Masafumi Sanai at the Parco Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

There are a number of attractive points in work borne of the Japanese photo-boom of the last decade, among them, for example, the so-called "in the moment" qualities of access and spontaneity. But few observers would give the new Japanese point-and-shoot sensations of the 1990s high marks for their technical skills. The truth is that a good number of this country’s most celebrated young photographers do not know an f-stop from a stop bath, and many have never turned a focusing ring in their lives.

While it can be argued that hand-held light meters and manual film advances are at best quaint throwbacks to the photography of yesteryear, there are a few people around who still prefer clean compositions of in-focus subjects to the blurred images spit out of color-copiers, and for those people the work of Masafumi Sanai will come as a welcome addition to this summer’s Tokyo gallery schedule.

Sanai works with large format 6x7 cameras and does much (but not all) of his own processing and printing. His skill in the fundamentals is evidenced in particular in his use of natural light and shadows. Several dozen of his big pictures are showing in "Tantanto," an exhibition now on at the Parco Gallery in Shibuya Ward.

Tokyo-based Sanai, 31, is a reticent artist who smirks when asked what he thinks about in the moment before he trips the shutter. "I suppose I get my inspiration from nostalgia," he says, "like in this photograph of a decoy, it reminds me of duck hunting in Shizuoka, where I grew up. And the curtain in this picture," he says, indicating a simple back-lighted composition, "is also from my old home there. Anyway, it’s always different."

And this is a problem with the show. The artist finds his difficult-to-define inspiration in a too-wide selection of subjects – breath mint dispensers, sheet music, a plastic baseball bat. And of course, in accordance with the strict Japanese photographers’ code of conduct, Sanai has also included the requisite shot of a female model wearing only a pair of panties.

Sticking out here are a field of 251 Polaroids of, well, stuff – the common sort of snapshots which Sanai seems to be avoiding elsewhere in the show. Better are Sanai’s exacting cityscapes. One features a pair of typical prefabricated apartment buildings, both sporting the same accruements of inhabitation – air conditioners, "sao" laundry poles, white window curtains with the silhouetted hint of a potted plant inside, and so on. The buildings have been shot at a 45 degree angle with the sun low in the sky and the resulting sheen on the tiled walls gives the exterior an even-more cold and impersonal appearance. Where, one might wonder, do the people fit in?

Many of Sanai’s pictures suggest that the artist staked out a site to wait for the natural lighting or other effects he desired – one photograph sees a road sign reflecting the orange and pink of a sunset sky, another, shot in the Atami hot spring region of Shizuoka, finds a lazy haze descending over mountains, while a mess of white cars sit parked in the foreground.

Although the work might probably appear too composed for the liking of many contemporary art photography fans, Sanai’s pictures remind us that there can be more work involved in the taking, or making, of pictures, than simply shooting away. Were there a little more inspiration in the choice of subject matter, "Tantanto" would be a superior show.

notes: until Aug 29, 1999.
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