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Here and There :
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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

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image image Tekiya: Hitomi Watanabe's Study of a Subculture
Alan Gleason
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Hitomi Watanabe, Jujo Fuji Jinja Shrine in Naka-Jujo, Tokyo, from TEKIYA (1967-70). Courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery

Photographer Hitomi Watanabe employs a winning combination of guts and guilelessness to earn the trust of subjects ordinarily averse to being captured on film. Over the course of her half-century career she has gained access to student-occupied campus buildings, gatherings of festival peddlers with underworld connections, and, in a cross-species tour de force, wild monkeys. Tekiya, her current show at Zen Foto Gallery, revisits a series of candid shots of Japan's traditional peddlers, taken when she was not yet out of photography school.

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Hitomi Watanabe, Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, from TEKIYA (1967-70). Courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery

As Watanabe explains it, she was drawn to the festivals at a shrine near her home in Jujo, Tokyo, where the itinerant merchants known as tekiya set up stalls hawking food, sweets, toys and trinkets. Tekiya have traditionally been associated with the yakuza and sport many of the same affectations -- tattoos, sunglasses, tough-guy attitudes -- though Watanabe says they make a point of asserting that they are first and foremost shopkeepers, not gangsters. Still, they rarely cotton to strangers sticking noses in their business, so it was no small feat for a young woman with a camera to get up close and personal with these folks. Such was their rapport that she was even invited to attend and film a major regional meeting of tekiya, the first photographer ever to be granted this privilege.

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Hitomi Watanabe, Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, from TEKIYA (1967-70). Courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery

Early in her career Watanabe shot exclusively in monochrome. Unlike many other Japanese photographers of the sixties, however, she did not indulge in the are-bure style of grainy, blurry, high-contrast imagery then in vogue. Her no-nonsense approach to focusing, framing, and development is always in the service of her compositional instincts, which are impeccable. A master of both the intimate portrait and the cinematic crowd tableau, she avers that she does virtually no cropping, yet every shot looks perfectly framed. Thanks to the free rein her subjects grant her, she is able to catch them in moments of extreme candor. Watanabe's m.o. is a lesson in how trust can pry open portals to the unguarded soul just as effectively as the weapons of stealth and surprise favored by guerrilla photographers.

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Exhibition view, Hitomi Watanabe: TEKIYA at Zen Foto Gallery. Photo by Alan Gleason

Shot between 1967 and 1970, the 30 black-and-white 10 x 12 inch prints lining the walls of Zen Foto Gallery, a compact exhibit space on a back street in Roppongi, Tokyo, capture a time when Japan was well into its postwar boom but had not yet entered the period of frenzied development and conspicuous consumption known as the "bubble" years. The tekiya were heirs to a centuries-old mercantile tradition, with a dollop of postwar black-marketeering thrown in. You can still find them selling their wares at shrine and temple markets today, but their ranks have suffered attrition in the face of competition from department stores and supermarket chains that set up their own stalls on festival days.

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Hitomi Watanabe at Zen Foto Gallery, November 2017. Photo by Alan Gleason

Watanabe first became enamored of photography after graduating from college and finding work as an editor at a business magazine. She began taking pictures on assignment and, realizing she much preferred that to editing, enrolled in photography school. The tekiya series served as her graduation exhibition. As she describes her first encounter with the peddlers:

"When I was still a photography student, I was planning to take pictures of a local festival . . . I visited the area the day before the festival, hoping to do some location scouting. That was when I encountered this crowd of disquieted people about 100 meters away from the local shopping street. They were some rough-and-tumble men, filled with fervor, wackiness and laziness. I rushed back to my place to grab my camera and immersed myself in taking pictures of those people as soon as I returned. After 10 minutes or so, I was surrounded by those men. A middle-aged lady yelled at me too, saying "If you take pictures you will be beaten half to death!" While I was expecting an immediate punch from somebody, this man who seemed to be a boss among the group came up close with his overwhelming body odor and told me to take photos of him. He was like a godsend to me. This is how I started my career as a tekiya street photographer." (English translation courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery)

In 1968 Watanabe gained entry to striker-occupied Yasuda Auditorium at the University of Tokyo, where she was permitted to photograph student life behind the barricades as they awaited a police onslaught. Those riveting images grace a special corner of the National Museum of Japanese History's current 1968 exhibition (see the November 2017 Here & There). It was a heady era of social ferment among youth in Japan, as elsewhere, and Watanabe was smack in the middle of it, chronicling among other things the frequent protests and concerts by anti-Vietnam War activists and musicians who gathered at Tokyo's Shinjuku Station.

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Zen Foto Gallery, on the second floor of the Piramide Building in Roppongi. Photo by Alan Gleason

In 1972, however, she left Tokyo behind and took off for India and Nepal on a spiritual quest, camera in hand. Still working in monochrome, she compiled a portfolio there of mystical landscapes and powerful portraiture that contrasts strikingly with her work in Japan. Over the next two decades she returned to the subcontinent several times, drawn to the lives of subjects both human and non-. Her 1994 collection A Monkey's Year contained some of the most empathetic portraits of our simian cousins you will ever see. The empathy seems to have been mutual, as Watanabe clearly won the trust of the monkeys, who allowed her to get within touching distance in some truly moving moments of interspecies communication.

Over the years Watanabe has also forged an intimate relationship with flora as well as fauna -- specifically with lotuses, whose blossoms she caresses through vibrant color close-ups. (A 2009 retrospective of her work is reviewed here.) While she continues to earn deserved accolades today for her seminal series of past decades, one hopes to see more portraiture, of whatever species, by this veteran with the compassionate eye and persuasive touch.


All images are by permission of Zen Foto Gallery and the artist.


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Hitomi Watanabe: TEKIYA
18 November - 22 December 2017
Zen Foto Gallery
2nd floor, Piramide Bldg., 6-6-9 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-6804-1708
Hours: Noon to 7 p.m. Closed Sunday, Monday, and national holidays
Access: 3 minutes' walk from Exit 3, Roppongi Station (Tokyo Metro Hibiya and Toei Oedo Lines)
 
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 30 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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