Toshio Shibata, Boundary Hunt

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover with dust jacket, 25×32 cm., 72 pages including double gatefold center spread, with 35 monochrome photographs and a brief text by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over a career spanning more than five decades, the Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata has reliably mined fresh visual possibilities from basic elements. His photographs are scaffolded to the building blocks of industrial development: ferro-cement, roads, bridges, asphalt, dams, piping, and other core infrastructure, all nestled in edenic natural backdrops. These utilitarian constructions might perform vital everyday functions, but that aspect is largely disregarded by Shibata, who is instead concerned with their visual potential and compositional properties. By showcasing the subtle machinations which might otherwise inure sensually as visual white noise—water sweeping over a spillway, e.g., or rebar posts bulwarking a concrete slope— he consistently pricks the viewer with the reminder: Pay attention! Everything is noteworthy.

Or at least it appears noteworthy when placed before Shibata’s lens. Facing a flood of prosaic subject matter, especially in a country as visually dense as Japan, it’s quite a feat to selectively filter into cohesive frames. If it’s a heavy lift, Shibata makes the task seem deceptively easy. His initial choice of monochrome format helped in the process, naturally abstracting scenes while highlighting patterns, texture, and structure. Using greyscale like an X-ray to reveal underlying structure, Shibata worked in black and white for the first half of his career. It was around 2000 that he gradually shifted to color work, which has been his primary focus since. (See his full career reviewed here, and recent color work reviewed here). 

Perhaps the new millennium spurred a broader moment of artistic recalibration? In any case, it was around this time Shibata also began to experiment with Type 55, a peel apart Polaroid film which produces both negative and positive image. A handful of his results were collected in the eponymous Nazraeli book Type 55, published in 2003, but the bulk of them remained unpublished until now. They comprise the recent monograph Boundary Hunt, which collects thirty-five Type 55s shot by Shibata from 2000 to 2004. Most were made in rural Japan, with a sprinkling of images from America’s West Coast also in the mix.

Long time fans of Shibata will find themselves in familiar territory, as Boundary Hunt continues thematic strains of his earlier large format work, at least in broad strokes. A 2003 photo from Yamanashi Prefecture muddies preconceptions as it translates concrete surfaces into a ghostly specter. A picture from Saitama Prefecture shot in 2000, exhibits trademark Shibata layering, with slices of wall, rock, and water aligned in delightful balance. These materials must have been found in situ, but the arrangement appears as choreographed as any Japanese garden, exuding the same meditative calm. The cross-hatched cement webbing which Shibata has long adopted as a signature element surfaces here in several images, e.g. photos of Nakanojo Town, Yoshida Town, and Shingu City. 

Shibata’s photo antennae seem permanently set toward the earth. I cannot find any trace of sky or horizon line in this book, nor any other suggestions of the world beyond the photo’s border. Perspectives aim downward or across at things, wallowing in a gravity bound world of grass, soil, water, and concrete, and terminating abruptly before they can show much distance (more on those borders in a moment). A photo of Takane Village from 2003, for example, reduces a winding road and forested berm into a tidy graphic package, while grease stains abstracted on a textured wall suffice for another picture. A shot of Horsetail Falls, from my home state of Oregon, is restrained and elemental, a slice of white bifurcating a dark cliff. This waterfall has probably been photographed millions of times by others. Yet Shibata deftly stamps it with his own imprimatur. 

All well and good. But of course there’s a twist, in this case revealed by the title. Boundary Hunt is an overt reference to the borders of Type 55 film, which leaves its distinctive fingerprint on an image’s edge through chemical residue. Peel apart artifacts box in every photo here with textured blurs along three sides and triplet holes across the fourth. As a technical defect, such marks might seem like fodder for gear-heads, and perhaps not meaty enough to justify a book. But there is more to these simple boundaries than meets the eye. “The imperfection of the Type 55 film border has always fascinated me,” writes Shibata in the afterword. “When I look at the resulting image, I find myself on the boundary between a photograph and an art drawing.” Shibata was initially trained as a painter, and his monograph published concurrently with Chose Commune hints at multisidisciplinary interests; a book of straight photos, it’s entitled Painting. 

“When I used [Type 55] film,” Shibata writes, “I was reminded of the Sun Light Camera that I played with in my childhood in the 1950s. This material gives me a similar feeling….back to the amusement of my childhood encounter with photography.” Like watercolors smudged by a toddler, the idiosyncrasies of Type 55 chemical stains add an alchemic charge wherever applied. They share rough commonalities, but each Polaroid mark is unique. A slight heaviness there or a reticulation streak there remind the viewer of analog imprecisions. Taken as a whole, they are just plain messy.

The contrast with Shibata’s imagery is dynamic, for his photographs are the opposite of messy. Shooting industrial sites and highway shoulders, one might expect litter, graffiti, road signs, advertisements, perhaps car parts, animals or animation, or some other detritus of lived experience? Such subject matter might be the rough equivalent of border stains, and a complement to the edges. But they seldom appear in this book. The nearest hints of real world problems appear in photos of a spare rope, a culvert aiming skyward, and some plastic sheathing spiraling a guy-wire. Extraneous parts caught off-duty, they might be entropic in another context. But all are tightly controlled and formalized here by Shibata. Coming somewhat late on the heels of Strand, and Weston, and Caponigro, he aims for modernist transcendence, the aesthetic reverie of a zen retreat. An idealized fantasy? Yes, perhaps. But one with purpose.

The juxtaposition of border clutter and inner clarity is noteworthy. But Boundary Hunt is rooted in something even more fundamental: the photographer’s ongoing task of framing the world. The decision of how to place a rectangle around a scene, what to include in a frame and what to crop out, lies at the core of all photographic processes. In fact the phraseboundary hunt” might be applied as a motto for the medium. Shibata is quite skilled in this regard. His photos demonstrate the deliberation and care which one might expect from any lifelong master (now 73, he shot Boundary Hunt in his early 50s). His crops are precise and sure, leaving no room for second guessing. Chemical stains lend them added punch in this book, but they seem perfectly placed regardless. 

Boundary Hunt’s design is a quiet vehicle for the images. The production is clean and simple, with san serif text on a stark cover, and paper dust jacket wrapping a softbound book. Inside, it’s just one photo per spread, expanding briefly for a 6-image centerpiece printed on double gatefolds, before receding back to single image drumbeat. The essay and colophon are short and sweet. All are signs of a photographer aware of his boundaries, and continuing to work comfortably within them, while still on the hunt for more.

Collector’s POV: Toshio Shibata is represented by Laurence Miller Gallery in New York (here), Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica (here)  and Tepper Takayama Fine Arts in Boston (here). Shibata’s work has little auction history, so gallery retail is likely the best bet for collectors who wish to follow up.

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