Robert Hutchison (RH):
I was very interested to find out that you come from painting originally.
Toshio Shibata (TS):
Yes, I started my career as a painter.
RH: Why did you move away from painting?
TS: Well, I was in University from 1968 to 1969. And 1969 was the time that there were a lot of movements. During my sophomore year the university closed.
RH: Because of the student movement …
TS: Yes. After that I had plenty of time to think about things. I was very interested in American contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. I was doing photography and silk screening. Up until that time I was doing a lot of drawing and painting too, but I had to somehow make myself want to draw well.
RH: You were unsatisfied with what you were doing? The drawing?
TS: I was.
TS: Why? It was like I would stop myself from drawing well or painting well, perhaps because it had no meaning to me. There were other ways to express my own ideas and I thought maybe I should try to find another medium. So, I started printmaking. There are many different ways to make prints … woodblock printing, copper etching … I tried many, but found that the process of silk-screening gave me a fresh perspective - a new vision. There was no trace of my …
RH: Your authorship?
TS: Yes. The work had a distance for me. While painting I had to concentrate on what I saw in my mind and then try to convert that image to the paper or canvas. But when silk-screening, similar to photography, I can keep the distance from my work. Because it’s more indirect.
RH: Why is it important to you to keep that distance?
TS: I don’t want to put too much emotion into the work. I want to be like a third person somehow. I want to keep a distance from what I have made. I think it’s important to do that. I also tried making films and I actually worked in a film factory for one year after I graduated from school. But I had to work with a lot of other people. [laughing]
RH: And you didn’t like that.
TS: It was all right because people were nice to me. But I wanted to work alone, so I went back to my private work. After graduating I had to work, right? But it was very difficult. I tried to find some scholarships. Actually, I wanted to go to the United States, but it was too difficult because at that time the exchange rate was 1 dollar = 360 yen.
RH: Wow! That’s not the case anymore…
TS: No, it’s just 80-something now per dollar. I tried to find some scholarships to the States, but it was quite hard - just one or two for scientists. So I went back to my university and I ended up getting a scholarship to Belgium. And once again I was a student again.
RH: And when you went to Belgium did you apply as a painter?
TS: Yes, at first a painter and a printmaker. At the art school the principals told me that I already had enough experience in painting and printmaking so I should try something new. They had just established a photography department in the academy so I started there.
RH: It’s a nice turn of events.
TS: [Laughing] It was just by accident, but I was interested in doing photography. Having experience with the photo process and silk screening already, I knew how to develop film and make prints. And someone gave me a book by Edward Weston. That was a turning point. I didn’t know that photography could express such strong messages.
RH: When you say that it’s expressing a strong message, in Weston’s work the message isn’t necessarily his own message, correct? Similar to your work.
TS: No, not necessarily, but you know, after that I knew that the photography in Japan was very different. Maybe you know the photographer Daido Moriyama? Very grainy, very emotional. Somehow he expresses his own personal feelings. But I didn’t like that because in my work I needed something different from the real world. Because of that I didn’t like that kind of photography much at the time. But in Weston’s work he had his own world, and a different quality to his prints. I could feel how different it was from what I knew, so I tried to pursue how I could get the same quality in my work that I found in his images. It was obvious that I should use large format. I purchased five books and tried to learn how to develop and about exposure and well. I was especially inspired by a book about Group f.64. I didn’t buy 8x10s at the time—I bought 4x5s and I learned what I could by myself.
RH: So, how do you see photography and painting as similar and different?
TS: The nice thing about photography is you can work outside the studio.
RH: That’s what I love about it too. The world becomes your studio.
TS: Yes, until that moment I worked in the studio making prints or paintings and I had to stay inside, but with photography I could go out. I feel that you have to go out. Of course some photographers work inside, but that was a most important thing for me doing photography.
