The photography of Iijima Kouei on view at the JCII Photo Salon

by Stefan Chiarantano, Mar 14, 2007 | Destinations: Japan

If you have an interest in Japanese photography, do visit the JCII Photo Salon near Hanzomon Station in Tokyo. You won't be disappointed.

On view this month is the photography of Iijima Kouei, a Tokyo-based photographer. The show runs from March 6 to April 1, 2007. The black and white photographs were taken over a seven year period from 1967 to 1973, and document his visits to Aomori-Ken and Niigata-Ken in northern Japan.

I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived this past Sunday morning. I found I had the salon all to myself being the first visitor and for a little while the only visitor. It felt like I had a private viewing of the show. There was beautiful baroque music playing in the background. I could hear the distinctive sound of the harpischord and found the juxtaposition of the baroque music with the beautiful black and white photographs on display arresting.

The show appealed to me on many different levels. First, I was struck by the sheer beauty of the black and white photographs on display. The photographs reveal deep blacks, whites and shades of gray. Then, they document a time and place in a people's history. Next, many of the photographs express the universality of human experience. Finally, the backdrop of winter reminded me of my homeland, Canada, and hint at the relationship the subjects have with the harsh climate and their surrounding landscape. The residents don't begrudge the cold;they co-exist with it and live in harmony with the change in season.

The photographs on another level reveal too the photographer's relationship with his subjects. I could tell it was one of trust and reverence for his subjects. Many of his subjects are smiling at the camera. Later, when I had the opportunity to speak with the artist personally, he told me he had spent time with his subjects getting to know them and they had given him permission to be photographed.

Many of the photographs are portraits of the local residents. They show residents engaged in daily life. There are photographs of teenage girls chatting outside in the cold, scenes of people riding a train, people departing a a ferry boat, a family sitting around the kotatsu, a family planting and harvesting rice by hand, interior scenes of womenfolk preparing meals, portraits of lovely school children, winter scenes of children walking through the snow, a man shovelling snow, men and women attending a funeral service at a Buddhist temple, a photograph of arhots, and a bleak wintry cemetery scene. There's a photograph of middle-aged women harvesting seaweed. There's a photograph of three middle-aged geisha. The geisha are gone now the artist told me.

The interiors are bare and devoid of modern luxuries and conveniences. It seems that the prosperity that was engulfing Japan at the time hadn't yet reached this part of the country. Centuries old traditions still kept sway.

Many of the photographs appealed to me. Here are descriptions of several.

There's a striking portrait of a very old woman which the artist took in 1968. I later learned from Mr. Kouei that she was 82 years old, and that she was a farmer. The photograph was shot using natural light coming from the window. Her face is deeply creased with wrinkles. Her thinned out hair is mostly white. She is wearing a cotton kimono, a sign of poverty. She is very thin. There's something about her eyes that tell me she is partially blind. Deep lines etch her brow. Her face tells me that she has lived a life of hardship. She is stoic, uncomplaining. Her weather-beaten face reminded me of my own maternal grand-mother's, who also lived a life of economic hardship.

There's a lovely photograph of two young Japanese girls posing for the camera. They are dressed warmly sitting on a wooden bench inside a building. The wall behind them is covered with flyers, posters, and signs dating from the period. There's a poster with a pretty Japanese young woman. The caption at the bottom of the poster reads "Discover Japan." The clock reveals the photograph was taken at 3:23 pm. The photograph is dated 1972.

There's a charming photograph of a group of six young Japanese women beautifully dressed in kimonos. They are gathered around a space heater. They are smiling. A few are looking directly at the camera.

There's a portrait photograph of a middle-aged Japanese woman sitting zazen in prayer. A white handkerchief is drapped over her head. She is wearing a kimono. Her hands are clasped in gassho with a rosary drapped over them. Her eyes are focussed inwards. Her gaze tells me she is deep in prayer and communing on a higher level. In her devotional act, she becomes an icon of faith, representative of all people who pray, thus, transcending time and place.

There's a haunting photograph of a young woman standing on the ferry deck with her back to the camera. She isn't dressed warmly. She is wearing a sweater, a skirt and boots. Her boots are partially unzipped. She is very slender and her thick black shoulder hair is blowing in the icy cold wind. She takes no notice of the cold as she looks towards the mainland, perhaps, for the last time. I was to learn from the photographer that this was his favourite photograph from the series.

There's a photograph of a runaway girl looking distraught while she is clutching her bags on a dimly lit train. There's another photograph of a young Japanese woman smartly dressed in modern attire juxtaposed with a middle-aged woman dressed in traditional working clothes.

I'd like to thank the very kind female attendant who left instructions with her replacement to kindly introduce me to the photographer when he came in later in the afternoon. Mr. Iijima Kouei was very generous with his time and allowed himelf to be interviewed in English. He shot his photographs using a 35 mm SLR Nikon camera, which was on display in a glass cabinet, using Kodak Tri-X film. He shot his subjects using a 28 mm lens and also, used a telephoto lens, 200 mm. He works with natural light and doesn't use a flash. He does his own printing. He walked me through his photographs which revealed a friendship with his subjects. The show is divided into two main parts, the Aomori-ken photographs and the Niigata-ken photograpsh, and the photographs are grouped together in various series.

His photographs are a loving testament to the people of Aomori-ken and Niigata- ken and in fact, are a labour of love recording their resilience and dignity living a harsh life in northern Japan.

Before I left, Mr. Iijima presented me with a signed catalogue of his works, a gift which I will treasure.