Haruto Hoshi, Whistle

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Little Big Man Books (here). Hardcover with hidden ring binding, 110 pages, with 110 color photographs. There are no texts or essays. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Japanese street photography has always had a welcoming place for its seedier side. Even while many of the most notable Japanese photographers of the 1960s and 1970s were focused on making sense of the profound cultural changes taking place across the nation and expanding the definitions of the medium, most were intermittently shooting in the streets, especially in places like Shinjuku, where the traditional rules of society were breaking down the fastest. Photographers like Seiji Kurata and Katsumi Watanabe were particularly active in these kinds of tough neighborhoods, documenting the gritty intersection of hostess bars, prostitutes, transvestites, and other groups living on or reimagining the margins. 

Haruto Hoshi is a younger representative of this artistic tradition, in a sense working to update it for the new realities of the 21st century. Hoshi had always been attracted to street life; as a child, he used to aimlessly wander at night, and with time, his fascination with the hidden corners of city life only became stronger. While still in his twenties, he reconnected with his childhood friend who was a member of the yakuza, and before he knew it, he was helping him to deal drugs. Although he wasn’t happy with this direction in his life, getting out wasn’t easy; Hoshi was eventually arrested and served time in prison. It was during his incarceration that he picked up a camera, and after his release, he enrolled in night school to pursue a career in photography more formally.

In photographing urban nightlife, Hoshi quickly developed his own style; his early black and white photographs stood out, with their strong flash, high contrast, and almost-snapshot composition. His first photobook, Luminance of Streets (published in 2007), documented nightlife districts throughout Japan in this brash style; Hoshi’s second book, Whistle, has just been released by the Los Angeles-based publisher Little Big Man, and offers us a first taste of his work in color.

The photograph on the book’s glossy cover captures a suited Japanese man wearing an ostentatious white fur coat and white gloves as he walks down a narrow staircase. This isn’t a man trying to be humble or to hide – the shot represents a figure with knowing power, from a certain subculture, and sets the mood for the kind of images to be found inside. The book is horizontal in format and its cover (with the artist’s name and the book title printed in a large font) conceals a spiral binding, which allows the pages to lay completely flat. All of the photographs are full bleed and are printed on paper which has one side matte and the other one semi-gloss, offering a textural and visual contrast (the spreads alternate between matte and semi-gloss).

Hoshi easily navigates the nocturnal streets of the city, capturing its unseen corners and their dwellers – yakuza members (both older and younger in age), hostesses, club workers, transvestites, outcasts, the homeless, and various other youthful passersby and transitory revelers. His subjects don’t necessary pose for the camera, but they don’t seem particularly put off by Hoshi’s presence; the photographer is clearly no stranger in this world, and either the people know him, or are comfortable enough with his manner to look straight back at his camera. His wide angle aesthetic helps to reveal a broader context and sense of environment that surrounds each of his subjects, while his use of color allows him to highlight a range of small details that make the pictures pop with energy. Each photograph is packed with visual information, ultimately telling a story of its own.

The first picture inside captures a woman in a colorful bikini standing in a narrow back alleyway; the dense rows of pipes on the graffiti-covered walls and the other metal cabinets crowding her way immediately make her feel out of place and make us wonder what she is doing there. It is paired with a photo of a young man in a suit standing in what looks like a backyard of a building; a similar net of pipes, wires, scraggly branches, and air conditioning units resonates with the previous photograph, and reminds us that we are not visiting some stately, tree-lined neighborhood in old Tokyo.

As we flip the through the pages, there are shots of bar hostesses waiting in doorways and outside venues, men in black (often leather) or patrons in suits, homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, even a white stretch limousine, and then occasionally there are portraits less expected in this mix, like two young girls dressed in white or a friendly woman on a bike with three little kids. Hoshi often uses storefronts, alleys, and doorways as framing devices, and a splash of color here and there (a red wall, yellow stuffed animals, a blue quilt, a pink beaded curtain) ensures these snapshots are full of down and dirty energy.

Closer to the end of the book, an image captures the facade of a building, and through the open door, we see a modest older lady sitting on a red sofa and looking right back at us, with the patient resignation of having seen it all before. On the other half of the spread, a group of six girls casually hangs out outside; they all wear shorts, and while the two of them are standing, the others are squatting down and leaning against what might be the edge of a plaza, creating an exciting composition. The pairing of the pictures is intriguing in its juxtaposition of maturity and youth, stillness and motion.

The trick to making a book like Whistle work well is finding the right balance between unscripted snapshot rawness and a little more care in composition and framing that turns a throwaway picture into something more complicated. Through smart design and sequencing, Whistle creates an immersive nighttime experience, showing us a slice of Japanese subculture that usually stays hidden from the eyes of outsiders. Hoshi’s pictures could easily have veered toward too much overt performing or too many flashing light cliches. Instead, he has stayed in the darker alleys and backstreets, capturing the scuffle of life in the shadows. 

Collector’s POV: Haruto Hoshi is represented by Third District Gallery in Tokyo (here). His works have little secondary market history to date, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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