January 25th, 2007


Sociology for the eye to do

Bruce Osborn's Oyako - Portraying Japanese Generations series, currently being exhibited on Pingmag, is photography as sociology. Each picture portrays two generations, father and son or mother and daughter, while captions below detail their professions. And so we get a theatre group leader (in drag) with his acting student son, a pet shop owner with his (naked) porn star daughter, a retired sumo wrestler-turned-restauranteur with his son, also a retired sumo wrestler-turned-restauranteur. As in August Sander's famous series of German portraits, people are portrayed here not just in their family ties, but in their professions.

Sander has also influenced Shoichi Aoki, the pre-eminent street style photographer of his generation. But in a very different way: here it's the frontal, full-figure composition which recalls Sander -- the documentary style, the rectangular framing, the entomological pinning. What's gone from the photos in Aoki's three magazines, Tune, FRUiTS and Street, is any sense of what these people do for a living. Many, we suspect, are market traders, hair and make-up salon workers, secondhand clothes shop owners, furitas, students or dandy sponges living at home with their parents.

When we look at Kazu Asakura's street shoot in Sapporo for Shift zine, we get a slightly different set of people. These are the semi-professional "cafe girls" who interest themselves in art and design and frequent trendy cafes like the Shift Cafe many of these pictures are taken at. (Here I am two years ago making a podcast pilgrimage to that very cafe.) The Coromo Tokyo Street Style website gives us a different group again -- "professional" clothes shoppers in various parts of Tokyo. It's a reminder that, for some, consuming is also a kind of job, as essential to our society as Sander's clogged varnisher was to Cologne in 1930.

And then there are Rinko Kawauchi's keitai snaps. Here sociology has been replaced by a spiritually-infused subjectivity which transforms normal scenes -- a boy's bulbous head in an electronics store, a naked lightbulb flaring -- into something lonely, lyrical and mystical. No sociology here, no Sander; this is the world seen from the other side of the eye.