SHOJI UEDA, Papa, Mama and Children, 1949, Gelatin silver print, 20 × 28 cm. Courtesy Shoji Ueda Office and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Beijing.

Shoji Ueda

Also available in:  Chinese

Spread across the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing’s Caochangdi art district, the first exhibition in China of the Japanese photographer Shoji Ueda (1913–2000) was an understated showcase of the joy that the artist found in his photography. For Ueda’s retrospective, Three Shadows—founded by well-known photographers Rong Rong and Inri—collaborated with the recently opened Shoji Ueda Museum of Photography in the artist’s hometown of Tottori, borrowing 141 original photographs selected by curator Masako Sato.

From the show’s outset, there was an emphasis on the immutable presence of Ueda’s family and Tottori in his images, with the majority of the early works from the 1940s and ’50s portraying his family and close friends in the local sand dunes, his trademark setting. The black-and-white Papa, Mama and Children (1949) shows Ueda and his wife flanking their four children, the whole family perched atop an almost perfectly straight shelf of sand against a plain gray background, while each individual is caught in what appears to be a free moment of expression, whether shooting a toy gun, sitting on a bicycle, or strolling forward, umbrella in hand. The image is filled with a sense of play, and it was easy to imagine Ueda and his family spending the day at the dunes frolicking among the mounds of sand, as much as posing for Ueda. Formally, the dunes offered Ueda a vast blank canvas on which he could direct his subjects, with expanses of sky creating a weighty formlessness that he utilized for pictorial balance. Ueda’s careful approach to his compositions was further demonstrated in the thoughtfully included, figureless photograph The Sea and the Dune (1950), which illustrated a measured balancing of the forms and planes of the sky, ocean and sand. The indistinct plainness of the backdrops also felt otherworldly, producing a sense of the subjects being momentarily dislocated from earth, perhaps a hint at a more abstract, existential reason for Ueda’s interest in the dunes.

Ueda was less prolific in and less known for his color photographs, but the few presented at the exhibition showed an innovative approach to photographic techniques. The pictures from the series “White Wind” (1981), mostly of his children in locations around Tottori, are marked by an indistinct haziness, and despite being away from the sand dunes, proliferate a similar dreamy, ethereal space.

The sea and sand around Ueda’s hometown, a place he rarely left and constantly captured, were referenced in the show by exhibition designer Osamu Ouchi’s placement of blue and yellow partitions throughout the space. These interrupted what could have been an uneventful chronological walk through. Functioning in a similar way was the simple curatorial gesture of projecting three subtly illuminating Ueda quotes—one example: “Awake or asleep, I always found myself thinking of photography”—at different points on the walls. 

Following Ueda’s early works and a set of three videos, including footage recorded by Ueda of daily life in Tottori, the exhibition shifted to more surreal photographs. Gitanes (1992) shows a troupe of figures scattered across the sand, each a small silhouette dwarfed by the orange moon and dark ocher sky with Ueda’s processing giving the image painterly, mysterious and abstruse qualities.

In 1983, Ueda’s wife died and the photographer didn’t work again until the end of that year, when the fashion designer Takeo Kikuchi invited him to do some commercial fashion photography. Presented in the show’s last section, these commercial advertisements were initially surprising because of Ueda’s return to the dunes—a place that the exhibition had earlier strongly related to his family and friends. Yet images like a 1983 work from the series “Dune,” portraying an immaculately suited man—common in fashion photography, but with the addition of a perturbing mask of exaggerated features and a levitating top hat—served to emphasize this exhibition’s view that Ueda delighted in the surreal potentials of the medium but also in the constant interrelation of his photography and his life. 

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E-flux Massimo de Carlo RossiRossi