Feeling Around for Matter: Mikiko Hara’s Quiet Observations
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Mikiko Hara has steadily been gaining recognition for her work both in Japan and internationally since the publication of her first photobook, Hysteric Thirteen, in 2005. She received the prestigious 42nd Kimura Ihei Award, in 2017, for the 2016 photobook Change, she has had numerous solo exhibitions in Japan, and her work has been attracting the attention of curators outside of Japan.
Hara’s eclectic photographs and her mode of practicing photography provide an opportunity to think about the relationship among photographer, camera, subject, and viewer as one of entanglement. Her photographs are not easy to categorize, which is part of what makes her work so compelling. Equally, though, this makes her work difficult to read according to received categories and understandings of photography.
This article examines Hara’s work across two of her photobooks: Hysteric Thirteen (2005) and These Are Days (2014). I argue that Hara’s feeling around for matter — her photographic philosophy of “scooping up” what is around her — decenters the gaze and instead emphasizes a different hierarchy of the senses in the experience of taking and consuming photographs. The tactile format of the photobook meshes with Hara’s use of analogue photography, which has its own tactile materiality, and her emphasis on the camera as an apparatus that can grasp at things beyond our attention.
That many of Hara’s photographs are taken in the street, in public areas, and in areas of transit, with waiting a theme apparent in many of her images, does not mean her photographs fit neatly into the genre of street photography. As Lesley Martin writes, “To call it ‘street photography’ is ontologically correct, but not complete.” Although there is no one single and absolute definition of street photography, what Hara produces certainly exceeds the conventions of the genre and can be read in line with the street photographer’s emphasis on the transitory and fleeting. Too, her practice does often operate in “the borderland between intrusion and the observation” that is associated with the genre. And yet Hara is not seeking Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” which has historically driven street photography. Instead, she tries to “scoop up” the continuous life that surrounds her and practices a less directed, more contemplative gaze: “I don’t depend on coincidence, and it does not induce me to photograph either. Rather, I yield myself to the natural flow, go out and stop where I photograph.”
Hara has repeatedly referred to her photographs as snapshots that accumulate daily moments. It is important to note that the term sunappu is a concept and tradition indigenous to Japanese photography and is distinct from the Western sense of the snapshot. Kai observes: “[U]nlike the snapshot in English, sunappu as a term used to discuss Japanese photography does not necessarily imply casualness.” Therefore, the word does not imply amateurism or a lack of care: “[T]he word sunappu can be used to describe a work of art photography without adding any pejorative overtones; for example, works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand have often been called sunappu or sunappu shotto, because they characteristically include candid photographs of people on the street.” Well-known Japanese photographers such as Shômei Tômatsu, Daido Moriyama, and Nobuyoshi Araki worked with — and transformed — the tradition of the snapshot, and the tradition holds relevance for contemporary Japanese photographers, among them, I argue, Hara. She employs the candid nature of the snapshot, but with her own intentional philosophy of attention. She uses the camera to glean what surrounds her, in the tradition of the sunappu.
After receiving her training in photography, Hara began a process of “unlearning,” letting go of traditional ideas about composition and framing. Hara’s philosophy turns away from Cartier-Bresson’s infamous one, which insists that “If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established.” Hara’s liberation from the constraints of composition and the standard protocols of photography has released from her a deluge of photographs that call for a different kind of attention, one that matches Hara’s own observant practice.
Hara’s camera catches the small gazes and interchanges that happen without words, as we move through public spaces. This creates “a vague landscape of people whose sense of place is constantly interrupted by an apparent state of introspection.” The photographs hover, never quite settling into a specific time, place, or reading, and Hara takes us “through a territory that is fluid, temperamental and less-pronounced.” Her subjects are often in transit — walking, waiting for trains, running after a ball. These are interspersed with moments of stillness: empty landscapes, flowers tilting onto a fence, empty children’s swings. Many of the images are set in what Marc Auge would describe as a non-place, those “spaces of continuous movement and dislocation.” These non-places often produce the feeling of being together but apart, in a place “where people cohabitate without living together.” Some of Hara’s photos have been read as being about “distance and isolation of people in public spaces — especially of women.” But this doesn’t capture the whole story, because if her photos are about isolation and distance, they are also about connection, wry moments, and ambivalence.