RH: I read an interesting thing about photography … that it’s about taking things away to create an image. In other words, in painting, you start with a blank canvas and you add things and you layer and you create something. Whereas with photography it’s all about how you are framing and maybe not showing something.
TS: In other words, with painting you can eliminate what you don’t need, right? But with photography you have to work with what’s there.
RH: What’s there is there. Of course now they have photoshop [laughing]. So you started when you came back to Japan; you were looking for subject matter.
TS: First I had to find a subject in Europe, because everything I saw was so fresh. Every place that I went was a new place with new people and a new culture. I traveled a lot in Europe. But I started doubting myself. You take photographs because it’s very fresh to you, a new experience for you. But to the people that are living there, it’s nothing special. It’s their daily life. So what I was doing seemed flawed. I felt that I should go back to my own country. So after 4 years of living in Belgium, maybe a bit more than 4 years, I came back. But I didn’t take photographs here in Japan after I came back—things seemed mixed up to me. In the 80s, Tokyo was a rapidly growing city, maybe a bit like cities in China now, and everything was mixed up. There were still a lot of old parts of Tokyo mixed with new cultures. I didn’t know how to cope with this. I couldn’t focus on anything. So I decided to take night photos, because at night all of the structures seem to disappear. There are only lights in the darkness. It was in the 80s that many of the expressways were built. Sometimes I had experiences driving in Europe where I would imagine I was on some highway here in Japan. Roads are made in the same way there, right? It is just a paved road. Very flat with some lights going like this and like this. Sometimes it reminded me of Japan. And I while I was driving I didn’t know what I was doing there. It was a strange feeling that came to me while I was driving. This happened in the States too. Because of this, I thought that maybe I should take photographs that do not allow you to predict where you are exactly. I didn’t want to come back to typical Japan, because while I was in Europe I realized my own culture and I didn’t want to use very Japanese things here. I wanted to characterize a new Japanese. I wanted to share the current time. That is why I decided to take photographs of a highway or a rest area of the highway. I continued this for six years.
RH: You did this for 6 years? Wow.
TS: Yes. Six years. But after three years, in 1983, I found a new subject. And that is what I’m still doing now.
RH: So really quick, this is the first book (Still In the Night by Toshio Shibata) I bought when I got to Japan, after visiting the Tokyo Museum of Photography. What I found really beautiful about these photographs is how the buildings are lit up. There is so much light being put down to the ground and around it. Especially in some of these photographs there’s so much light in the center of the photograph that it enhances the darkness around it. This is very interesting to me. I think it relates to what you said just a few minutes ago. It almost pushes that idea that at night everything disappears around it. So I could take that picture and put it anywhere. I could put it in California or Washington. For myself it feels universal.
TS: Yes, that’s what I intended.
RH: At first I didn’t even know they were Japanese, I thought they were American. And then I read that these are all in Japan!
TS: [Laughing] Oh yes, that’s nice.
RH: So then, what is it about infrastructure that is so interesting?
TS: Well, I was kind of eager to take photos in daytime. Nighttime photography is very hard work. After sunset you just take the car and go. You don’t sleep. I was looking for some subject to take in the daytime. [Goes to get photo] It was really an accident that I took this photo. This one, in 1983. This was my first. It looks like something very, how would you say, like a creature.
RH: It’s almost alive.
TS: Yes, like it’s looking at me, staring at me. So I just took this picture. And after I took this picture I started thinking about types of concrete on the land, especially in infrastructure.
RH: Are these all in Japan?
TS: Yes. I found it nice because I didn’t have to put emotion into it, because it’s just concrete and infrastructure. It’s not Architecture. Architecture is intended by the architect, designed by architect.
RH: I thought about that today when I was preparing for our talk. I find these compelling visually. But it’s curious to me that while these are things that are designed, they are designed to only function, they aren’t designed to be aesthetically beautiful. In your case, when you take the photographs and you think about composition, and tone and shadow, you create a completely aesthetic thing. So it’s very curious to me that these things have no aesthetic intentions, but then your photographs do almost the opposite and make them aesthetic.
