I/Eye: On Photography

Walks through Suginami

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on August 14, 2010

For reasons that readers of the blog consumptive.org would well understand, I decided to buy Suginami, which photographer James Luckett produced independently as a blurb photo book in 2009. It turned out to be small (a 7 x 7″ footprint, sitting nicely in the hand) and dense — though with none of the effect of crowding. Rather, it’s filled with light and atmosphere and invitation — and gives as its premise the walking exploration of Suginami, one of the 23 wards or ku of Tokyo. Though the author only obliquely acknowledges it, there’s the pressure of an unspoken intensity in these photographs — a necessity of decipherment that seems to well up through the pages. I looked at the book again and again, wondering at its secret energy. There’s a certain stillness…

Not long ago, I remembered a conversation I once had with a clever, musical friend, who sat me down and said, “Now, tell me what’s different about this symphony”. And he put on a Sofia Gubaidulina cd: I listened intently, but couldn’t think of any one thing (and disliked being observed while thinking). Then gradually a certain shape became apparent — or I should say, a certain absence: though scored for orchestra, the piece contained no violins.

I mention this episode because something similar dawns on one in Suginami: we walk through the city for hours, days, maybe years. We wander through streets, come up against dead-ends, slip through alleys, see laundry flapping gently on a wire, bicycles slowly melting into foliage, bedding set out to dry in the sun. Everywhere: we see signs of habitation — but no people. Though once we find a cat…

The mind at work in Suginami — in booming Tokyo — seeks no souls: instead, it puzzles out patterns, lines, shapes as adroitly as a miraculous cat, who takes the viewer by the hand and says, let me show you a thing or two. The creature is an alley-dwelling virtuoso — at once playful yet deadly serious, there being no essential contradiction between these two aspects of his nature. We follow him through the byways of the city, tracing the visible resonance of the city’s thronging, unseen human presence.

But also there’s this — another way to describe why I like Suginami: what if you watched someone working a Rubik’s Cube with complete ease and fluidity (one of those wunderkinder), and the cube somehow became not merely a puzzle with a distinct solution (an aesthetic stopping point), but a beautiful, articulate thing with a language and rhythm of possibilities, previously unsuspected. Well, it’s something like that…

There are more aspects to my affection for this understated book, which touches as lightly as winged Hermes on the context of an American wandering about and photographing a mysteriously unpeopled Japanese city. Suffice it to say that this is a book I hope we’ll hear more about. I have no doubt that much of its secret energy will likewise make its way into Luckett’s next book.

Luckett will be mounting a solo show of photographs from Suginami at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, beginning August 23, 2010 (through Sept. 24 — with a reception and artist’s talk on Sept. 8th) . You can read Stacy Oborn’s article on the making of the book, and a thoughtful interview with Luckett, at the space in between.

Update (Sept. 16, 2010): Suginami is now part of the Indie Photob00k Library (a project founded by Larissa Leclair).

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