Critical Fieldwork 44

Provoke and Con-pora VI
Shigeo Gocho reconsidered: Familiar Street Scenes

In Self and Others, the relationship conveyed via the photographs is limited to that between the self and others standing face to face, and the stage for the absorption in the final photograph is a US military base. While taking this absorption as its theme, Familiar Street Scenes, which was self-published in 1981, shifts the setting to “familiar street scenes” in Japan and expands the relationship conveyed via the photographs to one that is basically impersonal, ie, the relationship of street snaps.

In the column before last I described how, in the 1970s and beyond, as Modernist photography underpinned by theories of photography whose common ground was the real = surreal “world as it is” went into decline, there emerged a group of photographers that might best be described as “the last Modernists” who retained the “real world” as a vacuum or as emptiness. In order to achieve a vacuum of meaning and of value – a pure photographic emptiness – some of these photographers adopted the so-called “plus minus zero” method, a method which, at the same time they execute it, sets off the two extremes of the dualism of Modernism against each other. In the 1990s, for example, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia attracted attention with his style in which “absorptive” images of people were exhibited “theatrically.” Through the use of staging and lighting effects, familiar street scenes are presented in such a way that the figures alone stand out. The absorption of these highlighted figures is deep, so that it appears as if they are standing motionless in a nook of a city, lost in a profound sense of solitude. At the same time, the lighting effects are clearly those of movies and commercials, and the manner in which the clear plusses and clear minuses strongly offset each other accentuates the emptiness in these works.

Philip Lorca DiCorcia – Left: New York, 1993, right: Tokyo, 1994

A little later, Beat Streuli also began a series of works that take aim at anonymous members of the general public on familiar streets using a telephoto lens. Streuli doesn’t use any of the kind of staging or lighting employed by DiCorcia, limiting himself to picking out subjects with his telephoto lens as part of a technique that remains firmly within the bounds of straight photography, but the methodology (the setting off against each other of absorption and theatricality) and the results (a feeling of emptiness) are the same.

Beat Streuli – Left: Tokyo 10-02-05 (2007), right: New York 01 (2001)

As readers who have seen Familiar Street Scenes will already have realized, similar images can also be found among Gocho’s work. Snaps of passersby taken from the edge of the traffic, the use of a telephoto lens, the choice of times of the day (evening) or seasons (autumn, winter) when the sun is low in the sky, composition in which people’s faces or bodies stand out almost as if they are under a spotlight, the strong contrast that arises from this – these common features distinguish the majority of the photographs in Familiar Street Scenes.

Shigeo Gocho – From Familiar Street Scenes (1981). All images hereafter: Courtesy Niigata City Art Museum.
Two photos employing the spotlight effect suggestive of DiCorcia. Left: Exquisite lighting effect on the face of the man in the coat. Right: Clever use of light as if a pin spotlight is shining on the girl in the middle right at the back with the foreground blurred.
(Shigeo Gocho, Familiar Street Scenes , reprinted edition, Yagisha, 2013, p. 33)*

Embossed effect achieved using a telephoto lens. The strength of contrast and control of the amount of light falling on the subject anticipate Streuli by 20 years.

Absorption and theatricality are set off against each other so that emptiness arises, and the viewer is absorbed into this vacuum – this is the way in which the work of the last Modernists functions. To ensure the balance whereby the two properly offset each other is maintained, the format of the work must possess a certain stringency, so the resulting vacuum absorbs all manner of (sentimental, philosophical, poetic…) words. The popularity of these artists is reliant on garrulity brought on by absorption into this vacuum.

Well then, after all this time, what should we make of the fact that Gocho’s Familiar Street Scenes was so pioneering when compared to both DiCorcia, whose work he anticipated, and Streuli? In the preface to this photobook, Gocho himself states the following:

[…] Beneath the surface of such diffused daily life, occasionally, it seems as if we are lugging a flash of the shadow of human existence. That pale shadow entwines in the pleats of words, accumulates in the vast air, and keeps any answer to the mystery on hold, all the while continuing to grow like a living being in the opaque swirl of everyday life.
At the periphery of consciousness I give myself up to the blowing wind and take steps along familiar streets. Standing at the edge of the traffic, I snap photographs. (1)

What exactly is the “shadow” of human existence? The simplest interpretation would be that “beneath the surface of … daily life” and in “the periphery of consciousness” there lurks a surreal world of the unconscious, and that photographs reveal this surreal world in the form of street snaps. But this would be an anachronistic surrealism, nothing more than a reiteration of the modern street snap. Far from anticipating them by 20 years, it is something from before Streuli and DiCorcia. It is inconceivable that Gocho, a photographer of the first generation of post-modernism who was essentially a theatrical genius, would, after Self and Others, aim in his final photobook for such a simple, reactionary “absorption in the direct manifestations of a surreal world.”

