by Luka Radek | Follow

Memories of mermaids pervade Japan’s culture. Fascinating female pearl free divers known as AMA, once a fixed part of coastal communities, now must leave a road they have followed for over two thou-sand years away from the self-sufficiency of the sea. Their story, documented by Radek within this work, like fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. How appropriate it is that the Japanese should have admired these women for so long, beneath the surface and all shadow, their clear white skin always moderated in the enveloping darkness - for an appreciation of shadows have had a vast, almost boundless influence on Japanese culture.

Traditionally Japanese aesthetics find it hard to be at home with things that glitter. Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that a Japanese temple is perfection. In these buildings a roof of heavy tiles is first laid out, and in the deep, spacious shadows created by the eaves the rest of the struc-ture is built. Nor is this true only of temples; in the palaces of nobles and the houses of the common people, cavernous darkness spread over all beneath the roof’s edge. The Japanese put together their temples, their tea rooms and their houses in the pale light of shadows; capturing a quality of beauty which grows from the reality of life, guiding shadows towards beauty’s ends.

It is the Orient’s enjoyment of the aged elegance of objects which this body of work begins to replicate; a choice of set that tarnishes the page through dark surfaces, creating a smokey patina which presses like fog upon the page. The setting of these image reflecting the profound and sombre dignity of the women of the sea. The floor, like a lump of seabed stone with its faintly muddy light, melting dimly, dully back, deeper and deeper into the ocean. The backdrops shadowy surface made graver by a certain cloudiness, the accumulation of the Ama’s long past as what lies within the darkness of the sea one cannot distinguish, only the gentle movements of liquid creating a moment of mystery with these women. A moment of trace with the model. Staged used of shadows across the photos’ subject reflects the aesthetic reality of Ama women, famous for traditionally only wearing an exposing white loincloth yet living out much of their lives covered by a cloak of sea. The Ama’s attire is in stark contrast to the reality of other Japanese women of the past whose bodies were always shielded in severe and sombre clothing, their faces the only sign of their existence. The essence of this editorial, with its transition between darkness and the model’s modest flesh, creates a singularly strong impression and captures an old ideal of beauty, disappeared from eve-ryday life in Japan. Today the only trace of it is far from down town Tokyo, found in the delicate glow and dim shadows of an ancient teahouse where the women are an object of beauty inseparable from darkness – like lacquerware decorated in gold or mother-of-pearl.

You will notice that neutral colours cross these photos. The hues may differ from photo to photo, but the degree of difference is ever so slight; even those in black and white seem to offer not so much as a difference in colour as in shade. From these delicate differences the shadows of each shoot take on a tinge peculiarly of their own. The hue of clothing giving a nod to Noh theatre, as uniquely traditional to Japanese culture as the complexion its costumes create for Japanese skin – brownish with a flush of red. As would be on the stage, so here the model’s face is sans make-up, set off to such an advantage with subdued greens and browns, clothes of pure white and unpatterned materials.
Just as if the Noh were to be lit by modern flood lamps, so too would the photograph’s subject’s sense of beauty vanish under the harsh glare of heavy studio lights or if shot through the illuminated lens of a digital camera. The progressive photographer’s quest for brightness may never cease, sparing no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow, but with scarce light there is a particular beauty discovered in darkness. And thus - as in Noh theatre sets- the older the structure the better, so too the antiquity of film photography used for these photos creates the proper place for the model’s performance, on a stage left shrouded in darkness.
The use of film photography mirrors the fate of many traditional Japanese customs, sinking into the shadows. A vogue for neon signs now succumbs Japan, with the evils of excessive illumination extrava gantly lighting the country’s teahouses, temples, restaurants and inns. And so the rooms are devoid of shadows, sending forth a blinding blaze. A world of shadows and sea women lost to the pace of progress, called back briefly throughout these pages.

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Saturday, February 15, 2020