Cities, people, scale: Rubinfien, Nguan, Caracci

Shibuya, Wounded Cities, Homo Urbanus Europeanus
Leo Rubinfien was a name I’d noticed from time to time, but I only knew him as a writer about Tōmatsu Shōmei. Having skimread this review by Dan Abbe, I decided to see Rubinfien’s Wounded Cities (傷ついた街), showing until 23 October at MOMAT (the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo).

The ticket is very modestly priced: even with no concession, just ¥420. It’s primarily for several rooms’ worth of works selected from the museum’s permanent collection: mostly paintings, but also woodcuts and yes even photographs. There were some good things here, notably work by painters whose names I lazily omitted to note down. I rushed through most of it because time was limited, but did look in one room of photographs of Tōhoku by Moriyama Daidō, Suda Issei, and Kitai Kazuo. Suda’s, from the excellent series Fūshi kaden (風姿花伝, collected in two books of this title), were the most rewarding. But on to Rubinfien.

Hanging from the ceiling in one room are thirty-five huge prints: 152×183 cm. All but three are monochrome. (Curiously, the three colour prints are far from the most compelling, and in contrast to the others their colour makes them look prettier. I’d have printed them all in monochrome.) They’re largely of individuals, photographed from 2002 to 2008 in this or that city around the world, looking at the camera, worried, pensive or just rather blank, though some are of more than one person, and there’s variety in that the face in the forefront may be clearly less important than another that occupies less space in the frame.

As you’d hope in a national museum (but certainly can’t expect), the photographs are very good. But they’re also very big indeed. The sheer size seems to announce: We are major works of art. And ten or so among them just don’t seem to reach that level. Also puzzling was the short preface, which speculated that the people depicted in the photographs expressed the effect of either the attack in New York in September 2001 or others similar to it. (True, the wording was tentative.) Well, possibly . . . but I put aside that possibility, as well as any other theme, and concentrated on the photographs themselves.

Some just didn’t work. The first two (both Tokyo, and specifically Shibuya station, in 2002) seemed humdrum — they’d have their place among a hundred more modestly sized prints, but not here. At least one (Jakarta, 2004) was hard to parse: behind one out-of-focus head occupying almost half of the frame (which itself didn’t worry me) was what I deduced was a forehead: after all, it came under hair, where a forehead should be; and yes, if I concentrated it was indeed a forehead — though not a particularly interesting one. And I had other criticisms besides.

This left perhaps twenty-five photographs that were excellent. A look in a search engine will reveal them and bring praise for them; no need to repeat this here. The enormity of the prints did make me stop and admire the fine resolution — the precise threads in people’s jackets, etc etc — something I usually find myself doing when photographs are less than absorbing. Still, I soon snapped out of that. The twenty-five (or so) photographs that impressed me were easily good enough for me to want a copy of the catalogue. That this generously sized and excellently printed book cost just ¥1600 was a pleasant bonus.

Sitting in the train, I wondered why the prints had been so huge. Does enormity increase the prices that museums and plutocrats will pay? If so, good for the photographers, the great majority of whom struggle to make a living from any work that I’d want to see. (Not that MOMAT has paid: these prints are on loan from Rubinfien.) Or is enormity meant to impress the viewer? If so, it backfired for me. (For that matter, among the exhibited prints that had recently fascinated me the most were perversely small ones by Algirdas Šeškus.)

Regent St, 2003 (© Leo Rubinfien)Once home, I opened the book (catalogue), and it all made sense. Though big enough, this is not a huge book. Some photographs that hadn’t worked when hung from the ceiling make perfect sense on the page: for example, the Jakarta photograph mentioned above clicks immediately. Photographs that I’d thought were weak became stronger again. And there’s an essay by Rubinfien that’s excellent in itself and that also works with the photographs. (I haven’t yet seen the original book, from Steidl, of Wounded Cities; but it sounds similar, though more lavish and with more content.)

So a guarded recommendation for the exhibition — about the hours etc of which, see MOMAT’s notices in English and in Japanese — and a warm recommendation for the book:

Leo Rubinfien (レオ・ルビンファイン). Wounded Cities (傷ついた街). Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2011. No ISBN (and not in Worldcat, but in Nacsis Webcat).

This is not distributed in the normal retail channels within Japan (let alone anywhere else); in Japan, try the bookshop of MOMAT or failing that the bookshop of another large art museum. Or of course get the earlier book by Steidl.

Shibuya, 2002 (© Leo Rubinfien)

In an illustrated talk titled “Paths through the Global City”, Rubinfien is wary of subjects and more so of presuming to “document” them; we learn that “Wounded Cities” was part of this larger “Global City” project. I look forward to a book on that, a few years from now.

Shibuya 2008–2010 (© Nguan), detailI’d read praise of Rubinfien’s work from somebody who’d mentioned in a different context that he hadn’t been impressed by Nguan’s book Shibuya. That may have primed me before I walked into the room with the giant prints. And perhaps their enormity brought to mind the enormity of Shibuya (28×41 cm). But no, the photographs themselves have a certain resemblance.

To go back a bit. . . .

