Toshio Shibata, Boundary Hunt – Collector Daily

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover with dust jacket, 25×32 cm., 72 pages including a double central opening, with 35 monochrome photographs and a brief text by the artist. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: In a career spanning more than five decades, Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata has reliably harnessed new visual possibilities from basic elements. His photographs are constructed from the building blocks of industrial development: ferro-cement, roads, bridges, asphalt, dams, pipelines and other basic infrastructure, all nestled in Edenic natural settings. These utilitarian constructs can serve vital everyday functions, but this aspect is largely ignored by Shibata, who is instead concerned with their visual potential and compositional properties. By showcasing the subtle machinations that might otherwise become sensual as visual white noise – water sweeping over a weir, for example, or rebar posts supporting a concrete slope – it constantly piques the viewer with reminder: Pay attention ! Everything is remarkable.

Or at least it looks remarkable when placed in front of Shibata’s lens. Faced with a flood of prosaic subjects, especially in a country as visually dense as Japan, it’s quite a feat to filter selectively into coherent frameworks. If it’s heavy work, Shibata makes it deceptively easy. His initial choice of a monochrome format helped in the process, naturally abstracting scenes while highlighting pattern, texture and structure. Using grayscale like an x-ray to reveal underlying structure, Shibata worked in black and white for the first half of his career. It was around 2000 that he gradually turned to color work, which has been his main objective ever since. (See his full career reviewed here, and recent color work reviewed here).

Perhaps the new millennium sparked a broader moment of artistic recalibration? In any case, it was around this time that Shibata also began experimenting with Type 55, a tear-off Polaroid film that produced both a negative and a positive image. A handful of his results were collected in the eponymous book Nazraeli Type 55, published in 2003, but most of them remained unpublished until now. They include the recent monograph Limit huntingwhich brings together thirty-five Type 55s shot by Shibata from 2000 to 2004. Most were shot in rural Japan, with a sprinkling of American West Coast imagery also in the mix.

Longtime Shibata fans will find themselves in familiar territory, as Limit hunting continues the thematic strains of his earlier large-format work, at least in broad strokes. A 2003 photo from Yamanashi Prefecture blurs preconceptions by translating concrete surfaces into a ghostly specter. A photo from Saitama Prefecture taken in 2000 shows the Shibata trademark overlay, with slices of wall, rock and water aligned in delicious balance. These materials must have been found on the spot, but the arrangement appears as choreographed as any Japanese garden, exuding the same meditative calm. The cross-hatched cement canvas that Shibata has long adopted as a signature element appears here in several images, for example photos of Nakanojo City, Yoshida City, and Shingu City.

Shibata’s photo antennae appear permanently fixed to earth. I find no trace of sky or horizon line in this book, nor any other suggestion of the world beyond the border of the photo. Perspectives aim down or through things, wallowing in a gravity-bound world of grass, soil, water, and concrete, and abruptly ending before they can show much distance (more on those borders in a moment). A photo of the village of Takane from 2003, for example, reduces a winding road and a wooded berm into a tidy graphic ensemble, while abstract grease stains on a textured wall suffice for another image. A photo of Horsetail Falls from my home state of Oregon is sober and elemental, a slice of white forking off a dark cliff. This waterfall has probably been photographed millions of times by others. Yet Shibata skillfully affixes his own imprimatur to it.

Everything is fine. But of course there is a twist, in this case revealed by the title. Limit hunting is a clear reference to the edges of Type 55 film, which leaves its distinctive imprint on the edge of an image through chemical residue. Peel off the box of artifacts in each photo here with textured blurs on three sides and triplet holes on the fourth. As a technical flaw, such markings might seem like gearhead fodder, and perhaps not meaty enough to warrant a book. But there is more to these simple limits than meets the eye. “The imperfection of the edge of Type 55 film has always fascinated me,” Shibata wrote in the afterword. “When I look at the resulting image, I find myself on the border between a photograph and an art drawing.” Shibata was first trained as a painter, and his monograph published alongside Chose Commune alludes to multidisciplinary interests; a book of upright photos, it is called Painting.

“When I used [Type 55] film,” writes Shibata, “it reminded me of the Sun Light Camera I played with as a child in the 1950s. This material gives me a similar feeling….back to the fun of my childhood encounter with photography. Like watercolors smudged by a toddler, the idiosyncrasies of Type 55 chemical dyes add an alchemical charge wherever they are applied. They share commonalities, but each Polaroid brand is unique. A slight heaviness or trail of cross-linking reminds the viewer of analog inaccuracies. Taken as a whole, they are just plain messy.

The contrast with Shibata’s imagery is dynamic, as his photographs are the opposite of disorder. When filming industrial sites and highway shoulders, one would expect litter, graffiti, street signs, advertisements, perhaps car parts, animals or animations, or other detritus of lived experience? Such a subject could be the rough equivalent of border spots and a complement to edges. But they rarely appear in this book. The closest clues to real-world problems appear in photos of a spare rope, a culvert pointing skyward, and a plastic covering wrapping around a guy wire. Foreign parts taken out of service, they could be entropic in another context. But all are tightly controlled and formalized here by Shibata. Coming a bit late in the wake of Strand, Weston and Caponigro, it aims for modernist transcendence, the aesthetic reverie of a Zen retreat. An idealized fantasy? Yes maybe. But one with a purpose.

The juxtaposition of border clutter and inner clarity is remarkable. But Limit hunting is rooted in something even more fundamental: the permanent task of the photographer to frame the world. The decision of how to place a rectangle around a scene, what to include in a frame, and what to crop, is central to all photographic processes. In fact the expressionborder hunt” could be applied as a motto for the medium. Shibata is quite skilled in this regard. His photos demonstrate the deliberation and care one would expect of any lifelong master (now 73, he photographed Limit hunting early 50s). His cropping is precise and sure, leaving no room for doubt. The chemical stains give them a punch in this book, but they seem perfectly placed regardless.

Limit huntingis a silent vehicle for images. The production is clean and simple, with sans-serif text on a hardcover and paper jacket wrapping a soft-bound book. Inside, it’s just one photo per page, briefly stretching for a 6-image centerpiece printed on double gatefolds, before reverting to a single-image drumbeat. The essay and the colophon are short and sweet. All are signs of a photographer aware of their limitations and continuing to work comfortably within them, while remaining in search of more.

Collector’s point of view: Toshio Shibata is represented by the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York (here), Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica (here) and Tepper Takayama Fine Arts in Boston (here). Shibata’s work has little auction history, so gallery retail is probably the best bet for collectors wishing to follow.

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