Satoshi Fujiwara, Code Unknown

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Amana/IMA Photobooks (here). Loosebound with elastic band, 58 pages (multiple sizes), with 56 color and black and white reproductions on several paper stocks (matte, glossy, white bordered, thin/thick etc.). Includes an essay by the artist on a loose sheet. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The surreptitious subway shot has been a staple of photography ever since Walker Evans made his first hidden camera images of New York passengers in the late 1930s. Even back then, his snatched glimpses of unvarnished life were full of vitality – when the subject isn’t aware of the photographer, posing doesn’t take place, so authentic everyday gestures and expressions aren’t covered up. While many photographers have followed in Evans’ footsteps (Bruce Davidson, Chris Marker, and Reinier Gerritsen just to name a few), few have done so with as much up close intimacy as Japanese photographer Satoshi Fujiwara. Taken while riding the trains of Berlin, his pictures bore in with tight invasive skew-angle attention, seeing anonymous passengers with the observant eyes of a curious outsider.

Fujiwara’s images quietly break the usual contract of private space, getting right up in people’s faces like Bruce Gilden, but without the overt aggressive confrontation. His secret photographs are full of tiny details – folds of skin, wrinkles, pores and stubble, fingernails, wisps of colored hair – pulling in so close that specific individuals become more universal abstractions of humanity. In the crisp light of the morning and the warm glow of the afternoon, he has tallied movements and idiosyncrasies – the way a hand is brought to the lips, the downward glance of eyes, a vacant stare, the styles of eyeglass frames, the intake of breath. He watches these fragments of gesture and appearance looking for codes, the small overlooked moments that act like identifying marks of personality and background. The crumple of candy wrapper, the interlocked pendant, the awkwardly carried orchid in plastic, the edge of leather, they all tell stories and reveal identities. There is a certain brash ugliness to such intense scrutiny and Fujiwara is well aware of his privacy invasion (especially in this social media age) – he uses cropping, shadowing, and after-the-fact manipulation to pull us away from recognizing people and toward seeing disembodied details.

The real energy of this photobook comes from its unconventional construction. Fujiwara’s images are gathered on loose pages of various sizes, creating a folded layering effect when the small and large images are interleaved next to one another; when we step back and take in an entire spread, the images become a twisting collage of mixed body parts. His portraits are oriented in all directions (tumbling eyes look here and there) and different paper stocks make the tactile engagement unique for each page turn.

The book’s dynamic design also highlights a distinct sense of immersive motion. Faces swirl and overlap, building on one another (sometimes on the same page), becoming an interwoven mixture of disconnected features, just like the swim of passing faces on a crowded train. Humanity comes and goes, we see it fleetingly, catching just a glimpse of an eyebrow here, a scarf there, trying to make connections and conclusions from the barest of visual information. The minute variations and topographies of skin (not unlike those found in Nicholas Nixon’s skin-centric portraits) become a study all their own when Fujiwara forces us to look at his subjects with such unwavering clarity. Our eyes jump around, recalibrating, resizing, recombining, and reconsidering.

This is a case where the packed density of the photobook form is likely the fullest manifestation of Fujiwara’s vision. While certain individual faces stand out and will make striking large scale prints, it is the pleasingly jumbled public/private experience found in the book that thrums with visual and conceptual richness. Fujiwara’s patient eye has found expressive detail in these distracted and unknowing subway riders, turning a forgettably dull commute into an engaging visual cacophony.

Collector’s POV: Satoshi Fujiwara is represented by IMA Gallery (here) in Tokyo. He also recently collaborated with Issey Miyake (here) on a line of t-shirts and handbags that use the Code Unknown imagery. Fujiwara’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Satoshi Fujiwara, IMA Photobooks

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