JTF (just the facts): Published in 2008 by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Ryoko Yomiuri Publications, in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name. 84 pages, with 74 images. Includes essays by Iizawa Kotaro and Fujimura Satomi, selected exhibitions and bibliography, and a list of public collections. (Cover shot at right, via Japan Exposures.)
Comments/Context: Not to be confused with his two monographs with similar names published by Nazareli Press (linked below), this volume is an exhibition catalogue of Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata’s 2008 show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, collecting together a sample of his recent color work, as well as selections from several earlier black and white projects going back to the early 1980s. So while not quite a retrospective, it certainly is an excellent overview book for those who want to get a broad understanding of his photography.
Unlike the many Japanese artists who have celebrated the natural world and its spiritual qualities, Shibata has focused his attention on the man made structures that have been introduced into the landscape: roadside retaining walls and concrete barriers, webbing to catch falling rock, terraced dams and reinforced reservoir spillways. In many ways, he has adapted the ideas of the New Topographics photographers of the 1970s (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, et al) for his own environment, challenging the established notions of what a Japanese landscape should look like in the process.
His works in black and white are full of vaguely organic but unidentifiable geometric forms, stripes and checkerboards, zig–zags and chevrons, draped over the undulating land like chain mail, often with tufts of greenery growing from between the cracks. Water also plays a large role in these pictures, either tumbling down the face of a dam in frothy waterfalls, or pooled in reservoirs and man made lakes. And yet these images look nothing like anything you’ve seen anywhere else; they seem to be unique civil engineering solutions devised for the problems of Japanese construction, now suddenly more visible, as opposed to being consciously overlooked. Shibata has cropped out both the sky and horizon, drawing our attention to the details of the concrete, posing questions about man’s interaction with nature and about the traditional definitions of landscape beauty.
The recent large scale color images tackle this exact same terrain, almost as a rephotography project. Many of the same structures that we first saw as stark black and white contrasts are now softer, more real, in their neutral earth tones of tan, green and brown. The same underlying issues are of course at work here, but the integration of nature and the man altered landscape is more subtle, and arcs of color add an additional element of form to the compositions.
A final group of early night pictures from the 1980s round out the book. These too seem indebted to the New Topographics photographers, as Shibata has singled out roadside hotels and restaurants, toll booths and gas stations, centering on the flat horizontals of the architecture and road, lit by pinpricks of light in the enveloping darkness.
Overall, this volume is a solid introduction to the work of an important contemporary Japanese photographer.
Collector’s POV: Toshio Shibata is represented by Laurence Miller Gallery in New York (here), Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica, CA, (here, on artnet) and Tepper Takayama Fine Arts in Boston (here). Shibata’s work has very little auction history, so gallery retail is likely the best bet for collectors who wish to follow up. There are quite a few of Shibata’s black and white concrete patterns that would fit well into our city/industrial genre; we just need to spend some time looking at a number of prints to find the one that matches our collection best.