By her own admission, Mikiko Hara’s new photo book These Are Days (2014) is about “nowhere” as much is it is about “everywhere”—a vague landscape of people whose sense of place is constantly interrupted by an apparent state of introspection.
Staying out of the “picture,” but inadvertently drawn into it, Hara’s camera, which “grasps and slowly scoops up things,” turns even the sky she sees into a character all of its own. To quote the American novelist Richard Brautigan, “The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen.”
Hara was born in 1967 in Toyama Prefecture, Japan, graduating from Keio University’s Faculty of Literature in 1990, where she studied art history and theory. Although her thesis was on film theory, she spent a lot of time distracted from her studies and attending theatre groups outside of the university. This uncharacteristically led her to enroll in a photographic course at the Tokyo College of Photography, the prestigious vocational school from which she graduated in 1994, and then again as a research student in 1996.
While the independent theatre of late 1980s Japan was subversive in presence and low key in style, Hara always felt drawn to the stage and “people whose atmosphere can’t be easily described; their attractiveness that can’t be reduced to a simple word.”
But, while she found the expectation of acting to be awkward and mysterious, her reactions to it yielded more intriguing results—unpremeditated and un-affecting like her “camera eye.” A method of quiet observation ultimately influenced her in more ways than film and theatre ever could.
With this in mind, the focus of Hara’s book is as much about her role as an observer as it is as a photographer—sandwiched between her subject of interest and the images she makes. Although entirely theoretical, for the artist the camera simply gets in the way of what is seen. So, she avoids looking through it entirely, taking pictures while imagining the camera not being there. Her old 6×6 Ikonta camera is held away from her eye, and she judges speed and exposure on past experience alone. Later, she test-prints images at home in her darkroom and then passes them onto a lab for enlargement. Only then does she get a sense of what her images collectively look like, when on a wall or in the pages of a book, such as with These Are Days.
Book designer Kazunari Hattori’s wonderfully mute yet telling art direction matches Hara’s photography, page for page, with both paper weight and thickness that are tactile and memorable, stapled together with the dexterity of explicit intent.
But what of the book’s final outcome? The representation of people she doesn’t know, or knows little of, and the wider landscape they’re found within? Though possibly local to her and where she lives, could they be seen as people entirely removed and almost alien?
When wandering recently through the corridors of London’s National Portrait Gallery, I wondered whether the relatively modern term of “snapshot”—often used to describe Hara’s works—had in fact been with us for much longer, and whether or not it applied to more than photography itself, considering its modern use to describe a slight-of-hand photographic technique?
British artist Grayson Perry’s current show at the Portrait Gallery, entitled “Who Are You?,” makes a case for reimagining the past and present through images of faces and figures from both. Hara, in this respect, is more timeless; she’s not uninterested in simply stating what “today” or the everyday looks like, despite her scrutinous observation of both. Perry’s images and objects are distinct and particular, as are the marble and canvas works in the Portrait Gallery; on the contrary, Hara moves through a territory that is fluid, temperamental and less-pronounced.
There’s something wonderfully absent about These Are Days, as if a question mark hovers over every page. The book connects photographs by how they simultaneously seem to follow one other and don’t: a young man on a train paired with an expanse of sulphur quarry, releasing smoke like a primordial crag; young women dressed in kimono facing a burning pyre; and schoolgirls looking out beyond a balcony with one turning to face an old, bedridden man.
Whether images on either side of each page spread are paired or not doesn’t really matter. The fact that a potential connection exists is a gift enough. And what of the book’s front cover? Looking through the overgrowth of wild hedgerow, the sans-serif title is as fragmented as the images inside—clue-like fragments that promise much more within.
Hara is happy to leave the question of her subjects’ origin unanswered. Perhaps she doesn’t know or simply can’t remember. Either way, turning the pages of These Are Days is an experience of patience and observation—one best read in blissful ignorance.
These Are Days (2014) by Mikko Hara is published by Osiris.