Hitoshi Toyoda Interview

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Hitoshi Toyoda is a unique photographer who, instead of creating prints or photo books, has worked exclusively in the medium of 35-mm slide shows. He uses an analog slide projector to present “visual diaries,” manually changing each slide which then fades into the dark. In this way, he not only delineates the trajectory of one photographer’s life, but also opens the door to the viewers’ memory, leaving behind silent reverberations. Through his slide shows, which are one-time-only events, Toyoda has been quietly gaining attention with each one that he holds at various venues throughout Japan and the US. He recently made a splash at the Yokohama Triennale in 2014.

This writer saw Toyoda’s The Wind’s Path (2002-2014) at the Yokohama Creative City Center in 2014 and White Moon (2010-2015) at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura in 2015 and was impressed by how a series of slides, presented with a unique rhythm, can trigger thoughts and images like the words of a poem. The changing light of the setting sun and sounds from the city that filtered into the open-air venues added to the lyricism of the event, while the periodic bulging of the screen caused by the wind seemed to bring a new breath of life to the images.

Toyoda says “I want people to see the moment at which the photographs disappear.” What does that signify I wonder. I spoke with the artist in advance of Toyoda’s Visual Diary / Slide Show to be shown in the courtyard garden of the Hara Museum on August 13 (Saturday) and 14 (Sunday).

(Interview and text by Aya Matsuura, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art)

A suspicion of the photo

― Can you tell us about the circumstances that led to the unique form of your visual diary slide shows?

Since high school, I have always been suspicious about this thing called the “photo.”
A photo happens in an instant, snapped at 1/60th of a second from a single direction, and yet sometimes what it presents seems like an embodiment of timeless truth. I felt it was a medium that required unwavering vigilence and that feeling continues to this day.

Groping for a purpose in life while living day-to-day in New York. Photos as a record of life lived

I went to New York at the age of 21 and supported myself with part-time jobs, including elevator operator. After five months, my mind had accumulated a lot of things, but I had no way of releasing them. I happened to borrow a camera from a friend and ended up taking a lot of pictures as an outlet. One day in Manhattan, I snapped a picture of a red balloon that had suddenly floated up from between some buildings. When I saw the prints later on, I wondered why I had taken that shot. This led to a memory of seeing the movie The Red Balloon in the gymnasium of my elementary school. That was a poem-like short movie about a little boy who wanders the streets of Paris with a red balloon. Even though it made a great impression on me, I never thought about it again after that. It dawned on me that taking photos dredges up the dust that has unconsciously collected in the mind. You might say the photo was taken by my former self in the gymnasium watching The Red Balloon. I had discovered another aspect of the “photo” of which I had been so suspicious.

At the time, I was wondering how I was going to live my life. Until then, my life was all about me saying “thank you” to people. Thank you to the books and songs on the radio that saved me when I was troubled; to the lady who gave a helping hand while traveling. From then on I wanted to be the one who said “you’re welcome.” The chain of “thank yous” and “you’re welcomes” was, I thought, the meaning of living. If that was the case, then I was confirming it every day in New York. Afterwards I began thinking of doing something with the photo.

An American journey with no specific destination. Day to day without shooting ―You were in Tokyo, then New York again. For 22 years, you lived in New York.

After my return to Tokyo, I started to work professionally, shooting slides (reversal film) for printed matter such as post cards that were popular at the time and magazines. It was around 1988. The images that were selected weren’t necessarily the ones that I thought were good; instead, they were the ones that were “sellable.” After doing this for awhile, I came to know which photos were sellable, but they weren’t the kind I aspired to when I began photography in the first place. I felt there was something seriously wrong if what I was doing wasn’t leading to the kind of photos that conveyed my personal feelings of “thanks,” so I left again for New York. I was 26.

After I got there, I received a scholarship to pursue photography and the first thing I did was buy a used station wagon for about $500. I slept in the car as I traveled around America without a specific destination taking pictures. I didn’t have an idea of what my own photos were about. I was able to do commercial work when my money ran out but felt that wasn’t what it was all about either. Life was gradually getting hard. During that time, it seemed to me the doubt that I had in high school about photos became bigger.

I still remember seeing two men sitting side by side at the counter of a bar in some small midwestern town. In the afternoon light both men hung their heads low and in that instant I took a picture which was laden with the loneliness of the midwest. Three seconds later, both men laughed and slapped each other on the shoulders. I cringed at how easy it was to create “photographic lies” and so I gradually stopped taking pictures. I began living a life of discontent commuting everyday between home and my part-time job in New York. This was in 1992. But I still kept a compact camera loaded with monochrome film hanging from my neck wherever I went. Days would go by without taking a single shot, but I kept that camera with me if only because without it I would have lost all sense of what I was doing. At that time, photos were like the lifeline connecting astronauts during their space walks.

The turning point: thoughts and feelings become visible in photo sequences

One day, I crossed the bridge from Williamsburg to see a friend in Manhattan. From the bridge, I took two pictures of the choppy reflection of the sun on the water’s surface. I don’t know why but I turned around and took a third one. Walking a bit further, I looked up and took a picture of a cloud. Then another picture after its shape was changed a little by the wind. After seeing my friend, I took his picture as I was leaving, and then walked back home crossing the same bridge. It was an ordinary day.

