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Torin Boyd at Scruffy Murphy's

by Monty DiPietro

There are a few Tokyo districts sufficiently unique and well-known to stand independent in their respective identities, glamorous Ginza, chic Shibuya, and rockin' Roppongi being among the most obvious examples.

And then there is Shinjuku. A bit of everything, Shinjuku is. A city within a city with plenty of upscale shops and yet more than its share of down and out homeless encampments; Shinjuku boasts some of Tokyo's best parks, tallest office towers, and the city's largest red light and gay districts. If Shinjuku lacks a distinct identity, this might be because it is, as American photographer and long-time Tokyo resident Torin Boyd believes, a microcosm of all of Japan.

Boyd, 39, has been photographing Shinjuku with a zeal for some five years, and selections from his book in the making are now on exhibition at Scruffy Murphy's, an Irish pub and ad hoc gallery located near Omotesando Dori. Which is close to, but not actually in Shinjuku.

"I'm staying in Harajuku now," explains Boyd, who recently returned from a one-year sojourn in California and Europe, "but I hope to move back to Shinjuku real soon. I love Shinjuku, I'm obsessed with it, I can't get enough of the place!"

Some 30 black and white prints make up the first installment of "Shinjuku Stories," and these will be replaced with another 30 pictures next month for part two of the show. One of a growing number of international community hangouts mounting art shows, Scruffy Murphy's is actually not a bad photography venue. Although you might have to lean over someone's fish and chips to take an up-close look, the pictures are all displayed at a reasonable height and under fairly even lighting.

There are plenty of candid shots of people here, reflecting a focus Boyd developed while posted in Tokyo with Gamma Press Images, a leading international photo agency. One picture finds a solemn Buddhist monk sharing sidewalk space with a black miniskirted kogal; another sees a street preacher screaming into a megaphone, his partner in the foreground clutching a cross before his wearied face. There are salarymen, sex trade workers, dandies and bums, and a particularly compelling shot of a smiling young couple in love either with each other or with their mobile phones, it is difficult to say which.

"Sometimes I go out and shoot all Saturday night in Kabukicho," says Boyd. "There's so much activity and people are so caught up in what they're doing that I can work my way through the crowd and people don't even notice me. The pair in "Keitai Couple" were walking down the street, so into their own conversations yet still managing to hold each other's arms. I came in like a sniper, and 'Bang!' I got them. They looked at me for a moment but didn't care, they just kept on talking and walking."

The people pictures are complemented by a number of cityscapes in which Boyd somehow manages to bring the dazzle of Shinjuku's neon across in black and white, this due perhaps to the photographer's dedication to darkroom work. With their jet blacks and bleach whites separated by a complete range of gray steps, the clean and sharp prints recall the time when photographers like old-school Boyd did all their own processing and printing, something which is sadly rare among contemporary art photographers.

Another characteristic of Boyd's approach that distinguishes his work from much of what we see in galleries these days is the relationship between photographer and subject. In the Tokyo studies of Nobuyoshi Araki, for example, the city seems changed by the photographer, the scenes steeped in the sentimentality Araki brings to his work. But Boyd ("I'm a photographer, not an artist") takes things as they are, and while this approach does not necessarily suit all types of photography, in Shinjuku it works. Looking at these pictures, it is evident that Boyd has reached out and grabbed something real that what we are experiencing is the environment, not the photographer.

Personal and powerful, "Shinjuku Stories" is a collection of visual vignettes celebrating the diversity of one of Japan's most fascinating places. Well worth a look.


Notes: Part one of the Torin Boyd exhibition "Shinjuku Stories" runs to April 1, and part two runs April 2 to May 1 (2001) at Scruffy Murphy's (6-5-6 Jingumae, Shibuya, 3499-3145). Pictured is "Keitai Couple" (2000)
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