JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back room. All of the works are square format chromogenic prints, made between 1996 and 2009 and printed recently. The images are shown in two sizes – 14×14 inches (in editions of 10) or 30×30 inches (in editions of 3). There are 18 prints in the smaller size and 4 prints in the larger size on view. A catalog of the exhibit has been published by the gallery. Hara’s works were recently gathered in Change, published by The Gould Collection (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Whether we attribute it to nature or nurture, even the most inexperienced snapshot photographer seems to have an innate sense for the rudiments of how a picture should be framed. Without any training or direction, we innately move the subject to the center of the available space, perhaps mimicking countless other pictures we have seen or responding to some hard-wired sense of aesthetic harmony. Our eye intuitively wants to generate balance, which is perhaps why so many snapshots look the same. In these images, it’s the subject (the person, the vista, the pet) that we’re trying to document, so we instinctively put it right in the middle.
For the Japanese photographer Mikiko Hara, this primal aesthetic urge feels more like a hindrance or an undesired filter than a happy coincidence, and so she has spent her artistic career trying to frustrate this native photographic reaction. While she was trained in the foundations of street photography, in the years since her graduation, she has been systematically trying to unlearn how to see in this structured manner, pushing herself back to a more unadulterated kind of perception so she can experience the world with more authenticity and attention.
Actually achieving this kind of conceptual purity is harder than it sounds – it’s not exactly straightforward to short circuit the unconscious impulses of your brain. So Hara has developed an unconventional shooting style to prevent herself from interfering – she shoots from the hip, not proverbially but literally, allowing her camera to hang from her neck as she wanders the streets of Tokyo, and making her images with it positioned at her mid-section, without actually looking through the viewfinder. This approach has two benefits – one, it interrupts her instinct to “artfully” reframe what she’s interested in, and two, it allows her to unobtrusively shoot in the streets without drawing attention to herself, thereby catching life without a layer of staged reactions.
Hara’s results feel like a vision of the world caught unaware. Her pictures are often unbalanced and off kilter, the chance combinations of movement and camera angle leading to the unexpected. But more often than not, she finds a flash of unnerving grace, as though she has captured something that wasn’t meant to be seen. A train platform image of a man in a dark coat and a schoolgirl finds this elusive essence. In it, the tiny overlooked gestures of conversation are exposed – a foot on a pole, a leaning shoulder, the relative positions and turns of heads – and while we can’t know the circumstances of the exchange, there is both mystery and truth in picture, the almost imperceptible shifts of body language telling us something about the subtle relationship of two people waiting for the train.
Many of the photographs are filled with a quiet sense of wonder, often of the “seeing the world for the first time” variety. Hands push on the inside of a gauzy curtain, a bug climbs up the pane of a window, a boy watches the tip of a rock in the water, a young girl with a broken nose peeks out from the opening of tent, and a dog leans out the open window of a moving car (taking in the apartment buildings rushing by), and in each case, something almost odd becomes transformative. It’s as if Hara has forced us to look again, and to see these seemingly mundane moments with newfound clarity.
The lives of women in the city are a recurring theme, and the loneliness of urban existence comes to the surface again and again. One young woman closes her eyes for just a moment amid the bustle of the sidewalk, a glimpse of resignation washed across her face. Another woman waits for the train, her shoulders hunched as she stands by herself, the passing string of a melancholy balloon cutting across the frame. An older woman looks back with steely eyed wariness, her reflection captured in a nearby window, doubling her into an ethereal ghost. And a schoolgirl, her head pushed down in the lower left hand corner of the frame, seems to swim with anxiety in the bigness of the city sky. Whether snoozing on the train with a bored child or standing in the park near a huge tree trunk, Hara’s women hover uncertainly in relation to their surroundings (and their roles), the richness of their interior lives wholly separate from their specific momentary locations.
In the end, it is the unvarnished authenticity and deliberateness of Hara’s pictures that makes them so compelling. She’s forced herself into a complex procedural box that doesn’t allow precise freedom of expression, and yet she’s made pictures that are full of choices (and accidents) that follow resonant themes and patterns. The best of her works seem to tingle with a simmering charge, their sparkling nuances of human curiosity and uncertainty far from the dull randomness of inadvertent mistakes.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced in rising editions, as follows. The smaller 14×14 prints start at $2500 each, while the larger 30×30 prints start at $5000 each. Hara’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.