When I started out, the only photos I had seen were in newspapers. There was no photography in museums or art galleries inJapan. Then, in 1979, I went to a photography exhibition in Paris, and was amazed to see people actually buying photos.
When I returned to Japan, I started taking photos showing the contrast between our infrastructure and the nature around it. At the time, Japan was a messy mixture of western culture and old Japanese tradition. It was not a photogenic place, so I chose to focus on finding the beauty in non-photogenic structures, the stuff most photographers would ignore.
I often find places to photograph simply by accident, like this bridge. I shot it in 2007, when I was driving around Kōchi prefecture, in southern Japan . It’s near a small logging village called Ōkawa. It was drenched in golden, late afternoon light, so I parked and got my big tripod out of the car. The sun was going down quickly, behind the mountain and the bridge, so I had to hurry. I set down my camera and snapped away. Without warning, the light disappeared and the moment was gone.
After I take a photograph, I leave and usually never come back. But I’ve been back to this bridge twice and it looked completely different each time: it’s like a face with different makeup on. I never imagined it would be so nice, so serene. I’ve been told by people that they love the photo, that they have prints of it, and they ask me what I think of it. They’re surprised when all I say is: “I suppose it’s kind of nice.”Like a lot of my images, it’s beautiful by accident. I was so pleased to capture this light, these colours, in such a short amount of time. Ten years ago, I started photographing in colour and a lot of the results have involved red and green, the complementary colours. The red paint is to protect the bridge from rust, I think, but purely aesthetically, it is beautiful and vibrant.
A lot of places in Japan mean something important historically or politically. I don’t like having that sort of knowledge of a subject in advance, because then I can’t be neutral. My favourite thing to do is to pull out a map and point to somewhere new, then drive there in search of something interesting. I don’t want people around when I work, I want to work quietly and comfortably. I love the Japanese countryside. Everywhere I go is a live studio.
Born: Tokyo, 1949.
Studied: Oil painting at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
Influences: Edward Weston. “One of the reasons I started photography – and the reason why I love black and white.”
High point: “Seeing lots of young people coming to my first solo show in Japan.”
Low point: “No galleries in Japan sold or exhibited photography until the 1990s, so I couldn’t sell my work. I thought about quitting.”
Each of Shibata’s photographs depicts a different kind of human intervention in the natural movement of water, many of them the kind of mundane engineering projects we rarely think about. “To me,” Jacob Cartwright of Laurence Miller Gallery, which recently opened a show of Shibata’s work, said via email, “the essence of his work is taking ubiquitous yet frequently disregarded parts of our contemporary landscape and transforming them into something visually uncanny through formal invention.”The Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata is fascinated by water — in particular, the way it interacts with man-made structures. For the later half of his almost-40-year career in photography, he has explored this relationship in novel ways, hiding horizon lines and taking the perspective of the water itself with his camera, visually evoking its rushing sound.
Shibata originally studied oil painting at Tokyo University of the Arts. In 1975, he received a fellowship to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. It was there that he began to work with a camera, taking long shooting trips throughout Europe while immersing himself in the Western tradition of landscape painting and photography. The Japanese photography critic Kotaro Iizawa has suggested that from the outset, this set Shibata apart from the Japanese tradition of “emotional” landscape photography and placed his work in the European tradition, “in which the artist grasps the landscape structurally and repositions the scene on the picture plane.”
When Shibata returned to Japan in 1979, he initially found the available landscapes in Tokyo and the surrounding areas to be visually “messy.” His first works after returning — a series of black-and-white photographs of roadways at night — left him dissatisfied. Then in 1983, he began focusing mostly on how the infrastructure of Japan’s postwar building boom interacted with the country’s natural landscape. It was an uncommon approach at a time when most Japanese landscape photographers actively tried to exclude modern elements from their images.
As it happens, it was in the United States — where Shibata went to work on an Art Institute of Chicago grant in the mid-1990s — that he began focusing on the quintessentially Japanese subject of water. He was particularly interested in dams, which are a forceful presence in his work — although as Cartwright notes, his photographs also show how “even [the] grandest edifices like hydroelectric dams have to accommodate the unending whims and vicissitudes of nature.” Shibata does this in part by employing long exposures to emphasize movement, and by removing traces of his presence or influence from the frame as much as possible.
These images date from 2005, shortly after Shibata began working in color. They also appear in the exhibition “Water Colors,” on view at the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York until April 25. Romke Hoogwaerts