Hara’s photographs often present a tension between looking and not looking, images that show subjects looking aside or looking through. Hysteric Thirteen, for example, starts with a photograph of a cat with an eye missing and concludes with a photograph of a man talking on a phone in a carpark, an image taken from the inside of a car looking out. These motifs of partial and diffused vision are woven through the two books. Many of Hara’s images are taken through glass: Her camera catches rain on windows, peers through car windows and those of buildings. In one image, a girl looks through a net barrier around a diorama, her eye caught on something to the side of Hara’s camera. In These Are Days there are three photographs of subjects with their eyes closed, and there are three images of women who catch the camera’s gaze. In Hysteric Thirteen, there is, in addition to the one-eyed cat, a photograph of a female subject standing under a sign that reads NOTICE THIS IS EAST EXIT, her face in profile with a patch over one eye. Another photograph features a young woman standing on the street, both eyes closed to the movement of the street around her, the daylight illuminating her face. Another image, taken on a ferry or boat, shows a woman standing with her eyes closed, and a couple with the woman looking directly at the camera lens and the man gazing out to sea. All of these are, to some extent, photographs that capture the exteriorizing of an interior moment.
Hara is not aiming to present her own perspective in her photographs, she insists: “I just want to exist as transparently as possible along the way.” She sees the camera as “more honest, simple, cool-headed and unforgiving than my own eyes. Rather than making the photographer’s ideas a reality, I see it as an apparatus that can grasp and slowly scoop up things we cannot understand or perceive.” Hara’s insistence that she doesn’t see the camera as a connective tissue between her own ideas and perceptions and the moments she photographs is reminicent of Takuma Nakahira’s writings, which speak of a desire to free photography from subjectivity. Nakahira, a crucial interlocuter in Japan’s photographic culture and theory, calls for “the role of the photographer not as a structuring subjectivity (that is, as an ‘artist’), but rather as the ‘systematizer’ of a [record] of interlocking gazes.”
There is a link between Nakahira’s photographic practice and its “primal unruliness” and Hara’s own uninhibited approach. Hara’s work is harnessing the properties of photography to present a mode of being that is “conflated with the material world, as though we are nothing but a collection of these moments, irregular assemblages of people, places, and things.” However, there is a danger in perceiving Hara’s practice as an unrestrained one. For while it is unrestrained — with an inconsistent color palette and an open approach to framing and composition — it is also a highly developed approach to what it means to translate the material world onto a photographic frame.
I argue that what differentiates Hara’s way of taking candid photographs from other photographers is that she practices a kind of embodied mode of photography that isn’t just about the eye’s vision. According to Clive Scott, “For the street photographer, the mobile frame of the viewfinder is the instrument of illumination.” Yet for Hara, this mobile frame is a distraction. She chooses to hold the camera at chest level and photograph without relying on the viewfinder. Hara says: “I soon learned to take pictures without even lining up the shot at eye-level, never sure of what I photographed or how it would look until seeing the contact sheets.” Taking away her eye from the viewfinder means she is giving something over to the camera, but this does not mean she is not present. Rather, she operates as a kind of assemblage — what’s out there, Hara’s camera, Hara’s looking, and the viewer’s look — that creates a circuit of gazes that is always an open and ambivalent one.
This decentering of the seeing eye at the moment of photographing is reminiscent of the importance that Roland Barthes places, in Camera Lucida, on the finger, rather than the eye: “[T]he Photographer's organ is not his eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates.” Carol Mavor observes that Barthes’ emphasis on the finger rather than the eye has larger implications. She writes, “Barthes nimbly moves photography away from the eye (which is always closely connected to seeingness, believability, the truth, the proof, the real) and into the finger, the haptic guide to materiality, and finally into the ear, which catches not light but the sounds of photographic machinery at work, the sound of material time being clicked away, like a chisel on stone.”
I suggest that this shift away from the eye also applies to Hara, whose photography engages not just sight but other senses as well. A recent short piece on Hara’s work compares her photography to sound, and frames Hara’s images as a collection of utterances that “capture an amplitude of ambient noises and reverberations.” If we understand Hara’s photographs as an assortment of noises, then Hysteric Thirteen and These Are Days ask us to lean closer in order to make out sounds, but the sounds never quite form words.
Hara’s Pages, Paper Gazes
Hara’s decentering of the eye from her practice of taking photographs is also at play in her use of the photobook form. The photobook immediately brings a tactility to the experience of her photographs — these are photographs that are held. They offer a ripple of a memory, or a sensation, or a glance, that can oscillate from calm to unease within a single image. In the context of her photobooks, these small sensations slowly accrete and build on each other, with the turning of a page enabling a new wave of ambiguity and feeling.
The photobook is a specific genre of books by photographic artists. Although definitions of the term photobook are variable and contested, to be considered a photobook a book must be more than a container of photographs. Instead, it calls for some engagement with the form of the book: “a thinking through of how a series of photographs is received in book form.” This involves a deliberate and coherent design, a specific theme or subject, and, crucially, an emphasis on how the images work collectively, through the book form, to create meaning.