Later, on the contact sheet, I saw the three pictures that I had taken of the sun on the river’s surface, two pictures of the cloud and the face of my friend. One after another, there was nothing special about the pictures, but it seemed to me what I had captured was the movement of my thoughts and feelings at the time. I started thinking that I might be able to do something with this idea. But it wasn’t like I did anything immediately. After about eight months, on the evening of June 30, I loaded reversal film into the SLR camera I used to use and decided to start shooting the next day. From that time on I no longer sought answers in my travels. Instead, I began to feel that important secrets of life lay in the things we think nothing about in our daily lives. And so I started taking pictures of the things and people that I came into contact with on a daily basis. As I explored this new direction, I began creating visual diaries from these photos and showing them along a time axis.

During the 90s in New York, I used to show my photos at gatherings at artists’ lofts where paintings, music and performances would be presented in a party-like atmosphere. From around 1994, I began showing them in public places such as parking lots and parks. Soon crowds of about 100 would show up. I got a request from an art festival in New York to submit a short work. The short work which I made became the prototype for my first work An Elephant’s Tail. I was doing all this by myself in a slow but steady manner, so it took about five years to develop my slide show into its present form. It wasn’t because I wanted to become an artist. All I wanted was to give form to the things I thought about in life.

― The situation in New York during the 1990s is certainly interesting. From your work, I think I can see and understand the reason why you felt compelled to make what you did, and how you felt a constant sense of urgency that would lead you to make art from your life.

From the year 2000, Toyoda held slide shows throughout Japan, at museums and galleries, in the schoolyards of abandoned elementary schools deep in the mountains and at the Sannai-Maruyama historical site, as well as across the United States at film and art festivals. In addition to that, he showed work at the Yokohama Triennale in 2014.

Like the future, the Past is still unknown

― Your work has three different time aspects: the taking of the photo, the editing of the photo and the showing of the photo. What meaning do these aspects have?

The things that catch my attention day to day and the things I personally want to think about are what I photograph as if I were keeping a diary. It is when I feel I have something to say about a particular period of time that I go back and start selecting pictures from that time. I may not understand why I took some images until some time has passed. Even after completing a given work, photos that I did not select may catch my eye years later. I believe that my understanding about my own pictures and my past changes with time. That is to say, the past, like the future, is still unknown. For this reason, a slide show is not the same each time I do it. They change a little at a time. Instead of using a machine to show the slides automatically, I do it manually, one by one. It’s as if I am weaving past time captured in the photo with the present time, one image at a time.

Something more important than the photo itself

― You spoke about wanting to show the moment photos “disappear.” What do you mean by that?

What is important is not only the moment that a photo is taken, but the many things in between individual shots, things that did not get captured in the photos and the things that I wasn’t able to take. The existence of those things are very important to me. Rather than the big events, I want to align myself with those small events, each of which supports the big events. So in my slide show, I want people to look at the darkness that lies in between the slides more than the slides themselves. The interval between shots might represent five seconds or five days, but even if it was five seconds, for example, the thought that lay in that interval might very well be as large as that for a period of three years. I believe the “intervals” are more important than the photographs themselves.

About spoonfulriver (2007- 2016) and for Nine Postcards (2015) at the Hara Museum

― Can you talk a little bit about spoonfulriver to be shown at the Hara Museum on August 13?

spoonfulriver lies chronologically between the works NAZUNA and White Moon. It shows my day-to-day life about two and a half years after the period covered in NAZUNA. It starts with an ordinary street in New York where I lived. Scenes include times spent traveling, in Japan and going through Europe. In a certain way, it’s as if I were writing letters to a friend I cannot forget. I felt that it was something I wanted to look at again. I also thought I would show spoonfulriver because of its relationship with for Nine Postcards.

for Nine Postcards (2015), to be shown on August 14, was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama (note). I’ve heard that you made it using slides from among the 2,800 left behind by Hiroshi Yoshimura, Japan’s preeminent environmental music artist. I suspect it wasn’t easy to create a work in this way, having learned of Yoshimura’s existence through the commission after he had already passed. Can you talk a little about this?

For this work, I had no desire to make subjective choices of photos that I thought were merely good. Though there were a number of photos that probably would have been alright to show, the separation between Yoshimura’s photos and myself was quite intractable, which made it hard to make progress. I then heard about notebooks that Yoshimura had bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama. They appeared to be work notebooks that he kept on “sound” over a period of more than 30 years. As I read them, I gradually began to see Yoshimura’s ideas and how he expressed them in his slides. I also listened to a lot of Yoshimura’s musical works. I finally reached a point of being able to combine his slides with his music, using his first album Nine Postcards as a base. I completed the work in five parts several months later.

Nine Postcards is a very interesting musical piece. There are some moves being made right now to release it anew in America. Because it began with the demo that was originally played at the Hara Museum, I think it’s great that it returns once again to the space of the Hara Museum.

Around 1980, when he was searching for a new kind of music that captured waves of scenery, Yoshimura happened to visit the newly opened Hara Museum. While there, he was deeply impressed with the atmosphere of the museum and the view of the trees from its windows. It occurred to him that the museum would be an ideal environment for the “sound landscape” he had been working on. He asked if he could play his music at the museum and the answer was “yes.” This led to Toyoda’s first album Nine Postcards in 1982.

Becoming visible in Toyoda’s work

― In your work, I would say there is a sense of impermanence. A sense that the world does not stand still, that it goes through repeated cycles of coming into being and disappearing. What would you say has become visible in your work over the course of more than 20 years?

All moments disappear before ever reaching us. But I’ve come to notice several things in doing these slide shows. That is, even if all moments pass and disappear right before our eyes, one might say they continue forever at the same time. That movie The Red Balloon which prompted me to photograph the balloon in New York remains to this day in the depths of my memory. Also, precisely because there is disappearance and loss, there is also understanding. Therefore, while recognizing the importance of disappearance, I also give acknowledgement and respect to those things of an everyday nature.