Kamaitachi, 2009 © Eikoh Hosoe. Counter-Photography, Japan’s Artists Today, September 11 - October 5, 2009.
Kamaitachi, 2009 © Eikoh Hosoe. Counter-Photography, Japan’s Artists Today, September 11 - October 5, 2009.

Photography is most often associated with documentary. Since early experimentations in photography during the 1800s, the camera’s primary advantage over other traditional art has been its ability to capture a moment of real life.

This has also led many to consider photography as a lesser visual art form—and, by some, as not an art form at all—compared with painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. As Yuri Mitsuda writes in the exhibition’s catalog, once photography surpassed painting in documenting reality, painters were able to concentrate their efforts on exploring the spirit of things, presenting what is behind the visible.

Mitsuda, curator of this exhibit from the Shoto Museum of Art, insists that photography also does this and “Counter-Photography” aims to prove the point.

The exhibit is divided into two sections: “To Distill: Another Appearance,” where artists seek to “extract the essential ‘spirit’ of the subject;” and “To Reverse: Another Relationship,” where artists examine one’s relationships with oneself, others and one’s country.

The exhibit had not been mounted by press time, but a quick perusal of the exhibit catalog and brochure shows a variety of responses to the two challenges.

Eikoh Hosoe’s black and white photographs include some from his Kamaitachi series, the artist’s depiction of childhood stories about a supernatural being who haunts the Japanese countryside. They also include some from Embrace, in which faceless dark and light bodies press against each other and form abstract patterns. Hosoe was an influential figure in Japan’s avant garde movement and the photographs, which were taken in 1969 to 1970, are definitely of their time.

More evocative for me were Hiroko Inoue’s “Absence” and Miyuki Ichikawa’s “Dwelling of void/existing/in between” series. Although placed in different sections, the images have a similar aesthetic. Inoue’s “Absense” places the viewer inside, looking out a window towards another building of windows. The image is soft and grainy and the windows look warped. One can feel the sense of longing even without knowing that this is from a series she did inside mental institutions in different parts of the world.

The quibble I have is semantic. The subtitle of the exhibit says “Japan’s Artists Today,” but the work featured is from 1965 to 2000. Mitsuda writes that these are approaches Japanese artists are taking “in an age where people are caught between conflicting demands of globalization and pluralism.” While this has been true for the past 40 years, it seems the demands are even greater now in 2009 with the exponential advances in media technology and the different political shifts in response to globalization just in this past decade. Is there a difference between how artists at this present time are approaching this dilemma compared to 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago?

Still the exhibit is worth seeing to check out the range of styles and visions of these artists. And as the curator hopes, they “will strike a chord among viewers and offer man opportunities for new discoveries.”

Exhibit runs through Oct. 5, 2009. Photo Center Northwest, 900 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-720-7222, www.pcnw.org.

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