Naoya Hatakeyama, Excavating the Future City, ed. Yasufumi Nakamori

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2018 by Aperture (here) and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (here), in conjunction with an exhibit at the museum (here, March 4-July 22, 2018). Flexibound, 280 pages, with 160 black and white and color reproductions. Edited by Yasufumi Nakamori, with essays by Nakamori, the artist, Toyo Ito, and Phillippe Forest. With a comprehensive artist bibliography and exhibition history. Design by Studio Lin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: If we look back a few decades in the timeline of photography, curators have done a consistently admirable job of unpacking two of the major aesthetic themes that dominated the period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s in America – the flowering of color photography and the coalescing of the ideas that become known as the New Topographics. And while the major artists in each of these movements went on to influence entire generations of photographers, how that influence actually manifested itself is much less well documented and understood. We know that Eggleston and Shore, as well as Baltz and the Bechers, helped to shape the outlook of many photographers a decade or two younger than themselves, and yet, aside from the Germans in Dusseldorf, we haven’t spent a great deal of time systematically following the breadcrumbs to the next cohort.

The fact that the Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama isn’t more broadly well known (at least in America) is a ready example of this failure to appreciate where those original 1970s influences led. Hatakeyama began working in the mid 1980s, and for the past three decades, he has explored the conception and construction of cities (particularly in Japan) from a variety of thoughtful angles. He had his first US museum show at SFMOMA in 2012, and this well-edited catalog accompanies a follow-up retrospective recently organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, so we are clearly in the process of doing some much needed institutional catch up on where Hatakeyama fits.

The earliest projects in the book all center on going back to the origin point of the conceptual city, namely the Japanese limestone quarries where ancient rock is carved from the land and turned into building materials. It is here that we see Hatakeyama actively collapsing those aesthetic influences from the 1970s, both looking at the scarred hillsides and hulking industrial infrastructure of the quarries and seeing their ugliness and grim environmental damage (like the New Topographics photographers), while also bathing them in the warmth of afternoon sun or purpling twilight (like the American color masters, particularly those who pointed their cameras at the land, like Meyerowitz or Misrach). The lime works themselves are seen with aloof attention to formal composition, where corrugated tin sheds and conveyors create layers of planes and angles and dense nests of silvery piping twist and turn, but unlike the deadpan works of the Bechers, Hatakeyama actively embraces the eerie red glow of nighttime lights, the contrasts of snow and rust, and the palette of earth tones from greenery to exposed dirt. A few years later, he moved in closer to the excavations themselves, making split second exposures of the dynamite blasts, where debris and smoke fly out with explosive energy. In these pictures, Hatakeyama is exploring the dichotomies of destruction enabling construction and chaos ultimately leading to order, where nature is being sacrificed to the needs of man in ways that are visually complicated and even contradictory.

The artist then followed the limestone into the city, examining the concrete chutes and spillways containing the water of the Shibuya River as it passes through Tokyo. Here again, there is a smart hybridization of aesthetics – a rigorous formal structure, placing the river in tall verticals and systematically bisecting the the images into two halves (like Sugimoto’s seascapes), matched with lush color harmonies, where city lights reflect in the water below and cherry blossom petals dapple the surface in springtime. Hatakeyama then turned his attention to complex modes of urban transition, following one of the main highway arteries in the north part of Tokyo and taking stock of the dense layers of change taking place along the way. In these pictures, construction is constant, with interlocked sections of new and old, always further enlivened by his attention to color stories. A few years later, Hatakeyama went down underneath the surface of the streets to the subway tunnels, probing the shadowy concrete hollows and discovering murky waterways and impromptu arrangements of junk and decay vaguely reminiscent of Baltz’ desert finds. With each project, he has pushed on the edges of what the city means, finding that time doesn’t behave in its predictable linear fashion but seems to bend back on itself, connecting the quarry to the rhythms of the city’s architecture in a perpetual mode of recycling and flux.

In the projects in the following decade, Hatakeyama began to experiment with various modes of mediation, as if trying to force himself to look at the city in new ways. He built what he called the “slow-glass camera” (which was made by placing a camera in a box with a glass plate front) and then made shots of the city that used raindrop distortions to turn night scenes filled with neon and bright advertising into expressive improvisations (not unlike what Saul Leiter did with misty windows). He made works consisting of combinations of photo paper and transparencies and displayed them on light boxes, creating dark black and white urban scenes filled with exaggerations of shadow and flickering light. He tried out aerial views, returning to the same vantage points years later, documenting areas of the city changing so fast that the before/after combinations are hardly recognizable as the same location. And he made images of elaborate urban models, photographing the topologies of miniature buildings with the precision and rigor of his previous urban architecture pictures, upending the distinctions between real and fake. In each case, he purposefully extended what photographs of the city can be, and what they can show us about how cities are constantly changing.

In the last images in the book/exhibit, Hatakeyama turns his camera to his hometown of Rikuzentakata, a coastal town that was completely demolished by the 3/11 earthquake/tsunami in 2011. In pictures made just days after the devastation occurred, he shows us sweeping views of the small city utterly swept away, nearly every single structure reduced to rubble. Using his eye for formal clarity, broken building materials are set off against a forest of still standing tree trunks and piles of wreckage are set into horizontal strips and layers that divide compositions, turning the destruction into an opportunity for imposing his own sense of order. The images are quietly horrific in their wholesale removal, the awesome power of nature writ large. Hatakeyama then pairs these photographs with more casual images he made during various trips home before the tsunami, capturing his hometown in a kind of inverted time warp, where the easy going routines of watching the local waterway flow by are now freighted with the painful sadness and loss of what we know came later.

The catalog itself is smartly designed, with the artist’s works divided into thematic sections that don’t entirely follow a strict chronological progression. Each section spends time parsing each separate body of work, with short texts and image lists (on muted grey paper with coppery text color) preceding the parade of high quality color reproductions. Overall, the catalog has a structure that is unobtrusive and functionally practical, but still elegant in its imposition of an organized flow on an entire career of art making. As a useful primer on Hatakeyama, it will undoubtedly be a solid reference volume for years to come.

Hatakeyama has left his mark on the arc of contemporary photography by incorporating and then evolving pieces of the historical legacy of the medium into something uniquely his own. His vision of the city (as an idea rather than a place) goes far beyond a static snapshot of either the land or the man-altered environment. Instead, he has embraced a definition of the city as an ever changing process, where both time and physicality move back and forth. Architecture is tied back to the source of its materials, is seen in the messy incompleteness of its construction/reconstruction phases, and is ultimately reabsorbed back into the body of the host when something new supplants (or destroys) it. That fluidity of perspective leads to insightful pictures that highlight the impermanence and fragility of our built world.

Collector’s POV: Naoya Hatakeyama is represented by Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo/New York (here) and L.A. Galerie Lothar Albrecht in Frankfurt (here). Hatakeyama’s work has not been widely available in the secondary markets in the past decade (only a handful of lots have been sold across that time period), with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $15000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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