I ran into the street photographer Michio Yamauchi outside the Hanayashiki amusement park. I knew him from a book project I had worked on, but we had barely spoken.
He said, Asakusa during the holidays is a good place to shoot.
I said, Sometimes I stand here to snap the roller coaster.
He seemed willing to wait. You can hear it coming, you get about two seconds warning, a sort of rumble, then suddenly the clattering orange carriages crest the track to your left, then plummet past you. It’s over in a split second, as if someone has thrown a switch. On-off. A whoosh of noise and colour, screams and laughter, then gone.
There’s only the tiniest gap where the roller coaster is visible. You have to get your shot around the white iron lace fence and railings. When we heard it, we were talking. We weren’t ready. Yamauchi thrust his camera up over the wall. I got his hands.
This is the oldest fun park in Japan. Walk past the gate with the panda Japan Post-box on some days and it seems no one is inside. Other times like holiday weekends, people mill around; women in rental kimonos, men with strollers. Pimpy-looking guys and molls. A balloon seller wrestles her floating merchandise.
Once I waited for the roller coaster for ages. It’s not a bad spot to stand around in. But I waited a long time. Finally I went to the entrance and asked if it was moving. If it rushes by when you do this, of course, you miss it. And it could be a long time before another run. Anyway, I needn’t have worried. The attendant said the roller coaster that day was shut for repairs.
Yamauchi is 67-years-old. Strong and stocky, he projects an air of singular concentration. He’s one of those people who, when you talk to him, actually listens to every word you say. Then he thinks before he responds. A bit like a man from another time.
Women in rental kimonos, men with strollers. Pimpy-looking guys and molls. A balloon seller wrestles her floating merchandise.
Yamauchi said he might come back to Asakusa. A few days later we met again at the roller coaster and walked up the river to Shirahige park.
Yamauchi has made many photobooks of Tokyo, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places. His pictures are unflinching closeups of street life. A book he made of the Bangladeshi capital, called Dhaka 2, won a major prize.
His mode of work is simple. He saves money for several months, taking on different part-time jobs like taxi driving, then he travels. He lives as frugally as possible, walking and shooting, seeking out invisible connections, following his nose, for as long as the funds last.
He says, I need to catch people’s sadness and happiness, every part of their lives as it shows on their faces. If I don’t get that, I don’t feel I have photographed a place.
He says, Sometimes I need to think about how much I want a photograph compared with whether I’m going to get punched for taking it. But if you have the camera, you must shoot. Photographs are like natural phenomenon. They come from the senses and the outside world and are not like drawings or paintings that come from the mind. Finding them is a sort of spiritual activity.
Yamauchi began shooting in the early years of Japanese street photography. The pioneers of the 1960s created a style based on qualities of grainy, blurry and de-focused. Daido Moriyama, whose early books can sell for thousands of dollars, was one of Yamauchi’s mentors; they shared a home for some time. Yamauchi says, The old guard – Domon Ken, Kimura Ihee, Miki Jun, their ideal was to get published somewhere like Life magazine. They had a very different idea of photography from Moriyama’s crowd – guys like Tomatsu, Araki, Nakahira. But those guys were revolutionary.
He calls Moriyama a genius for the way he sees light and shade.
The big city has vividness, something extra, something glamorous. And mystery – you don’t know what will happen.
Yamauchi now plans to go to London to shoot for a new book. A gallerist has proposed he do it. He has never been there, doesn’t have a place to stay, has little money and doesn’t speak English. But the way he talks about it, these problems seem like minor annoyances. If I have to, he says, I’ll put up in a dormitory at a hostel. He says he thinks he can manage like this for three months. He reckons he can do it for 1500 yen a night. That’s more than I pay in other cities I shoot in, he says.
At Shirahige he likes the hundreds of fluttering carp banners, the work of one man who rigs them every year. Later as we head to the station he says, These downtown districts smell strongly of everyday life. But I don’t want to be carried away by nostalgia. The smell is much thinner in neighbourhoods like Shibuya, Shinjuku and Roppongi. I prefer those places. The big city has vividness, something extra, something glamorous. And mystery – you don’t know what will happen.
I say, What if I could show you parts of these neighbourhoods that have the smell of everyday life – but also glamour? He laughs, shaking his head. He says, I would definitely reconsider.