Kenta Cobayashi, Everything_1

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Newfave Books (here). Softcover, 80 pages, with approximately 90 color photographs (layered images make an exact count difficult). There are no essays or texts included. In an edition of 500 copies. The artist’s Everything blog can be found here. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Almost since the very invention of the medium itself, younger photographers have used photographs to communicate to the world “this is what it is like to be young at this singular moment in time”. Whether your time was the 1950s, the 1980s, or some other period in the past, this imperative has largely led to a set of common diaristic subjects – road trip pictures, bar pictures, party pictures, and countless intimate portraits of friends and lovers – the challenges of making a place for oneself the world and then turning that journey into art having some commonalities from decade to decade.

But now in the 2010s, younger photographers have a new set of problems to consider when capturing the spirit of their particular age. The first is that the ubiquity of smartphone cameras and social media posts have diluted the power of the casual individual snapshot. While younger artists will still use photography to parse and respond to the world, and great pictures will still of course be made, the sheer volume of images (both permanent and ephemeral) swirling around in the digital realm turns most of the pictures into fleeting, consumable details (often filtered, tagged, and emojied) rather than durable scenes and signature moments. The second issue is the question of how to authentically capture the rich duality of physical and virtual life we now experience. How should photographers represent the constant cross pollination of offline and online that is the native reality of the younger generation, much less communicate its fluid, breakneck speed?

Kenta Cobayashi’s photographs gamely take up the challenge of finding a new aesthetic vocabulary that represents the 21st century frenzy, and as the title of his photobook reminds us, everything is now part of the story – there is no “in” and “out”, just one fluid intermingled stream. His pictures of the “real” world travel roads we have been down many times before, from the lights of the urban city and the unguarded goofiness of friends to the cluttered messy details of life seen with hyper attention and the eye popping colors of a full throttle existence. But his digital snapshots are nowhere near the endpoint of his artistic effort, but just the beginning.

In a certain way, Cobayashi has inverted the primacy of the original photographs, putting in its central place the downstream after effects of Photoshop – it’s not the pictures that are so important, but what he does with them. Inside the confines of the software, he has been able to embrace layers of more expressive and personal interaction that seem to embody youthful energy, using image details as jumping off points for further visual improvisation. Each snapshot clearly offers a rich array of available riffs and potential transformations for someone with such obvious proficiency with the newest image-making tools.

For those of us lacking in such complete command of Photoshop, it is hard to tell which of the features he has employed are standard and which are custom, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter – worrying over such processes is like fussing over which brush a painter employed. His pictures range from relatively straight photographs to dazzling abstract concoctions that bear little resemblance to anything identifiable. To describe his digital mark making, we are forced to resort to analogies and comparisons – there are smudges, and drips, and pictures that feel pulled and yanked, followed by swirling slashes, jittering tubes, woven nests of painterly brushwork and elongated repetitions, and dense gatherings of lines that recall the contours of a topographical map.

A few of Cobayashi’s works seem to dissolve into technology itself, with inverted colors, pixelized distortions, and purposefully glitched zones that mimic the rush of bits through the network. But his textures never fall into the hard edged obviousness of elementary paint-program tagging – he seems more interested in the watery, the gestural, the squeegeed, the infinitely smeared, and the softly blurred in his search for an original voice. What’s most important is that his digital traces don’t feel like clever bolt ons or conceptual diatribes about photography – they are integral to the overall aesthetic message he is conveying, where two worlds (physical and digital) dissolve into each other, becoming one integrated hybrid.

Cobayashi seems to have overcome one of the main knocks on digital photography – his pictures seem to effortlessly disregard the assumption of over sharpened, machined perfection, where the hand of the artist is invisible. His works are instead restlessly personal, full of effusive movement and exuberant brashness, and that individuality feels fresh and unfiltered. For photo futurists, this photobook is worth looking at closely, as it has the makings of being another important step on the road to tearing down what we used to call photography and reconstructing something altogether new.

Collector’s POV: Kenta Cobayashi is represented by G/P Gallery in Tokyo (here). Cobayashi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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