Cultural Currency 11: Matsue Taiji's gazetteerCC and Hamaya Hiroshi's Nihon Retto
Alternatives to “Landscape” (Part 3)
By Shimizu Minoru

Matsue Taiji, from "TRANSIT" (1987)
The many photographs of nature contained within gazetteerCC resonate with the photos in Landscapes of Japan. Formally, this resonance derives from the fact that the photos “do not include horizons” and are “views from above,” but its essence lies somewhere far deeper than this: it is related to “human beings” that Hamaya Hiroshi rediscovered by way of absolute landscapes, or in other words non-human landscapes.

Another exhibition that had an impact on postwar Japanese photography, “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape,” also took as its theme “landscapes.” Its impact was that it taught many Japanese photographers, among them Watanabe Kanendo, Shibata Toshio and Osafune Tsunetoshi, the style of “deserted landscapes.” And it is here that we can see the third kind of realism. If “as it is-ness” was absent in postwar Japan, then this is realism that sought to express this absence. By refining the very inconsistency of postwar Japanese photography, which is to say the contradiction of “as it is-ness” being a “two-fold fiction,” into a single methodology and offsetting the two poles of modernism – artifice and nature – against each other, it turns the content of photography into ±0. If the second kind of realism, “landscape theory,” rejects landscape as nothing but a façade of the postwar US-Japan regime, one could probably say that the third type, “deserted landscapes,” removes from this any political characteristics (any awareness that seeks to resolve contradictions) and stares fixedly at empty landscapes. Photos are photos, nothing more and nothing less; photos are photos pure and simple (as they are) that neither affirm nor deny anything. And as if to emphasize this, beautiful print finishing was applied to the works.

If we were to call the insatiable drive in pursuit of this stolen “as it is-ness” the spell of realism, then this third kind of realism had the effect of bestowing a kind of calmness on the photographers on which it had been cast. Stripped of their outermost layers, deserted landscapes do not hide anything, or rather, they hide nothing. But this realism, which replaced “as it is-ness” with “nothing” or “emptiness,” is none other than the twisted emotions of people living in a two-fold fiction full of the kind of sentiment that unravels the viewer’s subjectivity and immerses them in a zero-degree world.

Matsue Taiji, from “ANDALUSIA” (1988)

Awakened to contemporary photography after being shocked by Moriyama Daido’s Light and Shadow (1982), Matsue Taiji (b. 1963) visited Moriyama and sought his advice for several years before making his debut at the Zeit-Foto Salon in 1987. The above-mentioned Taiji Matsue contains works from 1989 onwards, so it took 2–3 years for him to transition from the style seen in his debut “TRANSIT” series, to his current style.1 If one were to list the characteristics of this current style, the standard for which is “CC,” they would probably be views from above (elevated ground), the absence of horizon lines, front lighting, straight facing and absolute focus. Of these, front lighting and straight facing can also be seen in Matsue’s early works, with an approach that faces head-on the light reflected by the subject being present throughout his career. As well, due to the absence of horizon lines, the entire picture plane is brought to the foreground and the viewer’s gaze is directed to the depth of the information packed into it without being drawn to the depths of, or beyond, the landscape. “Absolute focus” is focus adjusted to the true nature of the lens, or in other words when all the light coming from an infinite distance focuses into an image at the natural focal point of the lens, the points being to capture everything equally without discrimination and to not rely on the naked eye. At the same time, much of the “information packed into” the frame is details of urban landscapes, which is to say it is none other history created through the accumulation of people’s everyday lives. “CC” is a series that photographs the history of humankind by way of a focus (absolute focus) that abstracts humankind.

As stated at the beginning, various series branch off from “CC.” “cell” extracts as the smallest units (cells) of “CC,” the figures that are captured by chance in the details of the urban landscapes, but of course this is also a kind of unintended sneak photography and calls to mind a society observed “from above.”2 This political quality connoted by “CC” of “someone looking down from above” is clearly expressed in “makieta.”3 Because now and in the past, models of cities have been symbols of control (dictatorship, occupation, possession) of those cities. Moreover, the “JP-” series, which saw Matsue photograph various locations around Japan from the air using a helicopter, automatically reveals as a “no photography zone” the lack of freedom of the skies of Japan under the postwar regime. In particular, by including photographs shot from the same angle of a model of Hiroshima as it appeared after the dropping of the atom bomb and the city as it appears today, “JP-34 Hiroshima” suggests that the subject of the skies above Japan continues to be the Enola Gay, or in other words the US military.

Because it is made up of scenes of obscure corners of cities, “TRANSIT” appears to depict deserted landscapes. A clear line can be drawn between the matter-of-fact images reduced to the surface textures of objects and the many sentimental images of deserted landscapes, but one could also say that they are connected by the beauty of the black and white prints. The sentiment of deserted landscapes involves the viewer being immersed in a zero-degree world, and the beauty of black and white prints is an important condition for this immersion. However, in Matsue’s works, the front lighting, or in other words the angle at which the camera faces the reflected light, and the title “TRANSIT” prohibit this immersion. Because a transit (a kind of theodolite) is an instrument that accurately determines the positional relationship of the subject and the surveyor (the photographer). Furthermore, the political quality that “CC” possesses both actually (continually making us aware of where the photos were taken) and potentially (the gaze of a supervisor/controller) does not let go of the two “subjects” of photography, namely “who” is looking at “what.” The Japanese, who are neither the owners of Japan “as it is” as a subject, nor subjects looking at Japan from the sky, are missing these two subjects. An awareness of this absence is perhaps what connects these two photographers. Hamaya Hiroshi shot Landscapes of Japan as a critique of human beings, of Japanese who had chosen a two-fold fiction. Matsue Taiji arrived at his current style as a critique of human absence, of the deserted landscapes of Japanese who were no longer aware of this two-fold fiction as a fiction.

Hamaya Hiroshi, Morning, September 25, light rain, Tokyo (1988)

Finally, what about these “human beings”? Aside from his subjects expanding globally, Hamaya Hiroshi, who in Landscapes of Japan sublimated “grief and anger,” tried nothing particularly new from then until his death in 1999. Perhaps the only exception was his work from 1988 when Emperor Showa was approaching death, which twinges with a remote sentimentality that resembles dying embers. Hamaya did not turn his “new view of human beings” into work. “CC” came about as a result of Matsue acknowledging the contradiction of shooting the history of humankind under absolute focus. In terms of this acknowledgment, Matsue does not share the modernist belief. His “outside” is of course not the existing system, but neither is it absolute nature, or nature “as it is” before the Anthropocene. Matsue’s “as it is-ness” is as it is history. The “outside” was a projection from inside the system. System A projects the outside of A, system B projects the outside of B, and when the two do not correspond, to people who belong to both A and B, the outside of humankind and the history of humankind appear to overlap. Perhaps while developing “CC” as a traveler circling the globe, before he knew it, the artist acquired the status of belonging to both.4


1. In the 1988 series “ANDALUSIA,” there are already angles that anticipate those in “CC.” It is an important collection of works that links “TRANSIT” and “CC.”
2. However, according to the artist, he is aware of these details (the movements of the various people) at the time of shooting. Perhaps it was from this ability to perceive moving things in the details of still images that the videos, or “moving photographs,” developed.
3. Makieta is Polish for “model.”
4. This is similar to cultural relativism, but in fact the two are quite different. Cultural relativism involves relativizing both A and B from a neutral position, C. Belonging to both does not contain the third position, C.


Shimizu Minoru
Critic. Professor, Doshisha University.

Matsue Taiji’s gazetteerCC is available from Akaaka Art Publishing.