The experimental fine-art photographer from Japan’s Tottori Prefecture
text: Taka Kawachi
Trying to think of “photographers from Japan’s Tottori Prefecture”, most people will perhaps think of Shoji Ueda, a photographer famous for his family portraits taken in Tottori’s sand dunes. Another photographer from Tottori Prefecture – admired by Shoji Ueda as “an almost God-like figure” – was Teikō Shiotani, whose remarkably refined works are a prime example of the unique movements in fine-art photography in Japan between the late Taisho and early Showa period in Japan of the 1920s and 1930s.
Born the eldest son of a wealthy shipping agent family in a harbor town facing the Sea of Japan, Teikō Shiotani focused on subjects like landscapes, children and still lifes and was heavily influenced by Pictorialism, a western school that aimed to marry photography with a picturesque style. Through publications in photography magazines, he became a huge influence on young photographers of his era. For a while, Shiotani had been largely forgotten but recent years saw him soar again in popularity, and his works are being exhibited again both in Japan and internationally.
His oeuvre is best summarized by works such as “Bird’s-eye View of the Village”, which overlooks hatch-roofed farmers houses; “Shipwreck” and “Hurricane”, in which Shiotani turned towards his daily companion the sea; still lifes of fish or fruit arranged in baskets; as well as portraits like “Three Young Monks” and photographs of children playing hobbyhorse near the shore. Shiotani created almost all of his works in his hometown of Akasaki – a point shared by Shoji Ueda, who lived and worked in the nearby town of Sakaiminato.
Shiotani used a “vesu-tan”, as Kodak’s single-lens “Vest Pocket Kodak” camera was lovingly called in Japan, and photographed with the lens hood removed, softening the contours of his subjects. Shiotani created his images through techniques rife with experimentation: by bending the photographic paper during the printing process – a technique called “deformation” – he produced strange landscapes with curving horizons. “Zoukin-gake” (“rag-wipes”) involved manipulating the photos with oil paint and painting tools to achieve a more pictorial look, and the technique “kaki-okoshi” greatly emphasized the gradations in the darker parts of his images.
Shiotani’s works were surreal but nonetheless unique to the medium of photography. Not only are these works still able to fascinate us despite our familiarity with contemporary photography and its possibilities, Shiotani and his contemporaries of the “vesu-tan school” engaged in such experimental photography around the time the Bauhaus-centered “Neues Sehen” movement emerged in the West. The fact that such avant-garde photography took place in Japan around the same time – or even a little earlier – is simply astonishing.
Teikō Shiotani’s experimental photography and printing are said to be the result of his desire to close the gap between the human eye and what it sees through the camera in order to express ubiquitous scenes from his memory. At any rate, it is precise because of his unending curiosity and experimental spirit that – despite the century that will soon have passed since their creation – these photographs are still able to offer us fresh ideas and hints in an era of omnipresent photography thanks to digital cameras and smartphones.
Born in Akasaki in Tottori Prefecture in 1899, Shiotani’s original ambitions were to become a painter. At age 13, Shiotani fell in love with photography when his father gave him a Vest Pocket Kodak camera. In 1913, the following year, he founded a club for photography enthusiasts in Tottori; six years later, with 88 members, the club was turned into the famous “Vest Club” (after the Kodak camera). Through competitions and serializations in magazines such as “Camera” and “Asahi Camera”, Shiotani and his works became known throughout the country. After a life spent in pursuit of fine art photography, capturing sceneries, people and still lifes with unique techniques such as the “soft-focus method”, Teikō Shiotani died in Akasaki in 1988, aged 89.
Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts) ”.His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).