Tamiko Nishimura: Journeys @Alison Bradley Projects

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white/purple walls in the main gallery space and the back office area. The exhibit was curated by Pauline Vermare. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 16 gelatin silver prints, 1970, 1970-1972, 1972, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1978/1980, 1979, sized roughly 6×9, 6×10, 8×11, 11×17, 14×17 inches, unique
  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1969/2015, 1970/2015, 1970/2024, 1072/2015, 1972/2024, 1978/2024, 2022/2024, sized roughly 7×11, 9×13, 13×9 inches, in editions of 5
  • (vitrine): 1 photobook, 1973, 4 magazine spreads, 1970, 1971, 1981
  • (table): 8 photobooks

Comments/Context: The late 1960s and early 1970s were a transformative time in postwar Japanese photography, with a generation of now-famous names pushing experimental aesthetics in a range of disruptive new directions. The list of notable photographers working during this fertile period is surprisingly long, including Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moiyama, Eikoh Hosoe, Nobuyoshi Araki, Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, Miyako Ishiuchi, Masahisa Fukase, and Issei Suda, with many others actively participating in and contributing to the larger photographic community at the time.

Tamiko Nishimura isn’t as well known here in New York as most of her contemporaries from those years (remarkably, this show is her first in the United States), but it’s clear from the works on view here that she fits neatly into the larger arc of that energizing and radical moment in Japanese photography. Nishimura graduated from Tokyo College of Photography in 1969, and it seems she fell almost immediately into the middle of the swirling photographic scene in the city. Her graduation project featured performance images made in collaboration with an avant-garde theater company, and she soon found herself working as a part time darkroom assistant to both Moriyama and Nakahira.

This small show provides a quick sampler of Nishimura’s work, focusing primarily on her pictures from the 1970s, as seen in several successive projects. Some of the earliest works on view come from her project “Kittenish” (which later took form as a photobook), where Nishimura made intimate images of a childhood friend who had stayed over during a storm. The photographs feature tangled legs and arms, as seen from unusual lying down angles, creating a sense of close up sensual presence and personal connection.

Aside from these interior scenes, most of Nishimura’s photographs might fit best into a loose definition of street photography, often made on travels around Japan, albeit with a stylistic splash of the darker are-bure-boke aesthetics of the Provoke photographers. She is likely best known for the images found in her 1973 photobook Shikishima, which included pictures from various trips she made between 1969 and 1972. In this show, Shikishima is represented by a photograph of a stylized figure on a theater facade in Yokohama, the curving lines of tram tracks in Hakodate, a flare of light across legs and feet, and a mother and child in a sunny garden in Okunakayama, mixing formal interests and depictions of women. And in one ominously mysterious image (from 1969), a young girl on a bicycle turns away from the mundane village scene behind her, the darkness of her hair and shirt amplifying a sense of quiet foreboding.

The majority of the show is made up of photographs that eventually ended up in Nishimura’s Eternal Chase photobook and in her three volume My Journey photobook set, both projects essentially gathering together images made around Japan, primarily in the 1970s. Some of these images are decently straightforward, in that they document northern streets and fields covered in snow, views from train windows and of fellow passengers, and other travel-ready scenes, like a woman with a “holiday” tote bag or another seen from behind in an otherwise anonymous waiting room.

Stylistically, some of Nishimura’s strongest compositions feature bold contrasts of light and dark, or figures turned into inky silhouettes. In an image from Osaka, a small child in the foreground drifts to darkness while the shadow of an electrical pole seems to creep across the street like a mechanical spider. In another, a group of three figures on the right side of a neighborhood scene dissolves into a dark blob with six legs as the sun shines off the icy street nearby. And in a different winter moment, the dark figure of a woman holds a handrail as she comes up from town, her shawl-covered figure reduced to something akin to an angel of darkness.

Nishimura also consistently points her camera at the everyday lives of women, noticing the small rhythms of their days, from the subtle touch of a shoulder on a walk with a friend to the way a shopping bag is carried through a street market. Another contrasty image sets the ruffled white blouse of a mother against her dark hair, with what appears to be the dark figure of a small child in her arms; it’s an image of motherhood with an almost menacing undertone, the child lost to blackness and the woman’s identity similarly obscured.

All of this comes together in a quietly haunted photographic atmosphere, one that feels lyrically attentive to moments and moods that might otherwise go overlooked. Nishimura notices a bicycle parked next a building with the same curiosity as she watches the dripping light trails of fireworks in the sky, each seeming to offer an essence of something more resonant than it appears on first glance. It is these open-ended expressions that feel different than those of her contemporaries from the 1970s – the growl of societal unease was present in the work of most of the photographers of that time, but Nishimura has blended that simmering discomfort with something more calmly feminine. Her works add a woman’s perspective to the larger aesthetic dialogue taking place, replacing swaggering visual aggressiveness with more understated observation. In this way, her work deserves to be better known and appreciated, particularly here in the United States where our understanding of Japanese photography is often reduced to over simplifications; hopefully this well edited show will successfully introduce her to a wider audience and smartly complicate our received histories of 1970s era Japanese photography.

Collector’s POV: The vintage prints in this show are priced between $6500 and $12000 each, while the modern prints are priced at $4000 each. Nishimura’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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