Tamiko Nishimura at the Taka Ishii Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

For many westerners carrying memories of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in retrospect the period seems to emit a feel-good glow, one of peace and love tinted with hues of magic and psychedelia. And while young Japanese of the time did not pile into camper vans and hit the road in the same numbers as their hippie cousins in California did, a look at the local youth culture of the 1990s finds more than a few Harajuku hipsters living an imagined nostalgia for the good old days of brilliant tie-dyes and flower power.

Meanwhile, Tamiko Nishimura remembers the era in black and white. The now 46 year-old photographer bundled up her Asahi Pentax S2 in a kit bag and traveled throughout Japan from 1969 to 1973 in search of what it meant to be young, restless, and creative in a time defined to a large extent by a rapidly-changing social consciousness. A wide range of experiences led to a remarkably diverse portfolio when recorded through Nishimura’s wide angle lenses.

A selection of prints from her journey was published in Nishimura’s 1973 book "Shikishima," but, apart from six gallery shows, not much has been heard from her since.

Enter the respected Taka Ishii Gallery, tucked up on a side street in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, which has decided to mark the 25th anniversary of "Shikishima" with an exhibition of the same name. The show features 32 new prints made from Nishimura’s original negatives.

"I think," says Nishimura at the opening party, "that at the time I took these pictures there was far more freedom to be one’s self in Japan. These days, while young people have the freedom to buy material goods, they seem to lack the will to create freedom."

Nishimura, now a tennis-playing mother and a classical music enthusiast living in the northern Tokyo suburb of Saitama, says that she was not a hippie back then, just a girl in her late teens who wanted to travel. Slowly working her way from Sapporo to Okayama by train, Nishimura funded the trip by selling her photographs to magazines as she went.

The artist’s gritty, grainy, high-contrast photographs, all shot on pushed Tri-X and untitled, take boxers, hobos, railway yards, and seaside scenes as their subjects. While there is usually a single point of focus in each picture, most frames hold a great deal of supporting information. These are images that visit a Japan that has disappeared, to be sure, but they do more than just that. What unifies the work is an immediacy that pulls the viewer into communion with Nishimura’s lived experience – it is as if the excitement attendant to her discovery was somehow captured along with whatever the young Nishimura was regarding when she tripped the shutter. This enthusiasm and curiosity is refreshing when compared to the self-obsessed work coming from contemporary Japanese photodocumentary artists like little Hiromix – who rode her pouting-in-panties-and-brassiere self-portraits all the way to Esquire magazine’s "best of 1997" list.

"Who is Hiromix?" asks Nishimura, and I don’t think she’s kidding. Currently earning a living by doing portraits of orchestra musicians and conductors, Nishimura expresses about as much interest in today’s trendy neo-pop photography scene as she did in the trippy hippie psychedelic world of yesteryear. Dressed in black and observed by a tight cadre of severe-looking young women, Nishihara smiles and repeats the question, "Who is Hiromix?"

And still, I’m sure she is serious when she says it.


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notes: Until Sep 19, 1998.