Issei Suda: Life in Flower 1971-1977 @Miyako Yoshinaga

JTF (just the facts): A total of 37 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the back office rooms. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (a mix of both vintage and later prints), made between 1971 and 1978 (the recent prints made in 2011). The selected images on view were published in Fushi Kaden (1978) and Waga Tokyo 100 (1979). Physical dimensions of the prints range from roughly 6×6 to 9×9; no edition information was provided on the checklist. A small catalog of the exhibit has been produced by the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many non-expert Western collectors, the whole of Japanese photography ends up getting boiled down to a few names – Sugimoto, Moriyama (and his gritty Provoke contemporaries), Tomatsu, Araki, Hosoe, and perhaps more recently Kawauchi. This gross oversimplification misses so much superlative Japanese photography that it is utterly laughable, but digging into the next layer of artists and photographers (generally equally deserving but just less well known here) is surprisingly difficult because there are so few opportunities to see the work in person and get better educated. Photobooks are an excellent resource for filling this gap, but this requires outbound search and discovery, which can be hard for the collector who doesn’t know what he/she’s looking for.

Issei Suda is one of the many Japanese photographers we should know better, and thankfully, we are slowly getting exposed to more of his work. Following introductory shows at Priska Pasquer and Higher Pictures in the past few years, this exhibit dives deeper into Suda’s work from the late 1970s, focusing on the paired projects that became the excellent books Fushi Kaden and Waga Tokyo 100. Using traditional festivals (matsuri) as his subject matter, Suda explores the widening gap between modern Tokyo and the older, more rural surrounding areas in transformative post-WWII Japan.

Stylistically, Suda could hardly be further from the raw energy of Moriyama; his photographs are slow and precise, taken with a medium format camera, an exercise in subtlety. In both portraits and still lifes, there is the sense of holding on, of having waited a fraction of a second longer than necessary for the photographer to get organized, the perfect pose or expression having slipped for just a moment, giving the images an edge of uneasiness. Time and again, Suda turns an ordinary scene into something half a click off center, forcing us to examine the tiny cultural details that signal that the setup has been breached, a plastic smile turned into a fleeting awkward frown.

The images from Fushi Kaden track the rural locales and smaller villages, where the kimonos are older and less stylish, the life slower and less sophisticated. Many of Suda’s portraits feel slightly forced, like the salaryman with the ill fitting suit coat posed in front of an explosion of hydrangeas or the young girl in formal dress with a less than cooperative scowl. Others carry the air of the mildly surreal: the jumble of concrete blocks behind a beach scene, the white pole interrupting a girl on the sidewalk, or the rush hat blown to the side of a traditional musician’s face. Suda’s still lifes follow this same pattern, capturing details of ritual, or perhaps superstition. A mirror covered with old kimono cloth, white shoes with one tongue turned up, a white goat frantically thrashing in the woods, a poster face torn in half, they all feel like discoveries and/or oddities when observed closely.

Suda’s Tokyo pictures pick up some of the swagger of city life, none more so than his young woman holding a beer with one arm of her kimono pulled down with hip urban style; she’s clearly a different kind of woman than those we saw in the country, her pose reminiscent of a Sapporo ad. But that off-kilter quality in Suda’s aesthetic is never far away, even in the bustle of the city – a dark head pokes through an awning, a thicket of bamboo completely blocks a view, and a display of shiny knives and scissors sparkles with crisp menace. A little girl in a dainty flowered dress looks like she’s be shoved into blossoming bush, her head awkwardly hunched down under the cascade of lovely whiteness; life in Suda’s Tokyo looks plausibly normal, but also slightly mysterious – we can’t be certain of what’s really going on.

I like the way Suda’s photographs consistently resist revealing themselves; if we don’t look carefully, we’ll only see the obvious (the formal kimonos, the cherry blossoms), thereby missing the often puzzling nuances that Suda was really working to capture. His pictures tell the story of the gulf between modernity and tradition, but do so with such delicacy and quiet grace that we have to pay close attention to see his evidence. A portrait of pair of uneasy girls in headbands and traditional outfits might seem like an inadvertent mistake in timing, but when considered as a purposeful artistic choice, those fragile, stiff gestures suddenly seem all the more representative of the hidden challenges of fitting the old ways into a new world.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The vintage prints are priced between $6500 and $10000 each, while the later prints are available for $2000 each. Suda’s work has very little secondary market history in the West, the lots that have sold not providing much of a predictable data set. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Issei Suda, Miyako Yoshinaga


  1. Miyako Yoshinaga /

    Dear Loring, thank you so much for this insightful review!I’ll share this with the artist, who will be thrilled. Miyako

  2. Pete /

    As usual I checked the gallery shots first and thought nothing much here but the review enlightened me. Having looked at the images on the gallery site there is an engaging sensibility, reminded me a lot of Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

    True about all the wonderful photographers in the Far East whose work will never have made it to the West. There must be several-generations-deep of astounding Chinese photography that has never been given the light of day even in their own country.

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