Exhibition: A Subtle Line: Shoji Ueda 1913-2000
Madrid, 2 June 2005
Are, bure and boke (grainy, blurred and out of focus). These were the photographs that predominated in the Japan of late 1970. Amongst that hotchpotch of gaudy images, the photos of Shoji Ueda stand out for their silence. “Young, lively and strange” is what the photography critic and historian Iizawa Kotaro thought when he discovered the artist’s work. He was wrong: at that time Ueda was over sixty years old and had hardly ever left Tottori, the province of his birth. Doted with overwhelming curiosity and a spirit for experiments, Shoji Ueda (1913-2000) played with unexpected settings and angles and distorted perspectives to the point where he created a work which today occupies an absolutely exceptional and individual place in the history of Japanese photography. Despite always defining himself as a “rural, amateur photographer” his work is present in museums throughout the world. Under the title A Subtle Line: Shoji Ueda 1913-2000, ”la Caixa” Community Projects and the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne present in Spain the most complete collection of works by this artist ever presented outside Japan. The exhibition brings together 150 photographs that illustrate a career spanning more than sixty years of work: from the initial experiments with rayograms to his portraits of characters who rise up like objects above the sand dunes of Tottori. It is precisely this theatre of dunes that impregnates his work with an unmistakable atmosphere beyond imitation by any other photographer. The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the collaboration of the Shoji Ueda Museum of Photography in Tottori and the studio that represents the Japanese artist’s work, directed by Karouko Nakada, the photographer’s granddaughter.
A Subtle Line: Shoji Ueda 1913-2000, curated by Gabriel Bauret and William Ewing, may be visited in the Madrid Exhibition Hall of ”la Caixa” Foundation (Serrano, 60) from 3 June to 24 July 2005. The exhibition will subsequently be shown in Palma and Malaga.
The work of Shoji Ueda has been exhibited in Europe and the United States; Paris, Toulouse, Stockholm, Milan and New York, among other cities, have dedicated exhibitions to the artist and his pictures are present in the collections of the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to name but a few. Nonetheless, on many occasions the approach taken to Ueda’s work is limited to the famous theatre of dunes, in other words to the portraits the artist took on the Tottori sand dunes some one hundred kilometres from his home. This peculiar geographical formation bathes his photos in an unmistakable, inimitable atmosphere. Beyond this setting however, Ueda’s work as a whole defines a line of artistic evolution which is rich and abundant in shades and hues, especially influenced in its early days by European photography and painting. This exhibition sets out to show a more complete insight into the career of Shoji Ueda.
Ueda hardly ever left the province of Tottori; he went to Tokyo occasionally and very rarely travelled to Europe. His life was deeply rooted in his home town of Sakaiminato, where he opened a photographic shop and studio, and to the region of his birth. The evolution of his work can therefore never be dissociated from this highly individual area, its climate and light. Ueda’s career thus evolved far from the artistic nucleus of Tokyo and, in fact, soon became distanced from the prevailing aesthetic movements in the Japan of the time, to such an extent that today’s historians of photography coincide in classifying his work as completely personal and unique.
A Subtle Line: Shoji Ueda 1913-2000 exhibits 150 photographs distributed over seven areas which look back on seventy years of work abounding in surprises. The first pictures reflect a desire to reveal the transformations taking place in the modern world through urban scenes and settings that show that experience can be fragmented and that life is full of fleeting moments. The artist subsequently evolves from experimentalism to immerse himself in enigmatic realism and an entirely personal symbolism. His most renowned photographs show people situated among sand dunes in which displacement creates an effect of contrast and surprise, deactivating the automatic responses that rule everyday life and introducing a touch of humour and tenderness.
Rather than consider the individual as a separate entity Ueda treats his subject as simply part of humanity; he is a humanist who delights in the people around him. Faced with the platitudes that affect our perception of the Oriental world Ueda eliminates anything anecdotal or quaint to make way for a universal language that lends expression to the dreams and fantasies of the people of today.
