Tamiko Nishimura Makes the Invisible Visible

Large swaths of the global art world remain little known to many of us in American and European art communities. Born in Tokyo in 1948, Tamiko Nishimura deserves to be better known here. Nishimura has been associated with the Japanese avant-garde photography group Provoke and well-known photographers Daido Moriyama, Kōji Taki, and Takuma Nakahira. After graduating from Tokyo College of Photography (now Tokyo Visual Arts) in 1969, she assisted these three older, established figures in the darkroom.

Journeys at Alison Bradley Projects, her debut US exhibition, may help to raise her profile in New York. Consisting of 25 vintage prints taken from different series Nishimura worked on between 1969 and ’79, along with a vitrine displaying copies of her early photo books and magazines showing her work, the show, curated by Pauline Vermare, focuses on the first decade of the artist’s career. While Moriyama and other innovative postwar Japanese photographers have been internationally celebrated, Nishimura’s invisibility in the US underscores the narrow, male-oriented, aesthetic policies that long dominated American narratives of art.   

Although Nishimura’s photographs share some qualities with Moriyama’s grainy, high-contrast black and white street photographs, it is more useful to see past the similarities, and discern what is specific to her work, in both Japan and the US, and makes her such an important woman photographer in postwar Japan. Some observers have connected her art to Vivian Maier’s surreptitious photographs of pedestrians seen from behind, but it seems to me that Nishimura documents the harsh devastation of being invisible, of seeing but not being seen. 

In her series Eternal Chase, Nishimura’s photographs, taken at different places and times throughout Japan, chronicle the feeling of being both present and absent. “Eternal Chase – Hakodate, Hokkaido” (1972) shows a black shape — almost like the shadow of a tree — rising from the bottom edge, surrounded by a whitish ground. Only when I got close to the photograph could I tell that it was a person grasping a railing while ascending an incline, amid a snow-covered landscape. No matter how long I peered into this mass of blacks, I could not clearly make out this person who seemed to be looking at me. 

As an American, I cannot help but wonder if Nishimura is registering both individual and collective invisibility related to the rebuilding and rapid modernization of Japan after the United States dropped two atom bombs on the country. 

In “Eternal Chase – Kesennuma, Miyagi Pref., I” (1975), we see a woman with a toddler from behind. Nishimura contrasts the joined black shapes of their heads with the woman’s white sweater, all set against different grays. Mother and child have become one, but they exist permanently beyond our gaze. In contrast, “Eternal Chase – Kobe, Hyogo Pref.(1972) is a frontal portrait of a young woman sitting opposite the artist. The cropped, angled view reveals her buttoned jacket and bare legs. A magazine sits on her lap, its cover showing a fair-skinned woman possibly wearing a crown. Two triangles jutting down from the top edge suggest that the seated woman holds a magazine in front of her face. Like the other two Eternal Chase photographs I have cited, this one makes the subject invisible, yet the artist does not repeat herself. This is her genius. She does something in her work that is counterintuitive — she uses an individual to register invisibility.  

In “Eternal Chase – Around Shibetsu, Hokkaido” (1970–72), a bus enters the grainy gray photograph on the right side, with a snow-covered field of stubbled growth, a fence, and telephone wires comprising the rest of the scene. A single headlight is the one bright spot in this otherwise bleak photograph. Taken between 1969 and ’78, Nishimura’s photographs portray a sunless world. Japan’s recent past is inescapable, even as it modernizes. In these images, the past is never past, and the people are rendered invisible. 

Tamiko Nishimura: Journeys continues at Alison Bradley Projects (526  West 26th Street, Suite 814, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 29. The exhibition was curated by Pauline Vermare.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top