“Shutter chance”, that is the Japanese expression borrowed from the English language that best describes the photographs of the Japanese street photographer Kayo Ume. Take above photograph as an example. A young couple makes an evening visit to a local chemist. They are dressed casually, knowing that their trip would only last a few minutes. They find what they were looking for, go to the cashiers and pay. The harsh artificial lighting and the products on the shelves are deeply reminiscent of Andreas Gursky’s iconic photograph “99 Cents” depicting a giant supermarket. In this claustrophobic space of consumerism, there, on the linoleum floor, is a pigeon blocking the way to the exit. The young couple look down in awe at this unusual and unexpected sight. What they don’t see is that out on the street is a young photographer, born in 1981, who has been watching the pigeon and their very own actions from the beginning. It’s a chance encounter and Kayo Ume knows when to press the shutter. Ume’s observations are relentless. In the photograph we can see the joy on faces of the young couple while the shop clerk’s blank expression is perhaps evidence for a long day at work. The young woman so delighted about the pigeon is wearing an eye patch, further contextualizing her visit to the chemist. In the foreground of the photograph, on the far right, is the silhouette of a person passing by and holding, what appears to be, an umbrella. In this single photograph, Ume supplies the viewer with an abundance of information that supports a greater narrative of the everyday.
Other photographs from Kayo Ume’s massively successful book Ume-me, which sold over 100.000 copies in her native Japan, tell similarly intriguing stories. There is for example the slightly tragic moment when five elderly people are desperately trying to open a locker in a train station. The strength in these photographs is that they bridge the tragic with the comic, but also the voyeuristic with the mundane. These photographs are made possible by Ume’s pathological dedication to the medium photography, working in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson or even Jacques Henri Lartigue. The sheer volume of her photographic archive might also provoke comparisons with fellow Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama. Unlike Moriyama’s dark photographs of urban dystopia, Ume’s photographs are a far brighter, optimistic and also funnier depiction of life in Japan.
Ume is predominantly known for her photographs of young kids pulling grimaces and playing on Tokyo’s back streets. However, simply categorizing Ume’s photographs as slapstick humor would not do her practice justice. The photograph of a young man dressed in camouflaged military clothing as he approaches an elderly lady is an example for the drama that Ume also uncovers. The woman’s body language and her facial expression, as she is standing with her back to the wall, signifies her intimidation vis-a-vis the significantly taller man. But is that the whole story? Ume’s photographs offer many alternative readings and the one above is no exception. From the side of his mouth, the man can be seen smiling – a facial expression that stands in opposition to the woman’s reaction. Also, the man seems to be holding a pink toy, perhaps suggesting that his approach is more innocent than it first appears. All the time, Kayo Ume herself seems to be operating like the proverbial fly-on-the-wall so often attributed to photographers working in the tradition of social documentary. Magically, Ume herself remains invisible in these odd encounters with the comic and the tragic of the everyday.
The tragedy that the urban environment offers street photographers like Kayo Ume is maybe most apparent in the photograph of a man fallen to the ground on a train. The sight of the so-called salaryman sleeping on the ground after a hard day of work, or drinking, or both, is so common in Tokyo that such sightings have provoked a facebook group dedicated to this subject. The subject in Ume’s photograph is therefore not necessarily the fallen man, but rather, the many other passengers that ignore his, and Ume’s presence. Life continues as normal in spite of the out-of-orderness of the passenger lying on the ground. Whether or not he is just sleeping or suffering a heart attack is another ambiguity in Ume’s photograph. Unlike the other passengers, Ume is not ignoring the situation and photographs the tragic and comical offered by dense urban living.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.