JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in light wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back room. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2009 and 2019. All of the works are sized 14×14 inches and are available in editions of 10+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The Japanese photographer Mikiko Hara has had an admirable run of public success in the past few years. On the heels of her last gallery show in New York (in 2017, reviewed here), some of those same images were gathered into a well-received photobook Change (published by the Gould Collection here), and later that year, she won the prestigious Kimura Ihei Photography Award, drawing even more attention to her work.
While her previous show brought together images from the period between 1996 and 2009, this show essentially brings us up to speed on Hara’s most recent efforts, assembling a selection of photographs made in the past decade. Hara’s unique brand of street photography has often probed the in-between zones of urban Japanese life, where individuals linger in the disconnected loneliness and everyday boredom of surrounding crowds, and her subjects have generally been women and children, whose small overlooked moments have been intimately captured by Hara’s passing glance.
Hara follows many if not all of these same threads and themes in her recent pictures, but the tone has shifted ever so slightly. The colors are more muted, the light is softer, and the overall mood is more gently melancholy, as if the amazements of the world around her (including the celebration of her own overdue success as an artist) have somehow been hollowed out just a little.
Given that Hara shoots without directly looking through the viewfinder, her pictures are inherently ruled by a degree of deliberate chance and serendipity. This typically manifests itself in two important ways: in unbalanced compositions that upend our usual notions of angle, weight, and the use of empty space, and in the fleeting expressions of passersby that Hara captures in the midst of the dense life in the city.
Her people always seem to be caught unaware, in tiny moments when their guard is down or their small truths reveal themselves: the sideways, perhaps envious, glance of a young girl; the weary vigilance of a train conductor; the passive determination of a woman crossing the street; or the wary, hesitant look of a schoolboy. Two photographs in the show seem to touch the nerve of a particular strain of quiet 21st century alienation. In one, three young men (perhaps brothers or roommates) are trapped in the numbing routines of life – the three sleep, eat, and work, all at the same time, on different schedules, all in one cramped room. In another, the silhouetted figure of a young girl burrows into the isolated internal world of her phone, leaving her surprisingly alone in a public place. Both could easily have been stereotypes or cliches, but they both settle into terrain that is emptier, and more pensive.
Three more images use reflection and interruption to further create a sense of distance and aloofness. The strongest of these finds a woman riding the train, her hand holding the handrail with an umbrella over her arm – her face is loosely seen reflected in the metal edge of the doorway, the composition divided into vertical strips. It’s a picture that is at once lovely and deflating, her lonely commute made both graceful and dejecting. Hara uses similar techniques in an image of a woman seen through the arc of a car steering wheel, and in another of the cloudy scene at an airport terminal, where passing crowds trudge by behind the mottled grey sky reflected in the window. In all three, we feel Hara’s presence as an observer, and recognize the wide emotional gulf between her and her subjects, even when they are right nearby.
A handful of photographs in the show are essentially still lifes, or at least people-less views of flowers and nature. The floral images use dappled light to soften their exuberance, giving them a slight hint of introspective mournfulness. This mood then carries over into other pictures of foggy winter snow, mud encrusted dry leaves at the edge of a trickling stream, and the overgrown mossy greenery at the base of a tree, Hara’s patient observations contributing to the overall feeling of stubborn separation.
In the end, Hara’s recent street photographs traffic in the kind of subtleties that tend to get lost in the bustle of everyday life. She’s not showing us clever found oddities, visual jokes, or even eccentric joy. Instead, she’s aiming for lower registers of emotional resonance, where an individual stands apart from the flow that is engulfing them and seems to feel that moment of isolation. Her pictures are personal in ways that can feel almost claustrophobic. They leave us feeling like we have been brought behind the facades that make Japanese society so rigid, where the real human emotions of both the artist and her subjects are made visible for just an instant.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $2500 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.