Japanese photographer Toru Ukai takes photos that I find both poetic and contemplative. He looks for ways to point to deeper systems at work in modern society. I love the way his images are thought-provoking and somewhat mysterious. I asked him eight questions about his work and his current projects, and you can see more of his images on his website. Our online conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I was born and brought up in a city about 80 kilometres away from Tokyo. It had several industrial parks and was an important point along a route from Tokyo to the Tohoku district, the northeast of Japan. Various types of people, including Koreans, and so-called hamlet people, lived there, and occasionally some trouble happened in the local community because of inconsideration and discrimination. When I entered university, I left my hometown for Tokyo. Now I live in the suburbs of Tokyo, though I moved around from one place to another, including China, after graduating from university.
What subject matter attracts you, and why?
Every subject matter attracts me as far as it reflects humanity. Though I usually take pictures on the street, I’m attracted also to the natural landscape which has been personified throughout history.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
Now I’m working on three projects. “Prewar Days” and “Theater Degree Zero” are identical twins based on a sense of crisis. Japan has been in the long “postwar” days as a defeated nation for more than 70 years. It seemed the postwar situation would be almost eternal. But I feel now it’s on the way out, in spite of the fact that Japan still looks peaceful. “Postwar” could be another name for “prewar” if we lost our modesty, discretion, tolerance, and interest in society. You could see the freezing cityscape–that is, isolation, fatigue, corrosion and some kind of totalitarianism–in my two projects. Nothing good or bad happens at the moment but the city is full of potential for transforming. Those two projects show the signs of crisis in a metaphorical way or occasionally in a direct way.
“Urban Shan-shui (山水)” is the newest project and mainly examines the interface between civilization/culture and nature, or their interference with each other. Sometimes a picture shows a harmonious balance between them, and sometimes the opposite. Many pictures from the project have been and will be taken outside Tokyo. In Kyoto and Nara, for instance. I hope this project shows you another side of my photography in every sense of the word.
What themes are you exploring in your photos?
What interests me the most is hidden and invisible structure in our modern society. The structure is working everywhere we live. Originally, it was born out of our desires, though it can often suppress and depress us. I call the structure “Invisible Machinery.” Sometimes it’s embodied in the social systems, the law and the architecture. Sometimes it appears in our own behavior, gestures and figures. “Invisible Machinery” lies in the outside and even in the inside of us. It’s invisible but the signs are everywhere around/among us. And I think a photograph can capture the invisible structure so well.
A photo is totally different from our pure eyesight. Our eyesight is dynamic and based on duration of time, that is, our life itself; on the other hand, a photo is static and excludes time/life from the whole reality in front of us. In the sense, photography is the art of death. To photograph is nothing other than to “stop.” Therefore, a photo could perceive something hidden in our daily life which is flowing continuously. Photography is a secret ceremony going back and forth between “visible” and “invisible.”
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
It’s an eternal question for me. When I feel good and concentrate on taking pictures, I can get a lot of pictures easily and comfortably. But the results aren’t always good, or rather, they tend to be pretty ordinary. But on the other hand, I often get an extraordinary one when I’m totally exhausted from walking around and taking pictures. I often get it on my way back. I guess I could take good pictures without a strong desire after getting tired.
Your photos often seem like visual poems. Do you see this reflected in your work?
Indeed, my friends often tell me so in spite of the fact that my pictures look like straight ones or so-called street pictures at first glance. Probably, it’s because I tend to make use of the concrete subject to symbolize something hidden and invisible, as mentioned above. In a sense, my pictures are metaphors for “Invisible Machinery” and often look like visual poems. I don’t know whether it’s good or not, but my eyes catch the realities in front of me that way. It may be based on my background. After graduating from university with a degree in literature, I was engaged in editing at a publishing company and even tried to write novels. The first time I decided to be a photographer, I was nearly 50 years old. I’m not a born photographer.
Tell us a bit about the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam and about the IBASHO Gallery in Antwerp.
Unseen Photo Fair/Festival is one of the biggest photographic events in Europe and mainly introduces emerging artists. I participated in it last September as a member of IBASHO Gallery. I was so surprised to find that straight pictures like mine were in the minority there, and they treated pictures as “fine art” in every sense of the word. Actually, the greater part of works there were abstract and manipulated ones. Additionally, some “pictures” were made without cameras. There was definitely no boundary between photographs and the other contemporary visual arts. Those pictures showed the excellent craftsmanship and, in the sense, my “street pictures” looked a bit incongruous at the fair. But I feel that sometimes those artistic pictures show the lack of a keen eye on the world. In other words, they do not photograph the realities in front of them but make the new realities which they themselves want to see. These days photography is in transition, whether it’s good or not. I can just say that it was a good experience in examining my own photography.
IBASHO Gallery specializes in Japanese photography, including pictures taken in Japan by Western photographers. It’s so enthusiastic about introducing Japanese photography to the West and incredibly energetic in holding and participating in photographic events in spite of the fact that it’s a comparatively young gallery. I think it’ll be one of the remarkable galleries in the world in the near future.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
Shōmei Tōmatsu, Eikoh Hosoe and Masahisa Fukase. These three masters are already famous in the world. But I can’t help mentioning them because their works embodied the spiritual climate of Japan from three different aspects. Tōmatsu’s work has social, political and historical perspectives. On the other hand, Hosoe’s work shows us his uniquely aesthetic world, and Fukase’s work tells us of his intimate connection to his surroundings. Their work shows the spiritual climate and the social situation of postwar Japan so eloquently in spite of the big differences in their photography and narratives. I think this is a result of their great insight into society, and their critical thinking. Their collective work remains a great landmark [that I aspire to].
Many thanks to Toru for doing this interview. I’m so appreciative of his thoughtful answers that provide insight into his work. He has such a unique vision of the world–be sure to check out his website.