I hadn’t heard of Nguan when I first saw a pile of copies of his book Shibuya at Sōkyūsha (Sokyusha, Sokyu-sha, 蒼穹舎). There’s a lot of worthwhile stuff in that shop, but the praise it gets (example, example) obscures the fact that most piles lying on its central table are either of books you’ve already seen (if you frequent such bookshops), or of yet more unexciting examples of this or that genre. For the latter, even the cover designs are generic. The cover of Shibuya stood out, for its size and colour (which trumped the uninterestingness of that particular photograph). So I picked it up, looked through it, was impressed, and bought it.

Shibuya (© Nguan)

Yes, Shibuya is big (which is obscured by the way I show its pages here). The subject matter is very simple: people outdoors in Shibuya. They’re mostly young people, and they’re mostly walking or waiting for the lights to change in the most obvious areas of Shibuya, notably the famed “scramble crossing“. That may make it seem to fall within a pretty vacant genre, but luckily it’s very different.

Shibuya (© Nguan)

Shibuya (© Nguan)

It’s “street”, but unlike much “street” photography, which uses a short focal length for a greater depth of field and a reduced risk that what’s of interest will simply be out of focus, Nguan uses a shallow focus for relative emphasis.

(For you techies: Nguan says here that he uses a Fuji GW690III, which has a 90mm lens for roughly the coverage of a 40mm lens used for full-frame 135 — but of course with the depth of field of a 90mm lens. For a 6×9 camera, it’s quick to use, but nothing is automated and focussing a lens that size takes time.)

True, in some of the photographs the key figure is attending to their mobile phone or game console. These tend to be of limited interest. (This isn’t to say that the subject is doomed; see George Kelly’s work.) And curiously, Nguan has used the weakest image for the front cover. Let’s agree that a dozen or so of the images could be cut — we’d then still be left with over a hundred.

The other problem (for me) is the color. Sometimes reds are gaudy, and bright reds even seem to have been daubed on with a pen. Surely something has gone amiss in the proofing or printing process. And yet there’s the same gaudiness both in Jeff Mermelstein’s Twirl/Run (from Powerhouse, which should know what it’s doing) and also in some of Nguan’s own jpegs on the web. So maybe it’s deliberate. Either way, it takes a bit of getting used to. But I do get used to it, and the book succeeds. Its details:

Nguan. Shibuya. [Singapore]: [Nguan], 2010. ISBN 978-981-08-6577-1 (Worldcat).

You can buy the book directly from Nguan; and if the price seems high remember that it includes airmail, which can’t be cheap. Nguan lists stockists in Singapore, France, Germany, Japan and the US. I paid just under ¥4000 at Sōkyūsha: very reasonable.

Many of the images in the book are here in Nguan’s site, which also has these images, which are in the same series but not in the book. Photographs of the book here, video of it here.

Rubinfien’s “Global City” also brought to mind the Homo Urbanus Europeanus project of Jean-Marc Caracci.

Lisbon (© Jean-Marc Caracci)

The theme of Homo Urbanus Europeanus is one of “lonely characters isolated [in] their natural habitat”, in which loneliness is not necessarily negative. (Would “solitude” have been better?) Caracci presents photographs of Belgrade, Berlin, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Helsinki, Istanbul, Lisbon, Ljubjana, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Prague, Rejkjavik, Riga, Rome, Sofia, Stockholm, Tallinn, Tirana, Vienna, Vilnius, Warsaw and Zagreb. There are seventy plates; each of these cities gets between one and five. Most show an isolated figure, but some show small numbers isolated from each other, and there are variations such as isolated couples. The backgrounds are not obviously identifiable (certainly not in a postcardy way), but some are identifiable anyway: for example, I know precisely where in Helsinki the first photograph was taken. Many of the backgrounds could have been in any number of the other cities. Many of the lone figures walk purposefully, but there is variety.

So we have “25 european capitals, if one considers Istanbul as the european capital of Turkey”. Since that time Caracci also went to Athens, Copenhagen and London, as his site for the project shows; Caracci lists as missing: Amsterdam, Baku, Bern, Chisinau, Dublin, Kiev, Luxembourg, Minsk, Moscow, Nicosia, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, Tbilisi, Torshavn, Vaduz, Valetta, and Yerevan. More recently he’s stated (here) that he’s been to 31, so he must have reduced the “missing” list by three. Istanbul strikes me as problematic, as the stated reason for its inclusion implies that Ankara isn’t European, which is hard to square with the inclusion of Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku. Still, this is not a geopolitical polemic but a photography project, so let’s allow it some oddities; and anyway I wouldn’t want the particularly good photograph from Istanbul removed.

Rome (© Jean-Marc Caracci)

Brussels (© Jean-Marc Caracci)

As a search quickly shows, Caracci has had quite a few exhibitions of this project around Europe. (Good material about the project can be found here and here.) At one point a Polish gallery brought out this catalogue, as a survey of the project so far. It has to be said that the page size is small, that the printing quality is that of a mass-market magazine, and also that some of the images are humdrum. But far more often than not there’s something striking about the photograph.

Jean-Marc Caracci. Homo Urbanus Europeanus. Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Marpol, 2009. ISBN 978-83-929908-0-2 (Worldcat).

Both the editor’s note and photographer’s preface are in Polish, French and English. The price is modest, and you can get a copy directly from Caracci. Buy one for yourself and one for a eurofriend.

Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the respective photographer or publisher, not to me.



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