Critical Fieldwork 43

Provoke and Con-pora V: Shigeo Gocho Self and Others Reconsidered

In my opinion only one individual, Shigeo Gocho, strikes me as standing out in this period as a representative of the theatrical first-generation post-modernist type. It would be impossible to describe the photographs of Shin Yanagisawa produced from before 1966 as Con-pora on account of their influence relationship, but the difference between Shigeo Gocho (Japanese Con-pora) and Shin Yanagisawa (antecedent of Con-pora) is the difference between an isolated post-modernist and the last modernists. Compared to the work of the last modernists such as Yanagisawa, who had an affinity for the absorptive school as represented by the likes of Atget, Evans and Frank (and consequently also Nakahira), Gocho’s work was more theatrical, more identifiably “photographs of photographs.” The characteristics of mirror imagery, symmetry and so on that I identified earlier when analyzing Con-pora photography are also reflected in his artwork (inkblots, marbling, etc).

As has already been pointed out, in Self and Others Gocho theatrically surrounds his photographs of theatrical subjects who stare intently at the camera with a black border. By doubling the theatricality, the fragmentation and dissimilation of the photo is directed towards the act of taking a photo and of a photo being taken itself, and the person viewing the photo “immerses” him or herself not into the reality beyond the photo but into the very situation, or the very environment, that is the “photo.” In this photobook, however, not only is “the situation that is the photo” reduced to the minimum relationship between the self and others, but also, as pointed out last time, “the environment that is the photo” as the thing that the viewer is immersing him or herself in is similarly assigned to “outside Japan” = bases (Camp Zama).

I don’t think anyone would doubt that the conspicuous feature one notices first upon looking though the photobook Self and Others is the black borders that surround practically all of the photos. This being the case, what significance should we attach to the four photos out of the sixty – #19, #20, #26 and #60 as counted from the beginning – that in contrast have no black borders? (1)

Shigeo Gocho – From Self and Others (1977). All: Courtesy Yamaguchi Prefectural Art Museum.
#19 Group Photo, Students of Tokyo Zokei University.

#20 Black Boy, Camp Zama, Kanagawa

#26 Twin Boys

#60 Children Running Away, Camp Zama

Again, the theatricality in Gocho’s work is that they are photographs of “photography,” and the role of the black borders is to further emphasize the fact that “this is a photo” and prevent the viewer becoming absorbed in the picture. And so the works in this photobook are imbued with the theatricality of motif x the theatricality of black borders, or in other words a doubling of photographic qualities. As for #19 and #26, theatricality is already doubled within the picture itself, through the subject looking at the camera x the absence of a decisive moment typical of group photos with large numbers of people (the male in the hat left of center has missed the moment of shutter release) (2) in #19 and through the subject looking at the camera x the symmetry of the twins in #26. In other words, there was no need to add black borders as well.

The problem is #20. The layout in which photos taken in similar circumstances, one with a black border and one without, are contrasted on facing pages was seen with #18 (a group photo with a black border) and #19 (a group photo without a black border), and here again we see that while #20 and #21 are both snaps shot at Camp Zama, #20 doesn’t have a black border but #21 does. #21 conforms to the standard pattern of this photobook in that it has the subject looking at the camera x black border (a doubling of theatricality), but #20 has the subject looking at the camera only and lacks a black border (single theatricality). If the black border was omitted from #20 for the same reason as #19, then there must be another source of theatricality somewhere within the picture. The answer lies in #60, which forms a pair with #20 for the reason that it was also shot at Camp Zama during the same Independence Day fireworks display. #60, which is devoid of both the subject looking at the camera and a black border, is a famous work showing a group of children seen from behind disappearing into the light, and with respect to both the way the children are seen from behind and the way they are disappearing, one could probably say this is a photo of absorption itself. This absorption is expressed through the image of the children disappearing into the light. In contrast, #20 is a photo with the same light in the background but with a young man emerging from it. In other words, the motif is of escaping from absorption, or awakening from it. If we consider this a kind of theatricality, then the reason why a black border wasn’t added to #20 immediately becomes clear. (3)

So, if #59, the final photo in this sequence of the self and others in which the photographer, Gocho, himself appears as the other is the conclusion per se of Self and Others, then one could interpret #60, which appears after the curtain has fallen, as it were, as fulfilling the role of introducing the next photobook. Which is to say the theme of the next photobook, Familiar Street Scenes (1981), is absorption. (To be continued)

“1968 – Japanese Photography” was held form May 11 through June 15, 2013 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

  1. Another work, the family portrait taken when Gocho was six (#58 as counted from the beginning), lacks a black border, but it does have the white border that is often seen in old family photos. Also, while there is no camera’s point of view in #34 (sleeping woman), instead the entire room is painted white and made to look like a stage set. All the numbers are based on Shigeo Gocho Self and Others (Editorial supervision by Kotaro Iizawa and Motoki Tsuda, Miraisha, 1994)

  2. Even the present writer realizes this reason is far-fetched, but there can be no coincidences in this photobook that was so meticulously put together by Gocho and I was unable to come up with a more convincing reason why a black border was added to the group photo #18 (At Karuizawa) and not added to the group photo #19 (especially given the two are presented on facing pages).

  3. This, too, is far-fetched. But again, there can be no coincidences in this photobook of Gocho’s, and so why, especially given they were both shot at Camp Zama, has a black border been added to #20 but not to #21, and why are they then presented on facing pages? A more convincing reason needs to be found.

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