The photographic image is a cypher for a moment, passed and captured. The cypher is the result, or evidence of codification of an act, or rather several acts. The cypher encodes the momentary action of releasing the shutter. Releasing the shutter: opening it at 1/24th, 1/100th of a second (or whatever length, on whatever film speed) will let light in on a focal plane and fix for near eternity the real and virtual objects inverted on the sensitised plate, pixel sensor field, emulsion or film. This used to be a special moment. This making of the image. Hold it. Flash! Bang! Wallop what a picture! Making a photograph was originally a one off, right up until the invention of the motor drive by Nikon in the 1970’s. But the act of making has been accelerating. In the century and a half of photographic reproduction perhaps the act has become banal, or at least so easy to iterate that it has ceased to become special. The more the means of “photographic” reproduction proliferates, the more we have access to the edited high lights of everyone with a smartphone. The cypher/image is now an instantly sharable codification of the moment. Arguably the democratisation of photography in this way is a good thing. It means that we are becoming (in the developed world at least) a more visually aware culture. On the other hand, the relentless adding to the compost of code, piling up in the server farms of the world as a result of the world’s image sharing obsession might also be evidence that everyone thinks they are image makers. But the deft use of Instagram’s filters or Flickr’s frames does not a photographer make. When you come across a photographer, out there in the world, making images, you sort of know it.
The image base, the approach of a photographer is distilled from a different impetus, a different set of desires. It’s not necessarily about creating the evidence of having seen a sunset, bought shoes or ordered the perfect brunch. No. Photographers who are actually photographers, tell stories through the images they make and tell them continuously. The codification of their acts of framing lighting and shutter release create a continuum of story telling, frame by frame, place by place, subject by subject. The eye of the photographer is key. If this little discourse works, it brings us neatly to the work of Tsunaki Kuwashima. The perfectly compelling images of the dogu – votive figures made in the the Jomon period which stretches back to 14,000 years BC – have within them a story element that might be impenetrable, mute and mysterious. These images raise questions in the mind in ways that most do not. This is portraiture of objects. Printing techniques and framing techniques aside, there is continuity in the approach and the atmosphere generated by these odd and essentially Japanese things. There is an obsession with Japanese things here. The series Togyu-tou Tokunoshima (The Island of Bullfighting, Tokunoshima) is also portraiture, but documentary portraiture. The fighting bulls of the little islands carry meaning and history in their scars, posture and musculature. They are representative of a culture that is historically, geographically and culturally Japanese – but beyond that they speak of a time when our human structures of communication and communion were simpler, more direct and arguably more powerful. The fascination with the symbology of human activity continues through the images of cock and dog fighting.
Repellent to some though these images, and the activities they represent, may be, the documentation of these activities reveal an anthropological fascination on Tsunaki’s part with just how we communicate with each other via means that are becoming increasingly rare. To see, capture document and tell those stories is the function of the photographer. To do it in a way that is visually compelling, arresting and at times beautifully is the role of the artist. Tsunaki Kuwashima successfully combines the two roles.
Michael Horsham is a Partner in the art and design collective Tomato. Tomato has been in existence for over twenty years and in that time as part of the studio Michael has published books, made installations, created commercials and campaigns for a wide range of clients from the BBC to the Okinawa Government, curated exhibitions and designed artworks and products and made music and digital media. Michael also teaches at the Royal College of Art and is always interested in the possibilities of new collaborations.