Eiji Ohashi, Roadside Lights Seasons: Winter

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Case Publishing (here). Hardcover with slip case, 365×255 mm, 57 pages (leporello binding), with 44 color reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist (in English/Japanese, on a single page insert), a list of locations, and an artist chronology. Design by Yutaro Yamada. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Selling cold drinks, snacks, candy, cigarettes, and other on-the-go necessities, vending machines are a common sight all over the world. They generally perch in anonymous transit zones, like railway stations and airports, or near bustling street corners in dense cities, so passersby can get what they need.

But in Japan, the humble vending machine has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Clean, brightly lit vending machines can be found almost everywhere, on nearly every block in the city, and in the farthest reaches of the rural countryside. They represent choice, safety, convenience (although getting rid of your can after it is empty can often be a challenge), and even comfort, as your favorite drink is never far from reach, wherever you may go.

Eiji Ohashi has been making photographs of vending machines since 2008, and to many, such a single minded photographic obsession might seem particularly unusual or even somewhat random, as far as artistic projects go. Ohashi’s images don’t examine the vending machines up close, or build them into a typologies of machine styles, vendor logos, or commercial forms, or seek out broken, quirky, or old examples. Instead, Ohashi locates the modern vending machines in landscapes (and in some smaller town environments), discovering how they settle into roadside arrangements and the surrounding vistas. Ohashi comes from Wakkanai, in the northernmost part of Hokkaido, where the winter is harsh and unforgiving, and this photobook gathers together his vending machine studies taken during that cold season.

One of the key features of a Japanese vending machine is its bright interior light, which allows customers to see their available choices at any time of the day. At night, this light creates a glowing effect from afar, which Ohashi uses to his compositional advantage. Depending on our mindset, we can read these solitary vending machines lit up in the darkness as forlorn and lonely or as welcoming beacons of friendly encouragement. And in a few cases, the vending machines start to feel like plucky characters in Ohashi’s visual adventures.

The winter landscapes in Roadside Lights Seasons: Winter are often quietly intimate, with the emptiness of the land interrupted only by a few trees, some low hills, or a single telephone pole. Many create contrast between the white flatness of the view and the bright rectangle of the vending machine, with its single form set against the beauty of the frozen tundra or the sweep of snow drifts. All of the images were taken at night, from the softness of twilight to the dark blackness of deeper night, with the vending machines glowing amid the surroundings, almost like ghosts. In a few cases, Ohashi returns to the same spots again and again, tracking how the scenes change as the snows pile up, and of course, he finds a way to make a majestic view of Mount Fuji, complete with a vending machine in the foreground.

The snowstorms of Hokkaido often drop a foot or more of fresh show, and Ohashi makes the most of these recurring winter events. He notices plow piles, shoveled sidewalks, trees weighed down with snow, and footprints in the snow found near the vending machines, and documents the ways in which snow buries some of the machines up to their midsections, the interior light bouncing off the rising whiteness surrounding and engulfing them. Drifts build up to the tops of some of the machines, and a few seem to live inside little snow caves hollowed out for their protection. One pair of machines even has its own thatched roof to shield them from the relentless snowfall. The shining glow of the machines within this frosty envelope of snow and darkness is consistently otherworldly, especially since there are no people to be found in any of Ohashi’s photographs.

When Ohashi moves back into town, the built environment offers some additional compositional settings and contrasts. Vending machines are seen at most points of everyday routine – outside convenience stores, the post office, the bus station, and a McDonald’s, and are matched with bank machines, phone booths, and parked cars. The city streets are more densely structured than the rural landscapes, so parking lots, garages, and apartment blocks often arrange the space around vending machines, with intermittent light posts offering an additional sparkle of light at night, which Ohashi uses in harmony with the light of the machines.

Part of what makes Ohashi’s vending machine landscapes so richly evocative is his use of the color in the night sky. His skies hit a wide spectrum of hues, from light grey and light blue at sunset to dark blue, dark purple, and even black as the hours pass. These colors feel silently full, the red or white of the lit machines popping out of the muted palette with vibrancy. Several of the images seem to recall the saturated skies of Joel Meyerowitz, where glows from car interiors or drive-ins mixed with gaudy sunsets or cool evenings.

The design of Roadside Lights Seasons: Winter is formally lavish. The photobook is housed in a sturdy slipcase with a glossy tipped in image (with several choices), and inside, the book is wide and roomy, the leporello binding allowing the images to fold out, with two to a spread. Since all the photographs are all horizontals, the page turns feel like a slow and deliberate progression, especially as the colors in the sky wander. As an object, it is refined and luxurious, almost like a portfolio.

In a certain way, Ohashi’s photobook bears some resemblance to Martin Parr’s Remote Scottish Postboxes, in that it tracks a single intervention in the landscape across different terrain, creating a category of pictures that share a common thread. Both also celebrate a particular local eccentricity, native only to a certain place, seeing the charm in its unlikely persistence and its resonances with the national character. But Ohashi does more with his landscapes than Parr does, finding moments of unlikely drama and wonder (rather than wry humor) in the snowy wastes.

Seen as a group of linked photographs, there is almost the sense that Ohashi’s vending machines are somehow magical, like time traveling portals or doors to other dimensions. Ohashi’s pictures seem to hint that depending on which button you select in the spare darkness of a snowy night, you just might be transported somewhere extraordinary.

Collector’s POV: Eiji Ohashi is represented by Ibasho Gallery in Antwerp (here). Ohashi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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