Sticking with my current rate of one of these every eighteen months or so, I offer you another photobook review. This time it’s Tatsuo Suzuki’s ‘Friction/Tokyo Street’.
On the face of it, this is a book of Japanese street photography, much of it shot in Shibuya and so you might think it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. But on further investigation, you begin to see why this work was chosen as a winner of the Steidl book award, meaning that the German publishing house would release the book and give it the benefit of their marketing power.
There are a lot of pictures in the book and they are all full bleed, high contrast black and white. The feeling of being in a big city, surrounded by strangers is intense. For a guy like me that lives out in the west of Ireland, it’s particularly striking how oppressive this book can feel at times. I’m almost looking for a quiet coffee shop to dive into for a while to step out of the relentless stream of humanity that each page brings. This is pure street photography; these are all pictures of people on the street, but without the reliance on visual gags or uncanny timing that we commonly associate with the ‘genre’. And they are close. Really close. Uncomfortably close. But more on that later…
“My aim in shooting the street is to show how the world is beautiful, interesting, wonderful and sometimes cruel.”(Tatsuo Suzuki)
There’s no text in the book – no introduction or narrative other than the pictures themselves. At the back of the book there are captions for each of the 150 images in a standardised format, for example ‘Shibuya, Tokyo, 2016’. But some of these captions are prefaced by ‘Portrait’ indicating that they are posed, rather than ‘subject unaware’. It’s unusual for such a mixture to work well together, but here they do. The posed pictures, like the one on the cover, are just as intense and contain all the titular friction of those unposed frames.
It’s also a fun game to spot which are posed and which are not.
When I bought the book, I didn’t realise who Suzuki was and that he’s the same guy that caused all the publicity around the launch of the Fuji X100V (in case you missed it, Fuji had to pull their advertisement showing Suzuki in action on the streets as people felt his approach was so lacking of respect for his subjects and almost deliberately confrontational. He was dropped as a Fuji ambassador too). Watching a couple of YouTube videos of Suzuki in action you can see how he gets the look that he does and what causes the look of surprise or hostility in the faces of some of his subjects. Think Bruce Gilden but without the colour, the flash or the freaks.
He uses something he calls the ‘cut-off’ technique where he’ll walk towards someone, making to go left, but at the last moment will dart across their path causing them to have to suddenly stop or change direction, snapping pictures as he goes.
I have mixed feelings about this technique. There is no way that the images contained in this book could have been made without this extreme approach. Many rely on the subject’s response or instinctive reaction to the photographer in their face, and that facial expression is what makes the pictures interesting. At the same time, it does verge on the exploitative and I’m surprised that Mr. Suzuki has never been punched in the face for doing what he does (as he claims in the video linked above). It’s certainly a million miles from my nervous, self-concious version of shooting street.
While many of the subjects are obviously Japanese, most of the photography could have been shot anywhere, and that’s because of the extreme close-up nature of the work. Again, regular street photography will often include the surroundings and elements of the city, Suzuki does not because the frame is filled with the subject.
The book is cloth bound, 162 pages and measures 29.7 x 21 cm. The rough paper is an ideal choice to get the black areas of the pictures REALLY black – just how they should be of course. I’m no expert in Japanese photography, although I’m enjoying learning more about it. While that high-contrast, full-bleed style might sound very Japanese, this feels a little different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as I mentioned above, (most of) the pictures are not obviously taken in Japan because there is no context to the faces that fill the frame. Secondly, there isn’t the snapshot aesthetic (of someone like Daido Moriyama) or the blurry, abstract style that a rookie like me might associate with many Japanese photographers.
It might sound daft, but if this is your sort of thing, you’ll love it. And if it isn’t, you won’t. What I mean is that the photographs here are excellent, but they are all quite similar. In this case, that’s a good thing as it adds to that intensity; that feeling of being lost in a big city, surrounded by masses of people going about their business. Sometimes photobooks can go on too long, especially when they’re clocking in at 150 pictures like this one, but in this case it is beneficial to the experience.