English 日本語

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Uraguchi Kusukazu: "Shima fudoki" (1978)

With the passage of time, lifestyles and landscapes transform.
‹Shima's topography, connected with the sea›
For the people living along the shore,
the sea is «mother sea», providing food for life,
but «the sea and the gallows refuse none»
Working at sea is also tough and dangerous.
There is nothing but relying on the Gods and Buddha,
as well as praying for safety and a good catch.
This pure and simple faith has been taught since early times until now.

(Text taken from the preface of Shima Fudoki, translation by Faraway Eyes)

Uraguchi Kusukazu: shima fudoki (1978).

By the time shima fudoki was published in 1978, Uraguchi Kusukazu (1922-1988) had been exclusively photographing his hometown Shima-chō Fuseda - located on the Shima Peninsula in Mie Prefecture - along with its inhabitants and traditions for nearly 25 years. Facing the Pacific on one side and the scenic Ago Bay on the other, the sea has been one of the area's main sources of income for centuries. Especially, the sheltered waters of the bay offer a habitat for abalone and sea snails as well as pearl cultivation, thus, providing a working environment for a number of different professions; amongst them a steadily declining number of so-called ama - female divers. Based on Uraguchi's exhibition and book publishing records, the ama were his main subject. They are featured, apart from the here to be introduced work, in yet another hardcover photobook - published in 1981 and entitled shima no ama (The Ama of Shima) - as well as half a dozen solo exhibitions in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka between 1976 and 1977.

Uraguchi Kusukazu: shima fudoki (1978).

The term ama can literally be translated as sea woman and - as noted above - refers to professional female divers, who originally dove for the sole purpose of collecting food such as seaweed, shellfish or urchins, but have gradually become internationally known during the last century as pearl divers. Until today the ama do not rely on oxygen tanks or most other modern equipment for their dangerous dives. There exist a number of theories as to why only women are executing this profession. One plausible explanation is that female divers, unlike men, have always avoided boastful behavior and consequently cause fewer accidents. Another often stated explanation is that the different distribution of body fat protects them better from hypothermia in the cold water. A third possible reason has a religious implication: Since votive offerings such as abalone to the Ise Shrine have been traditionally presented by women, those who originally caught these offerings should hence also be women.

Uraguchi Kusukazu: shima fudoki (1978).

Uraguchi's interest in photographing his immediate surroundings was awakened quite early. As he recalls in the afterword for shima fudoki, a toy camera was given to him as a New Year's gift at the age of 12. He would use it to photograph the neighbor's boy and learn the techniques of developing negatives and printing all by himself. Despite his eagerness, photography became only a sideline career while making his living from the sale of pearls. It seems safe to assume that this job brought him in close contact to the ama. On the other hand, it cannot be ruled out that an early fascination for the ama prompted Uraguchi to work with pearls in order to be in contact with them. Whatever their initial encounter was, judging from his comprehensive body of work featuring the many facets of the ama's traditional lifestyle, they shared a mutual respect for one another allowing the photographer to capture genuinely intimate moments that otherwise would have been inevitably altered by the presence of a stranger.

Uraguchi Kusukazu: shima fudoki (1978).

The 1978 photobook comprises a total of five chapters: topography, trainee amaama, handing down of traditions and o-bon festivals. It offers the viewer a personal yet informative insight into a particular aspect of Uraguchi's native region's unique natural and cultural heritage. Shima fudoki has accordingly been praised in the forewords repeatedly as a "valuable record" left to posterity. The photographer, on the other hand, modestly attributes his publication only a kind of meaning with regard to the quantity of the images reproduced in it and says that he regrets not having taken more photographs with the explicit aim of creating an archive when he was younger. "The very act of taking a photograph", he then however adds, "is making a document. That is what I believe." Despite his initial self-criticism, in the end, it seems as if he was mostly content with the works he had managed to compile into his debut photobook.

Uraguchi Kusukazu: shima fudoki (1978).

The roughly 100 black and white photographs were taken with a variety of 35mm cameras such as a Leica M3, a Nikon F, a Canon P and a waterproof Nikonos. For film types Uraguchi relied on Kodak Tri-X, Fuji Neopan SS and Konipan SS. But apart from the mere technical aspects, it must be pointed out that the photographs entailed in this publication stem from an extraordinary compositional ingenuity. It quickly becomes obvious that Uraguchi was not only well aware of the entire frame while operating his cameras but also of the distinct qualities of the printed image. In many of his landscapes he used high-angle shots - frequently in a upright format while leaving out the horizon line. Without this conventional point of reference, the photographed scenery seems to flatten and merge with the flat surface of the printed page. The effect is reminiscent of Paul Klee's famous 1929 painting Hauptweg und Nebenwege. Other photographs are characterized by dynamic diagonal lines, regularly paired with a low-angle shot or a tilted frame. Uraguchi's compositional skills undoubtedly were beyond that of a semi-professional, which raises the questions as to why his photography is still today almost unknown outside of Japan.

Uraguchi Kusukazu: shima fudoki (1978).


As a last point, the high contrast and grainy texture of the photographs can be ascribed to at least a couple of different reasons. For one, Uraguchi chose to take many pictures at close proximity to water - often directly aiming at the sea - during bright daylight. The sun's reflection on the ocean's surface, puddles of water or rainy streets burned the negatives to a high degree and left the photographer with stark black-and-white positive images, not uncommonly entirely lacking any shades of gray. Shooting at night or under cloudy skies, a push process was probably necessary to avoid blur and resulted inevitably in grainy negatives. The rough quality of these photographs is nevertheless deliberate at all times. Similar to the way Hashimoto Shōkō emphasized the goze's archaic appearance by means of high contrast black-and-white imagery, Uraguchi likewise utilized the possibilities inherent in the processes of negative development and printing to achieve a comparable artistic vision. In doing so, he created photographs whose gritty appearance helps visualize the roughness of the ama's physical labor that has always been taking place in close communion with nature and strong religious believes.