Jesse’s book review, Street by Yasuhisa Toyohara
If you like Japanese street photography then you are going to really enjoy this book review. Jesse shares with us the 80’s street photography of Yasuhisa Toyohara. Check it out.
A lot of times I simply just trust the name of a publisher or distributor. Whether it is a film distributed by Criterion Collection, a Jazz record put out by Blue Note, or a novel published by Penguin you find you usually can’t go too wrong as the only discrepancy that could arise is a matter of personal taste. For Japanese photo books I always liked the now defunct publisher Mole. Think so far though the only other Mole published book I reviewed was Ikko Narahara’s Tokyo, the 50s. Having never heard of the photographer here, I chose it based off the publisher and was pleased with what I got.
I like his approach to street photography in his reluctance to walk the same place twice. Each photo in the book only offers a location and all of them are different. I find most photographers here choose one or two locations and shoot them repeatedly. This can be either good or bad as on one hand there is a continuity created in shooting the same location yet synonymous with that is the risk of becoming repetitive.
I’m not going to make the argument for one in favor of the other but what I will say is that often when a photographer chooses to shoot one location it is a location that has already been shot…to death. The case being with Tokyo…everyone has shot Shinjuku or Shibuya for instance. I get bored easily when I can recognize right away where a shot is taken whether it is via Instagram or at an exhibition as most don’t realize the sheer size of Tokyo. It is huge and all these various train lines and stations can serve as starting points that have their own character and style. This is exactly what Toyohara is saying with this book simply titled Street.
This is straightforward street photography. Everything is candid and everything is shot spontaneously on the street. There isn’t even a single static shot that even an Abe Jun will throw in his books every fourth page to offer if anything a moment of respite. It is all about the people as they go about their lives.
The photographer does note in that back that after a while he realized his photos were about himself. If he was tired and having a bad day, or more cheerful having a more productive one it shows in his subjects. Take for instance the photo above of the two women on each page. Both are a bit gloomy or downcast really highlighted by shadows that obscure their gazes. If he means what he says we know how he felt on both days and see it reflected in his subjects. The photo on the right I like because of the added feature of the line in the sidewalk that shows her gaze that is really a highlighted psychic line that reflects the mental connection his subject makes with another. Through these spontaneous moments these little compositional nuisances appear throughout the book.
In the two photos a curved line denoted by the curb defines both compositions that serve to lead us into the subjects on both pages. The woman on the right who stares back at us covers one eye with her arm that matches the contour of the curve. The photo on the left comes off a bit more complex. Follow this, the first thing we notice about this picture are the two women in the foreground, both of whom share a fixed gazed on the road ahead. The black of the woman’s suit matches the line of the shadow created by the guardrail that stops just at the homeless man in all black. His backdrop is a square with the lines of the fence leading us to a man smoking who is looking directly at us giving the photo its tension. This is already really good but then there is a street sign arrow that points to the man with a cigarette as a man in the extreme background follows the gaze of the arrow to the main with the cigarette. This is really good street photography.
Ultimately this book is about people and more specifically there expressions. Only a few shots features his subjects with obscured faces, as faces are the main point. It is the fears, insecurities, optimism, happiness, loneliness, etc of the people that pass us that he captures. I think with that flash style of street photography often the responses received are do to the photographer and more specifically the flash itself. You are not saying anything about a person when the emotion they show is the direct result of having a camera shoved in their face.
Here the photographer is very close to his subjects but rarely are their emotions due to his presence. The few occasions that he is the result of the emotions he conjures work due to the context. The photo below exemplifies this with the couple looking directly back at us. There are heavy shadows completely obscuring every subjects face except for the couples. The expressionistic shadow on the man’s face gives tension, the woman’s tension stems from the jagged lines of her dress and the fact that her body is closed away from us towards the man. Perhaps she is too attractive for the man suggesting something extra marital, the age difference if not the body language supports this. Maybe they are just a normal couple, but due to everything the photo entails it makes us wonder…which makes it all interesting.
Although not widely available I would except to pay no more than a hundred dollars for this book. As with most Mole books they weren’t many editions published. The original retail was 6,000 yen (60USD). I really enjoyed this book a lot.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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Some of the old Japanese books just blow you away. They show an adventurous spirit that your rarely seen in the society today. Looks like I shall be trying to hunt one of these down. Hara rules. Thanks Jesse.
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