That being the case, could it be that, like Streuli/DiCorcia, the absorption in Familiar Street Scenes is absorption into emptiness after all? If so, it would be strange for an artist who ought to be removing from his photos all extraneous meanings and interpretations in order to achieve pure emptiness to add to his own photos at the outset such aesthetic and poetic phrases as “the shadow of human existence.” It is unimaginable that someone like Shigeo Gocho who spent years working on a single (self-published!) photobook did not understand what he was doing. (2)

And so we must search for the meaning of “the shadow” in the differences between Familiar Street Scenes and Streuli/DiCorcia. As pointed out above, there are photos in this photobook that have points in common with the work of both these men, but one cannot detect in these photos the formal stringency of Streuli/DiCorcia. The balance between absorption (people’s expressions and gestures) and theatricality (use of a telephoto lens or the spotlight effect) in Gocho’s photographs, which feature an assortment of both locations and subjects, is varied. In other words, lacking the necessary equilibrium of “plus minus zero,” Gocho’s photos fail to manifest emptiness. This is because although some of the works also incline towards absorption, the majority of them incline towards theatricality. Accordingly, it would seem that this excess of theatricality that prevents the manifestation of emptiness is the essence of “the shadow.” In particular, as elements that hardly ever appear in the work of Streuli/DiCorcia, one could point to Gocho’s use of tilt, low angles and subjects looking directly at the camera.

An excesses of theatricality. Above: Excessive use of spotlight effect. Below left: Photo of photo taking (Familiar Street Scenes, Yagisha, 2013, p. 70).* Below right: Low angle + overly cheerful expressions (ibid. p. 79).*.

Of these, tilt appears in only two photos, and in one of these (the opening photo, featuring a women in a kimono at a coming-of-age ceremony (?)) it is only used to capture the woman in the kimono in her entirety. A low angle is the angle at which people in the front row of a theater look up at a subject on the stage and at the same time signifies the short distance from which it is possible to be seen from on the stage. In street snaps, a subject looking at the camera is evidence that the person doing the looking has been detected by the person being looked at. In other words, the “flash of the shadow of human existence,” expressed as such excesses of theatricality, relates to the reversal of the relationship of seeing/being seen.

Two examples of the subject looking at the camera. Above: Low angle. Below: Telephoto. The spotlight effect further emphasizes this.

Self and Others was a photobook that “immersed” us in the relationship of “photography” itself by doubling the theatricality. This relationship was a binary one limited to the photographer himself and people close to him, in which sense it was one of face-to-face contact and symmetry. With Familiar Street Scenes we were once again “immersed” in the relationship of “photography” through an excess of theatricality. This time, however, Gocho chose as his framework not a pair relationship but the asymmetrical relationship – taking photographs unilaterally or surreptitiously – of street photography. And through the use of low angles and subjects looking at the camera, from out of this asymmetry emerges what one might call an “absolute pair relationship” formed automatically by the camera and lens themselves (just as a person who sees reflected light from an object several kilometers away is connected to that object by that light). Gocho released the shutter not at the moment he saw his subject but at the moment he was seen, or in other words at the moment the unfamiliar other and himself, the other from the point of view of the other, became a “pair.” The “flash of the shadow of human existence” is the shadow that is always already cast by the self/other over the other/self, or in other words the terrifying interchangeability or symmetry of the self and the other. For Gocho, photography was a medium for realizing with not a hint of human sentiment the “pairing” of the self and others.

*Out of respect for the wishes of the copyright holder, only five images from Familiar Street Scenes have been published.

  1. Shigeo Gocho, Familiar Street Scenes, reprinted edition (Tokyo: Yagisha 2013).

  2. When artists of emptiness talk about their own work, they often strategically emphasize the “content” of their photographs. They are photos of emptiness, but by suggesting they have documentary-like qualities they are again adopting a plus-minus-zero strategy, this time with respect to the presentation of their photos. See DiCorcia’s male prostitute series (1990-92), for example.

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