Inessential views of art and photography.
A few years ago I travelled to Japan for a conference in Kyoto. In addition to presenting my research, it was the first time I exhibited my personal work on family photography. Before the event, I spent a few days in Kagoshima visiting a dear friend and testing my very limited Japanese. Keeping with the traditions, her family wanted to give me a present, so she took me shopping. I also was looking for something special to bring back for Jake. That is how we ended up in this little shop that looked like a mix of Urban Outfitters, a custome store and a modern art museum shop. Very fitting. She knew about my passion for family photography and she wanted to show me a book that had been extremely popular in Japan a few years ago. She was talking about Kayo Ume‘s first book, Ume-me (Todays Happening), sold over 130.000 times.
Long Live Grampa
But we could not find it. Instead, we discovered Ume had published a new one “Long live grampa”. It captivated me. I could not understand any of the captions as the language used was too advanced for my 4-year-old Japanese language level, but it didn’t matter. Once you start flipping the pages, you become more and more entwined with Ume’s family and specially with her grandfather. His sense of humor paints a smile on your face whether you like it or not.
Ume’s visual style has clearly evolved over time. This book, who compiles photographs taken from 1998 to 2008, evidences how Ume’s eye has become more refined and poignant. However, she has managed to remain fresh, humorous and sort of Matsu (I believe Matsu* is the Japanese best translation for the Spanish picara, mischievous doesn’t really do justice to the term unfortunately). The first two years of photographs (1998 and 1999) present fleeting family life moments. They appear disjointed.
From the year 2000 onwards however, more concrete subject themes emerge. Ume focuses more on her grandfather. Her photographs describe him as a hard-working person, always taking care of the garden, of the dog and doing the shopping with his small blue van. It seems he always had time to take a break and enjoy little pleasures of life with his wife and his family whether it involved playing a videogame or making funny faces with the aid of a magnifying glass.
Visually, the design of the pages and the juxtaposition of images improves from page to page. Metaphors, causality and seriality take us through a ten year journey. The past of time is clearly shown through the weather and less obviously through Ume’s Grampa’s activities.
All in all, “Long live grampa” certainly transmits a sense of respect and honesty towards a very important person in Kayo Ume’s life. It is not common to find artists working in family photography, who take a humorous approach and decide to celebrate the family, rather than deconstructing it. While family photography tends to conceal difficulties, tensions and disease, it can also be a source of emotional strength and support. Ume’s work certainly falls into the second without being too transcendental. Humor and cheekiness is the key to the appeal of her work.
Kayo Ume’s work has been widely exhibited in Japan. She continues taking photographs of her surroundings, transforming thereby the mundane into the extraordinary. It takes courage to go outside and snap away. The line between appreciation and presumption is very thin, but Kayo Ume walks it gracefully with a smile on her face. And she puts another on ours as a result. Her work reminds me strongly of Martin Parr‘s dissections of places and ways of life.
This is the first post of a series dedicated to female photographers dealing with family, every day life and spontaneity. Stay tuned! And if you have any suggestions, leave a comment below.
*If you drink red wine, give Matsu a try. This red embodies perfectly what picaro means.
*Another beautiful project about the ordinary, the extraordinary and a grandfather