The seven areas of the exhibition
FIRST PHOTOGRAPHS, THE BEGINNINGS. 1920-1940 ____
In his photographic laboratory Joshi Ueda experimented successively with the rayogram, solarization and deformation. When taking the pictures he worked with high-angle shots and contrasts and often resorted to extremely unusual compositions. His discovery of works by a number of European creators aroused an avid curiosity in Ueda for different facets of photographic technique which would lead him to abandon finally the pictorialist style that he had cultivated since his very beginnings in photography.
THEATRE OF DUNES. 1945-1951 ____
Shoji Ueda’s most famous works come from this period. In its initial phase the subjects in the scenes represented in the dunes were members of his own family. The first pictures are extremely pure and sober and few people appear in them. Later, the composition becomes more complex and other protagonists are introduced into the sandy setting, which would also be the scenario chosen for a series of nudes.
FROM STILL LIFE TO LANDSCAPE. THE 50s ____
Following his period of compositions with people, Shoji Ueda began working with objects laid out on the sand, the resulting images being surprisingly comparable to surrealist paintings. Nonetheless, his work continued to weave an exhaustive exploration of the photographic medium, of the potential of black and white, and his choice of subjects falls in line with this quest. The photographer’s themes are now set in nearby surroundings in which water plays a predominant, plastic role
THE CHILDREN. 1955-1970 ____
Children took centre stage and animated Shoji Ueda’s pictures throughout his career. The artist portrays the young and not-so-young in various seasons in the snow, in summer, in the shade of the trees. Children at play or on their way to school. Children whose tiny silhouettes punctuate the horizon or, in contrast, occupy a large close-up in the scene. The sense of fun and the collusion he seems to establish with them permeate all of these works.
LANDSCAPES AND MEMORIES. 1970-1985 ____
Always at one with nature, with what happens in the sky or sea, with the movements of vegetation and the little accidents that man can cause, Shoji Ueda captures subtle forms which nevertheless fill the image with life. The artist’s sensitivity never dulls nor does he cease to enrich his perception of the world with pictures increasingly abundant in shades and interpretations; he did not always photograph things the way they were presented to him. It was during this period that Ueda interrupted his work to travel to Europe, though of course he never stopped taking photographs. These pictures show his surprising way of viewing a world that to us is so familiar. This visual interlude that the artist insists in describing as “a silent memory” in fact reveals even more about his art and about what may have attracted his attention as an artist than it does about the actual subjects of the photographs.
RETURN TO THE DUNES. 1980-1999 ____
Encouraged by his son Mitsuru, Shoji Ueda returned to the scenes of his most famous photographs. There he was reunited with the sand, the sky, the light of the dunes, the coast The space in his photos is now structured in a different way however, with a wider field of vision; he experiments with new photographic formats and chooses other types of subjects as his protagonists. As the end of his life draws near his eye is irresistibly drawn to the sea.
Biography of Shoji Ueda
Shoji Ueda was born on 27 March 1913 in the province of Saihaku (Tottori prefecture, Japan). His father, Tsunejuro Ueda, was a shoemaker who made clogs in Sakaimachi (now Sakaiminato). Shoji was the third child to be born to Tsunejuro and his wife Miya, but his elder brother and younger sister died at an early age and he remained the couple’s only son. Even at primary school his attention was drawn by photography and he passed a great deal of time taking pictures with his first camera, a gift from his parents. On finishing secondary education at the Yonago state school Ueda immersed himself more deeply in the world of photography and became a member of the Yonago Photographic Circle. It was about this time that he discovered a special issue of The Studio magazine entitled Modern Photography (autumn, 1931) in which a number a avant-garde photographs by European photographers were published that stimulated him enormously. In December his photograph A Child on the Beach won first prize from Camera magazine, the first in his career as a photographer.