There is a strong print culture in Japan, and it is customary for photographers there to publish their work in photobooks. Many photographers begin a project with the intention to make a photobook, whereas in the West emphasis is typically placed on wall prints. This is due partly to the relative ease with which photographers in Japan — even emerging ones — can find publishers for their work. The authors of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s go so far as to claim that “Japanese photography is best understood via the photobook.” The privileging of the photobook form over the exhibition print in Japan is marked by a specific approach that explores the possibilities of sequencing and juxtaposition and places less importance on single images and reproduction quality.
As I have argued elsewhere, the experience of a photobook that you can hold in your hands is more intimate than looking at images on gallery walls. The photobook requires the direct physical act of turning pages, and the viewer has the potential to return to the book in different contexts beyond the opening hours and spaces of the gallery. The experience of reading a photobook is guided by the tactility of the book, its scale, and the book design. And yet, often the materiality of the photobook does not receive attention.
The photographs that make up Hara’s Hysteric Thirteen: Hara Mikiko (2005) and These Are Days (2014) do not having a single, straightforward theme. In both photobooks, Hara accumulates images that offer glimpses of spaces and subjects in and around Tokyo. The books present to us animals, humans, background, and plants for equal attention. This mode of attention “turns even the sky she sees into a character all of its own.” There is no personal narrative, no overarching frame or story that defines the project of each book. What the two books — and Hara’s photographic philosophy more generally — make apparent is the need for a more nuanced framework for thinking about photography as an “entangled practice,” to borrow Christopher Pinney’s term. Pinney calls for “a new kind of ratio, a new way of conceptualizing photography as technical practice itself in a state of continuous transformation (or as Barthes would say, “declension”), which is imbricated with equally fluid subjects (both in front of and behind the camera).” Hara’s emphasis on the camera as an apparatus that gathers up material, and the open circuit of gazes in her work, also fits with the idea of photography as an entangled practice. The intersubjective entanglement of looking and not looking between photographer and subject meets with the linkage of materiality, tactility, and looking in the form of Hara’s photobooks.
Reading Hara’s photobooks is, as one author described after viewing These Are Days, “an experience of patience and observation.” The sequencing of Hysteric Thirteen and These Are Days demonstrates Hara’s aesthetics of noticing, and there is a deliberate attention to the scale of the images. These Are Days, for example, comprises layouts of two small photographs on a page, or a single photograph that bleeds to the edge of the paper, and sometimes a single large image on a double spread. This has the effect of drawing us in and out of proximity to the image. The twenty-four images in the book are threaded with small connections of shapes, colors, and gazes, and always the sense of Hara’s struggle between looking and not looking. For example, the opening image of the donkey has a fence with a similar shape to the stair railing in the third image of the book, and the third image features two subjects walking down the stairs. The woman has her eyes closed, about to brush hair away from her face, and the man is looking down at an object in his hands. Sequenced between the photograph of the donkey and the pair on the stairs is an image of a mass of deep green leaves, open and seeking the sun and framed on one edge by a thick rope. These first three images in These Are Days don’t set up any kind of cohesive narrative. Instead, they bring into proximity animals, plants, and humans and imply the containment of all of them.
Unlike These Are Days, Hara’s Hysteric Thirteen has a consistent approach to scale, with all of the images printed to the same size. However, it has a similar cadence to These Are Days in that some of the double pages hold a single image and others contain two. This “pause” that the blank pages provide give space to some of the images. Where there are two images on the open spread, there are small subtle connections that can be made. For example, on one double-page spread, the first image has a blue vase in the foreground with out-of-focus pink flowers peering out and, in the focused background, the gaze of a young girl directly at the camera, sitting at the table in the interior room with her hand poised on the blind at the window. This photograph is paired with a one of pink flowers in the foreground in clear focus with houses sitting solidly in the background. The thread of connection between the pink flowers is made, as is the entanglement between interior and exterior, as the girl’s hand opens the blind to the outside world and the exterior scene of the flowers and the houses.
These Are Days begins and ends with the figure of an animal and the impression of containment. The opening photograph is an image of a fenced-in donkey with two men and cherry blossoms in the background. The closing photograph again features the donkey, with its mouth pushed through the fence, seeking an unlikely escape. The twenty-four images that make up These Are Days are dated between 2000 and 2014, but their time reference is vague: these are images of someplace, somewhere, sometime. For Hara, the images “belong to no specific time or place. What’s interesting to me is that each one is a real moment I shared with my subjects; we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” The moment of entanglement between Hara and her subjects as she presses the shutter release produces further entanglements when the images are sequenced in a photobook. The photobook form produces new connections and proximities between different photographs. As the viewer holds the photobook, tactility and looking become entangled. Further to this, the viewer’s gaze becomes part of the assemblage of Hara’s camera, Hara’s looking, and the subject’s (often partial, diffused, but sometimes direct) gaze on the other side of the camera. Hara’s photobook captures this open, ambivalent circuit of gazes and ask us to notice looking, and its hapticity, as a form of entanglement.