TS: Yes that was fun to me.
RH: When I look at some of your photographs, it makes me think about how we build on the land. Is that something that you want people to think about? Do you want people to think about what we are doing and the relationship of how we construct relative to nature if you will? Or is that not of interest?
TS: I try to stay away from politics, because otherwise my message is going to be very narrow. I want to make my work free to the people. The image can mean whatever they are thinking, using their own knowledge and their own ideas.
RH: One other thing I love about your work is that most of the photographs don’t have a set scale. It seems like this could be a detail of a river, or we could be a mile up in the sky and I don’t really know.
TS: No scale. That is one thing that I intended.
RH: So why don’t you show the sky? Is that related?
TS: Yes. Sky is the one thing that can remind you of the real world.
RH: So have you ever tried photographing people?
RH: Why not?
TS: Well, I want to work alone. You know, it’s like traveling, but I’m traveling with myself. With my spirit.
RH: Your spirit?
TS: Traveling. It’s like that. I don’t want to interact with other emotions. I think I’m actually very shy. I cannot cope with people very well so it’s very comfortable to be alone. And I like working alone. I really care about people, but that interferes with my work I think.
RH: When you go up and work in the mountains and start shooting these incredible hydroelectric projects, you probably have to interact with a number of people, don’t you?
TS: To meet people? Or just to get permission?
RH: To get permission.
TS: No, most of the places don’t require any.
RH: So you could get right into most of the places? What about the Grand Cooley Dam?
TS: No, no not that. We went this spring and I couldn’t get inside. They’re really strict. I was taking photos of the retaining wall just inside the dam and a security guard came and they said you should not take that.
RH: So you went there without getting any permission?
TS: Yes. I didn’t know I needed it, because when I went and shot fifteen years ago there were no problems.
RH: So the photographs of the base of the dam at Cooley, were you able to get that one before the guards got you?
RH: What else was I going to ask… you said two very interesting things about photographing these infrastructure sites, and maybe you can expand on them. The first thing you said was that after you take a photograph you try to leave as soon as possible.
TS: Yes, because any place like that has its own kind of feeling. I don’t want to get infected by that.
RH: So what do you think would happen if you did get infected? Do you think that would change your work in some way?
TS: No, it’s kind of that I don’t want to research prior to it.
RH: That was the other thing I read that I thought was interesting. You almost try to go there without knowing anything.
TS: I just go there, find something interesting, and just try to assemble the camera as quickly as I can.
RH: How long does it take you to set yourself up after you get to your spot?
TS: Like in this picture, Japanese mountain roads are very narrow. If you stop the car other cars cannot pass, so you have to hurry.
RH: How fast can you take a picture from the time you pull over?
TS: Maybe a few minutes or so.
RH: Wow. You’ve been working a lot in Japan, but now you are starting to work outside of japan a lot, like in America.
TS: Yes, America. That started from around 1995.
RH: So what is it about America that interests you?
TS: Space. Rolling hills, desert, and expansive landscapes. That is something Japan doesn’t have. And I see a horizon that we don’t see in Japan.
RH: It’s interesting that you mention the horizon. One thing that I had written down was some of your photographs of the dam faces, when I first saw that photograph, I actually thought it was a road going into the horizon, and it was very strange, and for the longest time I looked at it and finally realized I was looking at water.
TS: Water! [laughing]
RH: So what are you working on now?
TS: I’m working with color.
RH: And are you on a specific series?
TS: No, I just go outside and I find something interesting. Well these days maybe my objective is just to travel. Just travel and take my own film.
RH: Sounds like a good life.
TS: Yes! (Laughing)
Interview conducted by Robert Hutchison on 10/5/2010. Transcribed by Rachel Schad, Edited by Robert Hutchison & Megan Greenfield.
All Images courtesy of Toshio Shibata.