In 1932 Ueda began his training as a photographer in the studio of the Mimatsu department store in Hibiya (Tokyo) and subsequently studied for three months at the Oriental School of Photography. After graduating he returned to Tottori and opened his own photography shop. In August, his work View of Suidobashi received a special distinction from the Japan Photography Association in the framework of an exhibition held at the Karasuma (Kyoto) Chamber of Commerce, following which Ueda became a member of that institution. In 1935 he married Norie Shiraishi whose unfailing support allowed him to concentrate more intensely on his artistic career. In 1936 he worked on a series of photographs employing a contrast effect. His work Silhouette, made with this technique, won first prize among the special awards presented on the occasion of the anniversary of Photographic Salon magazine (special enlarged issue, June).
In February 1937 Ueda became one of the founder members of the Chugoku Photographers Group, along with Ishizu Ryosuke. The group held annual exhibitions in the same Hall in Tokyo for four years running, providing Ueda with the opportunity to present his works in the capital without interruption until 1940. Four Girls Posing would be his first experiment in directing his models in order to attain greater sensitivity in the composition.
Precisely at the moment of greatest impact of the Second World War on the lives of the Japanese people, Ueda was recruited to do military service at the naval shipyards in Hikari, in the Yamaguchi prefecture. He was immediately sent home however as he was found to be suffering from malnutrition. He would be called up again some time later, but rejected once more, as in 1938. The war ended in the summer of 1945 and in December of that year Ueda read an article in the Osaka Asahi magazine which announced the organization by the Asahi publishing group of a competition open to the general pubic. For the first time since the end of the war, Shoji Ueda felt the rekindling of his life as a photographer.
In 1949 Ueda, Domon Ken and Midorikawa Yoichi took part in a commemorative photographic session in the Tottori dunes, in the framework of a publishing project conceived by Kuwabara Kineo who would go on to become editor-in-chief of Camera Ars which appeared in the September issue of that magazine. His series of photos entitled “My Family” was also published in the October number. Around 1950 Ueda and a number of young photographers from the Sanin region who had been meeting in the artist’s house for some time created the Etan school. In autumn 1951 Ueda held his first photographic session of nudes on the sand dunes of Tottori. In 1955 he became a member of the photography section of the Nikakai Photographers Association and began taking photographs in which he described the innocence of the children from his home region of Sanin for the “Children the Year Around” series.
Ueda opened a new photographic studio, Ueda Camera, in the three-storey Higashi Kurayoshi building in Yonago (Tottori) in 1972. He also launched the Charanka tea parlour on the second floor and the U Gallery on the third. Local amateur photographers, who admired him greatly, would meet in these places and even formed their own group, the U Circle. In 1975 Ueda accepted the post of Professor of Photography at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Sangyo University in Kyushu (1975-1994). In July 1978 he was invited to France to take part in the ninth edition of the International Photography Encounter in Arles, where he directed one of the workshops. A number of his works were acquired to form part of the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In 1979 his work was presented at various exhibitions outside his native Japan. From 1982 various European galleries began to organize solo exhibitions dedicated to the artist.
In 1984 the Kawasaki City Museum acquired works by Ueda for its collection and since then numerous museums have followed suit: the Yokohama Art Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the Yonago City Museum of Art, the Yamaguchi Prefectural Art Museum, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Pompidou Centre (Paris, France) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Texas, USA), among others. The Shoji Ueda Museum of Photography was inaugurated in September 1995 in Kishimotocho, in the province of Saihaku, Tottori prefecture, Japan. Five years later, in the year 2000, Shoji Ueda died.
A Subtle Line: Shoji Ueda 1913-2000
From 3 June to 24 July 2005
Inauguration: Thursday 2 June at 8 p.m.
Place: ”la Caixa” Foundation Exhibition Hall
Monday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sundays and holidays, from 11 a.m. to 2.30 p.m.
Tel.: 902 22 30 40
More information: www.fundacio.lacaixa.es