiarity, visual pleasure, or textual information what they lack in ideas, and are best appreciated by first reconciling to what they are––ordinary images made by an award-winning expert.

Takashi Homma: New Documentary originated at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. The show was presented at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, April 9–June 26, 2011, and continues its tour at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art.
Prajna Desai is a writer and academic editor based in Tokyo. She is currently working on a novel.

Written by iseki ken

2012/01/31 at 9:00

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