Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Distance and Slow Boat by Onaka Koji



Yutaka Takanashi in an interview once described his approach while working on Toshi-e as, "...two conflicting creatures settled into my body. One is a 'hunter of images', aiming exclusively to shoot down the invisible, and the other is a 'scrap picker' who can only believe in what is visible." Onaka Koji, a contemporary scrap picker to Takanashi has produced several books over the past ten years, of which, Slow Boat and Distance are my favorites.

In Distance, a book published in 1996 by Mole, Koji wanders to the outskirts of an unspecified city and into its industrial wastelands. His photos rejoice in the weighty infrastructure of rail lines, roadways, and finally the worn down port where ships sit awaiting the next economic boom.

Aptly named, Distance feels like the eyes of a wanderer who is alone and wishes to remain to his own discoveries. Whether that be lines of oil drums on a deserted path or a view of a bus station and telephone lines made through a filthy window. There is a connection with place but not with the population. people are seen but they are reduced to gestures - a reminder that this isn't a beautiful apocalypse but a functioning, living city.

His black and white tonalities are rich and dense - at moments Koudelka might be lurking in the heavy shadows. The printing of Distance accentuates the heaviness and in general, is not a great book beyond the stunning photos. Its cover is atrociously designed with heavy-handed silver foil typography and a textured stock but don't let that spoil the photographs.



Distance is long out-of-print and way overpriced on the secondary book market so I recommend Slow Boat as a fine alternative. Published originally in 2003 and re-published by Schaden in 2008, Slow Boat would have made my 'best of' list for that year if I had known about it.

Again, Koji is a distanced observer of life both within and at the margins of another unspecified city. Much of this work was rediscovered by Koji and appealed to his sense that he had no recognition or memory of making them. He also makes mention of assembling the sequence not with a logical framework in mind but "just in accordance with my own feelings at the time."

Compared to Distance, the complicated framing remains but his tonal scale in Slow Boat has shifted slightly to an overall greyish cast. This veil of flatness creates a calmer mood suited to what appear to be lazy days within the city. There doesn't seem to be work being done (none is directly shown) and when pedestrians are in the streets, they tranquilly stroll along under tangles of electric and phone lines.

I see a kinship between Yutaka Takanashi and Onaka Koji in both practice and descriptions of contemporary life in Japan. Takanashi raced toward Tokyo in a sports car describing the landscape as a fleeting moment blurring at the edges, while in a couple of Koji's images a blimp can be seen, drifting over the city - its airy flight setting a different pace towards the city.

4 comments:

Kurt said...

Jeff,
Thanks for giving one of my personal favorites some love! (But I hope you'll forgive me to pedantically note that his first name is Koji and last name Onaka).

I only have one of Onaka's b/w books but for me, his color work is even more lovely -- hard to put a finger on what it is but the sense of wandering and connection to place that you mention are definitely at work in the color work as well. Not only that, but there is also the feeling of lazy days that you mention.

With it's saturated, cheap film/Walmart lab processing feel to it, but the same tranquility and outskirts of the city locations as Distance and Slow Boat, it feels more like the American South than Japan. In his color work Onaka is like a Japanese Eggleston but one more akin to the laconic side of the man than the gothic.

Ladd Jeff said...

Kurt,

Thank you for the clarity. The Japanese names always confuse me.

On the Distance book his last name is actually spelled Onaka Kohji just to make matters even more confusing.

Stuart Alexander said...

To be even more pedantic, you are both right. The Japanese tradition is to have the family name first and the Western tradition is to reverse that. So the photographer we know of in the West as Masahisa Fukase is known as Fukase Masahisa in Japan. Any Japanese or Japanese-speakers please correct me if I am wrong.

Kurt said...

Stuart,
can't claim to be a Japanese-speaker so much as a Japanese-garbler :) , but you are right. If I am speaking in Japanese I would say Onaka Koji because family names always come first. However, when speaking English (or writing it) I would reverse the name -- otherwise it just seems pretentious. It's certainly not a big deal, but since Ladd Jeff ;) refers to Yutaka Takanashi in the correct (English-centric) manner, I was just thinking Mr. Jeff would like to be consistent.