Yoshimi Ikemoto, On Display

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Case Publishing (here). Hardcover, 366 × 260 mm, 148 pages, with 45 black-and white and 23 color reproductions, many on fold outs. Includes essays by Iseo Nose and Azumi Akai, and a foreword by the artist, all in Japanese/English. With a thumbnail list of works and a short biography. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Across the history of photography, it has often been the case that an artist has looked around his or her world, noticed major changes taking place, and felt compelled to document the old way of life before it vanished and was replaced by something new. This is the story that underlies much of Eugène Atget’s work in the streets of early 20th century Paris; a related version of this impetus to capture people and their lives comes through in August Sander’s portraits from early 20th century Germany; and Berenice Abbott’s images of New York in the 1930s take up the challenge of systematically seeing the city during yet another time of tumultuous change.

Yoshimi Ikemoto’s photographs of traditional Japanese shops and workspaces from the 1980s follow in the spiritual footsteps of these past masters, applying similar photographic ideas to the inhabitants of his own home region of San’in in the southwestern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. This is an area that was largely left out of Japan’s rapid post-war industrialization, but by Ikemoto’s time, even a more distant region like his was being encroached on by modernizing expansion. His photographs methodically archive the local businesses and shop owners, documenting now-fading glimpses of slower life in the Showa period (1926-1989).

While Atget and Abbott largely stayed in the streets, documenting exterior storefronts and window displays, Ikemoto takes a different path, going inside to capture images of the intimate spaces where work was being done and goods were offered for sale. Mostly using a large format 8×10 camera, he took pictures that record the individuality and personality of these professions and places, the camera’s large negatives capturing the richness of tactile detail found in the often overstuffed locations. Like Jim Dow’s photographs of small businesses and food trucks in America, Ikemoto’s images feel deliberately straightforward and honest, his approach mixing nostalgic wonder and earnest humility in equal measure.

On Display is a large photobook, with an unassuming text-only cover. Inside, the photographs are printed full bleed, in some cases with vertically oriented images filling each side of the spread; horizontally oriented images are placed either across both sides of the spread or tucked inside a foldout discovered underneath a slit near the right side of the gutter, which allows the page to unfold and extend outward to the right. These foldouts are particularly enveloping, in that they seem to draw us into the single room worlds we find underneath the fold. More than half of the images in the book are black-and-white, and the color pictures are placed near the end of the photobook in their own separate section. On Display contains the complete edition of Ikemoto’s project “Kinsei miseya-kou” (“Reflections on Shopkeepers in the Modern World”), although Ikemoto has been working on the series since the early 1980s and seems reluctant to call a definitive end to his search for old shops worth documenting.

Ikemoto’s photographs can’t be called formulaic exactly, but they do follow a relatively simple structure for the most part. In general, he sets up his camera in such a way that the entirety of the space is documented from edge to edge, with the proprietor, craftsman, couple, or family posed roughly in the center, in some cases doing whatever task they do most often. Given the slowness of working with a large format camera, there are no caught surprises or quick shots here – every subject is a willing participant (perhaps reluctant in some cases) and the scenes are organized to maximize the legibility of the surrounding detail. The resulting photographs are personal and immediate, a kind of “proof of existence” documented with measured clarity.

In our 21st century lives, we’ve become used to purpose built spaces solely used for selling and displaying goods for sale, so the mixed use rooms Ikemoto has documented (where living, working/making, and selling are all happening in the same space) feel particularly cluttered and crowded. Many photographs feature a craftsman or two sitting crosslegged on the floor in the middle of the frame making something – wooden shoes, fish cakes, tin pots, woven baskets, or wooden barrels – surrounded by the detritus of that process, from racks of tools to wood shavings. Other images feature a proud owner standing behind a counter or in front of a display (often filled to the bursting point with available items), seemingly ready to answer our questions, or get inside a workshop with more machinery, where dusty looms, lathes, sewing machines, forges, and flour baggers provide additional visual interest. Still other pictures document service providers at work – barbers cutting hair and giving shaves, mechanics fixing cars and bicycles, a clock repairer surrounded by clocks needing fixing, doctors seeing patients, cobblers fixing shoes, and laundry workers busy ironing. Like Sander’s exhaustive taxonomy of people of the 20th century, Ikemoto has built his own comprehensive inventory of shop owners of the 1980s, methodically checking off each type as he makes his rounds through town.

Part of the reason that On Display is so engaging is that its photographs can be read in so many different ways. We can see them as valuable cultural history, documenting the time-honored ways of craftsmen and women making decorative roofing ornaments, stone lanterns, knives, tatami mats, ceramics, decorative fabrics, wooden shrines, and even what look like small cannonballs. We can also dive into Ikemoto’s photographic attention to detail, reveling in the surfaces and textures of cracked leather, crusty spider-webbed gears, neatly arranged patterns of woodworking tools, arrays of padlocks, and even a fading red Coca-Cola sign. And we can look beyond all these trappings at the people themselves, and the individual personalities Ikemoto has preserved for posterity, the contours of their everyday hardships and sacrifices etched into their faces.

On Display is an understated photobook, and it might be easy to discount its photographs as some kind of throw back, time-capsule trip down memory lane. But Ikemoto’s photographs are more subtle and complex than that, pulling us deeply into the places he documents and offering us a chance to slow down and notice all the tiny details that make up a life. Each of his photographs is a glimpse at a vanished world and an enduring document of what we have lost as a result. What keeps me coming back to On Display is Ikemoto’s power as a visual storyteller. Every frame seems to unspool dozens of anecdotes and potential discoveries, offering almost as many questions as answers.

Collector’s POV: Yoshimi Ikemoto does not appear to have consistent gallery representation, so interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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