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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hiro Tanaka: "DEW DEW, DEW Its" (2012)

As a photographer, taking a "good" picture has much to do with creating one's own luck. Becoming a photographer in the first place has however often more to do with pure chance. Fortunately, Hiro Tanaka did take his first unconscious step towards a career in photography when he won the 1st prize at a mall's lottery machine in Tokyo's Shinjuku district and was awarded a free trip to the United States. It was on this first visit to North America that Tanaka befriended fans and members of various hardcore and punk bands whom he would eventually accompany (at the request of the band members) as a photographer on several tours across the country starting in the 1990s. The overall experience of living on the road, which meant sleeping in (un)familiar people's houses, vans or hotel rooms, eating at highway restaurants or back yards BBQs, witnessing the raw energy of the bands' live shows as well as having many odd encounters with anonymous people and places, provided Tanaka (a devoted fan of Fukuoka's mentai rock or bands such as 1000 Travels of Jawaharlal from Kitakyushu) with an ideal subject matter for his newly found profession. As to his beginnings, he recalls:
"When I started going on tour with bands in the US, I was taking many photos using disposable/single-use cameras. Then, in Minnesota while getting ready to leave for tour, my friend gave me an old school manual SLR camera and a 50mm lens and told me, “Just set it at A (auto exposure) on dial and shoot!”, so I started taking photos with black and white film. But since it was the first time, I had no idea how to use the camera and didn’t know anything about aperture and shutter speed. From that trip I’ve got lots of images that look abstract or avant-garde ... [laughs]. After a while I started going to libraries, book stores and galleries to educate myself."
Hiro Tanaka: DEW DEW, DEW Its (2012).


In 2008, one year before moving from Tokyo to California for good, Tanaka participated in a photography workshop held by Onaka Koji (b. 1960, Fukuoka) that he only recently described as one of his most inspiring and educational experiences: "Onaka-San is a great educator, never pushy, respects everyone's view and guides people without saying too much." In December 2012, the days of his initial clumsy handling of photography long gone, a collection of 108 astute color photographs, taken by Tanaka during the many tours across the US, was published as a soft cover photobook by Asian Man Records under the title DEW DEW, DEW Its. 


Hiro Tanaka: DEW DEW, DEW Its (2012).

Open the book at any page and it becomes obvious that Tanaka has really learned his trade by now for he skillfully managed to portray both sides of living on tour: The above mentioned chaotic experiences of concerts and subsequent parties on the one hand and on the other the morning after - the quiet before (and after) the storm, so to speak - driving from one town to another still tired and hungover from the night before. Tanaka captures those energy driven moments by making frequent use of a flash, not simply to avoid blur but first and foremost in order to intensify the action's visual quality so heavily as if he tried to make up for the photograph's inability to stimulate other senses than our visual perception. The same holds true for his interior shots of a kebab shop, bars, diners, flowers and junk food which exhibit the wittingly amateurish aesthetic also to be found in Stephen Shore's American Surfaces. In the many other well composed landscape photographs such as the one showing a coca-cola sign and utility poles next to a deserted road somewhere in a typical American farmland (taken almost always by day and without apparent use of a flash), Tanaka on the contrary seems to have been inspired most directly by photographers such as Lee Friedlander or Robert Frank.

Hiro Tanaka: DEW DEW, DEW Its (2012).

Thanks to the intelligent and flexible choice of working methods, Tanaka always manages to convincingly communicate through his photograph the immediate experience of the individual situation captured. Although being one of the most frequently quoted texts on Japanese photography, John Szarkowski's introduction to his co-curated 1974 MoMA exhibition New Japanese Photography nevertheless comes to mind today when confronted with photographs such as those published in DEW DEW, DEW Its that strike us with their acute sense of vividness: "The quality most central to recent Japanese photography", Szarkowski famously wrote, "is its concern for the description of immediate experience: most of these pictures impress us not as a comment on experience or as a reconstruction of it into something more stable and lasting, but as an apparent surrogate for experience itself […]." (John Szarkowski: Introduction, in: New Japanese Photography 1974, pp. 10) 



Hiro Tanaka: DEW DEW, DEW Its (2012).

Tanaka's debut photobook impresses not simply because of its photography but also the editorial effort he put into it. While each photograph individually might suggest a particular interpretation, they often create other ironic and humorous commentaries on different aspects of the American lifestyle when juxtaposed on a double page. However, Tanaka never goes so far as to fully condemn all of what he portrays. In the end, for now, he is a part of this lifestyle. But as his photographic work shows, he never lost his critical eye in the process. His open-mindedness will without doubt help him to further create photographs worth noting, since his sheer endless curiosity is paired also with an unbounded ambition:
"Its real difficult for me to nail down only one or a few books [that inspired me the most]. Mmmm, maybe Yukiguni by Hiroshi Hamaya, Tokyo Lucky Hole by Nobuyoshi Araki, Slow Boat by Koji Onaka, Mirrors and Windows by John Szarkowski, and many more. I might pick different books if I think about this next week or so. I also like images of Eugene Atget, August Sander, Man Ray, Roy DeCarava, Amedeo Modigliani and so on.... I get inspired by many different things like weird low budget indie movies to action packed Hollywoods blockbusters, classical music to punk rock or just going for a walk, eating some good food!"

Hiro Tanaka: DEW DEW, DEW Its (2012).

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All quotations - except when cited otherwise - are taken from an interview with Hiro Tanaka conducted by Faraway Eyes in March of 2014.