Interview: Tomoki Imai
An interview with Tomoki Imai by Kristian Häggblom
In this interview Imai-san elaborates on his influences while shying away from Zen Buddhism. He discusses the dark zeitgeist of Tokyo in the late 90s and talks about his volunteer work with the blind.
Kristian Häggblom: Imai-san, I have been a fan of your work for sometime, actually since I first saw your publication Mahiru – In the Middle of the Day in a Tokyo bookstore around the turn of the millennium. Can you introduce this first book?
Tomoki Imai: It was almost 17 years ago, I was glad when you contacted me via email. Mahiru was my first book. It reflects much on an atmosphere or mood of the 90’s in Japan. The post-bubble economy, the subway sarin attack by Aum, Kobe child murders, etc. I walked around with tripod and 6x7” or 4x5” camera until midnight and took pictures using long exposure. I felt like I was an alien.
KH: The book contains many great quiet photographs in signature Imai style. But there is one image that still baffles and intrigues me, a portrait shot largely from behind of what I think is a Noh actor in costume and performing. I feel like this performer has somehow slowed down time – perhaps the time that I find in your photography. Why did you include this photograph and what does it mean to the overall publication?
TI: Yes, it's a Noh actor. It’s a strange picture as you say. Noh is interesting, a particular actor plays a particular role, but the play itself is very abstract. I thought I could point out those kind of abstractions from Noh narratives in visual form through landscape photographs (I now think it was a little bit of a juvenile).
KH: Your book titles relate very well to your subject matter, Light and Gravity, A Tree at Night, In the Middle of the Day, etc. Are these ideas that you start with as text, words and concepts or do they come later during the printing or editing process?
TI: The titles come later, when I am preparing to publish or hold an exhibition. A Tree of Night was the exception. It’s the title of Truman Capote novel. I took pictures of braille version of the book of the same title and this is how the series was initiated and progressed.
KH: Without being cliché, Zen Buddhism comes to mind when I look at your work. What influences and inspires you to make photographs?
TI: I have been asked the same thing before, although actually I’m not so familiar with Zen Buddhism, but I understand what you mean. You can point out a kind of nothingness or emptiness in my imagery. There is something that comes from my unconscious. I just do not want to emphasise it too much or labour over the point, like Hiroshi Sugimoto, haha.
KH: This is a quote from an interview you did with Ken Kawashima for the Japan Times and refers to your volunteer work with blind people.
“But what I found fascinating about all this was, you’re describing all these visual details with no emotive context whatsoever, in order to provide the listener with a ‘mental map.’ And this totally objective and matter-of- fact way of looking at the world, I thought, was really similar to my approach to taking photos.”
Can you tell me about this and how it influences or expands your photography?
TI: Well, it’s difficult to explain in English. As a volunteer for blind people, I had to tell them what I could see in detail with no subjectivity. For example, “there are trees 5 metres in front of us, there is 6 steps downstairs/upstairs, two cars are passing so we have to stop here, etc.” It was like phenomenology and I think this influences me more than Zen.
Blindness interests me and these experiences influenced both A Tree of Night and Semicircle Law.
KH: A lot of prominent Japanese photographers have made work in the Fukushima region post 3.11, in fact, there are a number of works in the Tsuka exhibition that also deal with this immensely important subject matter. What I am interested in is your subtle though poignant approach. Can you please tell us about Semicircle Law?
TI: Yeah many Japanese photographers have tried to make artwork about Fukushima after 3.11 on their own terms. Kazuma Obara-san also did and it’s outstanding work. My photographs are very simple, they act as a reminder to myself. If I didn’t make that work, the disaster may have more easily slipped away from my memory and I didn’t want this to happen. I climb mountains surrounding Fukushima 2 or 3 times a year to make these images and I will continue to do so until the reconstruction work is complete – if it ever will be. The title Semicircle Law comes from a mathematical law. It is called Eugene Wigner’s theory of Semicircle distribution or just Semicircle Law. It relates to calculations of probability among atomic physics.
KH: I had the privilege of seeing your recent and wonderful exhibition at Taka Ishii gallery in Tokyo in December last year. Was this a success and what is next for Imai-san?
TI: Thank you! That show got a good response. I would like to make a book of those pictures. Apart from that, I still continue the Fukushima series. I am commissioned to do another series in the Netherlands - it’s about wartime photographs from the the Netherlands, Indonesia and Japan, so I'll be working with archives.
KH: Finally, I thought I would take the chance to ask considering you have visited Australia for the 2004 exhibition I curated - Paper Bridges: A Conference of Folding Spaces. We spent some time in Tasmania together, I recall you got two speeding fines! What are your thoughts on Australia, is it a place you would like to photograph?
TI: I only know a little bit about Melbourne and Tasmania but it was so wonderful. I took pictures at Hanging Rock. Do you remember? If I stayed for longer in Australia, I think my visual language would change, perhaps, brighter and more simplistic in accord with the open landscape.