Hara’s images are difficult to define according to traditional genres of photography. They are snapshots in the sense that they are unplanned, they are street photographs as they are often taken in public spaces, and they are sometimes portraits that often feature women or girls. But most of all they are quiet and subtle observations of the experience of being one among many — of feeling together and apart — in the transitory spaces of cities. Hara’s very particular practice of shooting from the chest without looking through the camera’s viewfinder, and her mode of photographic seeing, decenters the gaze from photography and engages other senses in the experience of taking and consuming photographs.
By examining Hara’s work across two of her photobooks: Hysteric Thirteen (2005) and These Are Days (2014), I’ve considered the way that the handheld photobook, so common to Japanese photographic art practice, contributes to the experience of Hara’s photographs. Her approach — to scoop up the world around her with her camera and to use the photobook form — draws together tactility and looking.
Jane Simon is a lecturer at Macquarie University, in Sydney, where she teaches and conducts research on photography, film studies, and visual cultural studies. Dr. Simon has published book chapters on contemporary Japanese photographers, such as Rinko Kawauchi and Takashi Yasumura.
Clive Scott, Street Photography: From Brassai to Cartier-Bresson (I.B.Tauris, 2007), 5; Meir Wigoder, "Some Thoughts about Street Photography and the Everyday," in History of Photography 25, no. 4 (December 2001): 368–78, https://doi.org/10.1080/03087298.2001.10443239.
Sean O’Hagan, "Why Street Photography Is Facing a Moment of Truth," in the Guardian, 18 April 2010, sec. Art and Design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/apr/18/street-photography-privacy-surveillance.
Yoshiaki Kai, ‘Distinctiveness versus Universality: Reconsidering New Japanese Photography," in Trans Asia Photography Review 3, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 285, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7977573.0003.203.
Philip Charrier, "Nakahira Takuma’s 'Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?'" (1973) and "The Quest for 'True' Photographic Realism in Post-War Japan," in Japan Forum, 14 September 2017, 7, https://doi.org/10.1080/09555803.2017.1368689.
Patrizia Di Bello and Shamoon Zamir, "Introduction," in The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond, eds. Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson, and Shamoon Zamir (I.B. Tauris, 2012), 1–16; Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, vol. 1 (London: Phaidon, 2004); Andrew Roth, ed., The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present (Göteborg, Sweden: Hasselblad Centre, 2004).
Jane Simon, "Photographs, Notebooks, Interiority: Francesca Woodman’s Artist’s Books," in Photography and the Artist’s Book, eds. Teresa Wilkie, Jonathan Carson, and Rosie Miller (Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc Press, 2012), 126.
Russet Lederman, "Then and Now: Japanese Women Photographers of the 1970s and ’80s Revealed Through Their Photobooks," in Trans Asia Photography Review 8, no. 1 (Fall 2017), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7977573.0008.102.
Parr and Badger, The Photobook, 1:269; Ivan Vartanian, Performance and the Japanese Photobook: interview with Ivan Vartania, 6 July 2016, http://akinabooks.com/the-japanese-photobook-interview-with-ivan-vartanian/.
Anne Wilkes Tucker, "Why So Personal?" in Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers, eds. Ivan Vartanian, Akihiro Hatanaka, and Yutaka Kanbayashi (New York, London: Aperture; Thames & Hudson distributor, 2006), 11.
Italics in original. Ivan Vartanian, "The Japanese Photobook: Toward an Immediate Media," in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ʼ70s, by Ryūichi Kaneko and Ivan Vartanian (New York: Aperture, 2009), 12.
Steven Humblet, "The Rhythms of the Street: The Photobook as Walkscape," in Paper Cities: Urban Portraits in Photographic Books, eds. Susana S. Martins and Anne Reverseau (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2016), 75.
A recent publication in the Photopaper series from Germany, based on a series titled Kyrie (2019), continues Hara’s accumulation of photographic moments in non-places, and the motif of looking through with several images taken through glass windows or doors. It also continues Hara’s lack of concern for “perfect” images. But Kyrie is different in that it also contains images of interiors, with a photograph of her three sons and images of flowers in a kitchen sink. The images might contain domestic scenes, but they aren’t “about” the interior, any more than her streetscapes are about the street. Rather, they continue Hara’s project of quiet observation and gathering of the flow of life around her.