Issue #184  10/13/2011
Tokyo Photo 2011: a Work Still in Process

By Torin Boyd
Tokyo, Japan

Billed as "Asia's leading international photography fair", Tokyo Photo 2011 took place on September 23-25 amid the shadow of the triple disasters that devastated Japan earlier in the year. Held at the sprawling Tokyo Midtown complex in central Tokyo, this event, now in its third year is Japan's first and only photographic art fair of its kind.

Founded in 2009 by art promoter Tomohiro Harada, this year's fair attracted some of Japan's top photo galleries, as well as a handful of international dealers. Other events included lectures, charity print auctions for tsunami and quake victims, and special photo exhibitions.

But turnout was lower than expected with only 10,000 visitors attending, nearly the same as last year. According to Harada, "we were anticipating between 15,000 to 20,000 visitors this year, but perhaps we placed too much emphasis on quake and tsunami charity, causing the public to think this was a charity event rather than a photo fair. He went on, "The quake and nuclear meltdown had such a negative impact on the art market in Japan, plus overseas dealers who had expressed interest in attending prior to the disasters, stayed away due to radiation fears".

Even so, this was a well produced event worthy of any international photo fair. But with only 21 dealers exhibiting who mostly experienced moderate sales, Tokyo Photo needs to expand its base of both exhibitors and attendees. Harada explained, "The art market in Japan is still somewhat idle and the current emphasis with many dealers is on first-time buyers and younger customers".

As for what was being offered at this show, this was the most impressive assemblage of modern Japanese photography ever offered under one roof. Many of the big name artists were here: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, and Toshio Shibata. But many new and emerging Japanese artists were also well represented--all at what seemed like very reasonable prices. As for international artists, they were in the minority at this show.

Also conspicuously missing was pre-World War II Japanese art photography, Pictorialism and 19th-century works. However one Tokyo gallery, MEM, was offering vintage 1930s prints by Osamu Shiihara, a member of the Tampei Photography Club, as well as a limited edition portfolio by 1930s Japanese avant-garde photo pioneer Iwata Nakayama. This was recently printed under the supervision of Nakayama's estate and photo historian Ryuichi Kaneko.

Concerning Japanese contemporary works, throughout the show numerous bargains could be had in the $1,000-$5,000 range. These included both young and established artists because Japan is still a buyers' market, even with the highly inflated Japanese yen.

Some standouts of the fair were Emon Photo Gallery of Tokyo which displayed superb color prints by emerging artist Ryo Ohwada from his bonsai tree and red wine series in the $2,000 to $6,000 range. Emon was also displaying large fantasy cityscape collages by Sohei Nishino from his "Diorama Map" series in editions of five (in the $25,000 range).

Another interesting exhibitor was Zen Foto Gallery of Tokyo. This new gallery established in 2009 by British ex-pat Mark Pearson had a wonderful mix of Japanese and Chinese contemporary artists. One was the Japanese documentary photographer Kazuo Kitai whose large format silver gelatin prints of rural China blended well with the eclectic mix of other images on display. This included works by Liu Zheng, Wang Ningde, Mao Ishikawa and Takahiko Nakafuji. In addition to the prints, Pearson was selling a number of high quality limited edition photo books published by his gallery. Zen also opened a second gallery in Beijing last year, so this is a gallery to watch.

Also exhibiting was Photo Gallery International or PGI. Founded in 1979, this is one of the oldest and most reputable photo galleries in Japan. Exhibiting for the first time at Tokyo Photo, they had their usual big name artists on display including Issei Suda, Yasuhiro Ishimoto and Michiko Kon. But the works by Soeno Kazuyuki from his "Fossil of Light" series were some of the most interesting. These images were a series of enlarged black and white photograms of insect wings, found on roadsides after being hit by cars. The 44-year-old Soeno started this project after being hit by a car and being severely injured. His beautiful one-of-a-kind prints could be had for under a $1,000.

International dealers at the fair included Danzinger Gallery of New York, Torch Gallery and Ten Haaf Projects from Amsterdam, and Ratio 3 of San Francisco. This West Coast gallery showcased large-format monochrome nudes by Ryan McGinley whose image "Butterfly" was used as the promotional image for this year's fair. Also attending was Magnum Photos, which focused more on limited edition books and had only a small number of prints. Magnum had little Japanese material, which according to Junko Ogawa of Magnum Tokyo, was due to the fact that "we wanted to promote all Magnum photographers, rather than just Japanese-themed works at this fair".

Besides the galleries exhibiting here, there were two impressive photo exhibitions taking place. One, a charity exhibition for the Tohoku Earthquake presented by the Embassy of France in Tokyo, included images by famed photographers Kishin Shinoyama and Rinko Kawauchi, along with other Japanese and French artists. The second, curated by Simon Baker of the Tate Modern, featured images by British art photographer Chris Shaw from his "Night Porter" series juxtaposed with works by Japanese masters.

As for the future of Tokyo Photo, Harada and his staff are already busy planning next year's show. This seems to be a trend in Asia as photo and art fairs are now taking place in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Even though the art market in Japan is still reeling from the economic decline of the 1990s, the art market in the broader Asia seems to be in full swing.

To see more about Tokyo Photo 2012, please visit: http://www.tokyophoto.org/en .

Torin Boyd is an American photojournalist based out of Tokyo, Japan since 1986. In addition to photographing for major international publications, he is also a photo historian and has co-authored two books on Japanese photo history. He is affiliated with the Tokyo-based photo gallery Sakura-do, and his work can be seen online at: http://www.sakura-do.com and at http://www.torinboyd.com .