Critical Fieldwork 52

Photographs as graves: Taiji Matsue’s JP-01 SPK (Part 2)

JP01-80 from Taiji Matsue’s photo book JP-01 SPK (AKAAKA, 2014) All images: © Taiji Matsue, courtesy the artist and Taro Nasu.

The first 11 works in the photobook are all photos of forests. This is a motif that appears frequently in Matsue’s work, but because of the introduction of subtle differences in color due to the season, in the direction of light and shadow, and in the height from which they are taken, our sense of direction is gradually undermined: Is the camera angle horizontal or vertical? Are we looking at a scene directly in front of us or are we looking down on a scene below us? Where is the ground? This confusion comes to a head with the 12th photo (JP01-80), which shows what appears to be a dam directly in front of us but which is actually a lake formed by a dam covered in snow more or less directly below us, while the white Erman’s birches (multiple), the snowfield bathed in light (JP01-79), the photo in which the shadows of trees describe oblique lines on a snowfield, upsetting our sense of direction (JP01-71), and the autumnal forest that appears to be swirling (JP01-67) trifle with the viewer one after the other.


The oblique light, back light and shadows that depart from Matsue’s usual style have been introduced to upset our spatial orientation and produce a flat picture plane. At the same time, we realize that our spatial orientation of up, down, left, right, front and back (xyz axes) is reliant on a viewpoint that is fixed to the earth by gravity, or in other words that in aerial photography, such a sense of direction is not presupposed to begin with and inessential.

From the 21st work onwards, clouds (JP01-25) and rivers appear, restoring our sense of direction, and we leave the forest sequence and from the 23rd work onwards enter areas adjacent to forests, which is to say intermediary areas between nature and artificiality. Presently, in the 28th work, logical structures symbolic of cities begin to appear in a photo of a cemetery, with the 32nd work, a photo of a cemetery shot at ground level (SPK132022), marking the turning point of the photobook as a whole. This cemetery is the midway point between nature and the city and in the pioneer history of Sapporo, and is where the artist first lands on the ground. In fact, this photo shot at ground level is one of the most arresting “departures” in the entire photobook. The very next image, the 33rd (JP01-27), is also of an old cemetery, this one a cemetery left over from the pioneer days that is hardly distinguishable from the surrounding residential area. So why is a cemetery the first place Matsue landed and why does it occupy such a pivotal position in the photobook?



First, let us consider the significance of these photos taken at ground level. People often mistakenly believe otherwise, but the majority of Matsue’s work prior to the JP series consisted not of aerial photography, but of photographs shot from high places on the ground (hills, mountains, cliffs, towers, high-rise buildings, etc). As well, the subjects were shot not at an angle but more or less front on. Among Matsue’s photos, aerial photos were the exception. Photos with no height taken from the level of a person on the ground (photos of fields and grassland; ITALY1999#13; OKLAHOMA1999#64, etc) have long existed, and in recent years Matsue has even engaged in something approaching (landscape) miniature model photography with the likes of SPK132054, as well as something approaching close-up photography with the likes of SPK132059.

Miniature landscape / virtual aerial photography (frontal composition) Above: SPK132054, below: Denmark17939 (2012), a miniature park in Africa.

Full coverage, terrestrial / virtual aerial photography (perpendicular composition) Above: SPK132059, below: MCT17451 (2012), seashells on the seashore.

If these and other photographs taken on the ground in recent years are examples of virtual aerial photography, then the terrestrial photos in this photobook beginning with the code SPK are photos taken after landing at particular locations in photos actually shot aerially. That is to say, while engaging in aerial photography he landed and did what he normally does – shooting front on city buildings standing in orderly rows, shooting front on gravestones standing in orderly rows. (1) In other words, the terrestrial photos that are exceptions in this photobook are actually common in Matsue’s photography. Which is why in fact the SPK photos are not “departures” but fulfill all the conditions mentioned earlier pertaining to Matsue’s usual photographic practice. One could even say they represent the prototype of this practice. Furthermore, one of the points of the JP series was height, in that they were shot at a low height between the geographic world (the height of satellite photography and aerial photography) and the human world (the height of snapshots). In other words, the location of the JP series and the position of Taiji Matsue’s photography is actually midway between nature (forests) and artificiality (cities), which is the grave. Photographs are graves.

The cemeteries for the militia sent to develop and guard Hokkaido who left no relatives behind and the old graves from the pioneer days still remain, as do numerous photographs (2) from the period of Hokkaido’s development, a period when nature and humans collided. (3) The pioneers ultimately faded from memory and became simply names engraved in stone, surviving in out-of-the-way parts of modern-day Sapporo despite being completely forgotten. The pioneers ultimately faded from memory and became simply images engraved on negatives, surviving as historical records. Becoming simply names and images that are engraved in matter, all identity and meaning in this world having vanished and been consigned to oblivion, yet still surviving. What better description of photographs? In this sense, photographs are graves. And just as there are new graves, so too are new photos taken.

To the extent that they represent the transformation of “absolute focus” into artworks, Taiji Matsue’s color photographs are artworks that are totally reliant on digital technology. However, photographs as graves, as things that survive mutely through history engraved in matter despite having been separated from their identity, are none other than analog photographs. In the context of Matsue’s completely digital work, the moment he landed on the ground as a caesura from his originally exceptional aerial photography, the essence of analog photography peeped out like a degenerated tailbone. (To be continued)

  1. Shooting Matsue-style photographs within photographs shot in Matsue’s style. This is what is meant by “nest,” the title of Matsue’s 2008 solo exhibition at Taro Nasu Gallery.

  2. T Although the pioneer era photographs of Kenzo Tamoto and the like are an important chapter in Japanese photographic history, having had a strong influence on Daido Moriyama’s work of the 1980s in particular, they have no direct connection to this photobook.

  3. Of course, Hokkaido was not in fact untamed nature but part of the Ainu cultural area, and so its “development” was not a collision between nature and humans but a collision between humans and other humans.

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