Minoru Uehara. Not Only Beautiful

Minoru Uehara's work explores his desire to capture the oft-overlooked beauty in the familiar of everyday life. We caught up with the photographer at our artspace to talk about his recent exhibition and popular portrayals of Okinawa in commercial photography.

Could you share with us your image of the Okinawa that you experienced as a youth?  

Minoru Uehara
I was born in Yonabaru but later moved to the city of Urasoe. Yonabaru is a village relatively untouched by time. However, Urasoe is much closer to U.S military bases; it’s Americanized and very different from my image of an authentic Okinawa.

Cotonoha Is the scenery of Yonabaru reflected in your work?

Minoru Uehara I've never consciously introduced Okinawan imagery as a subject in my photography. My interest lies in familiar objects, which for me, happens to be in Okinawa.

Cotonoha What are some of your influences?  

Minoru Uehara
While a student in high school, I visited the home of a schoolmate where I saw a portrait of him with other children from the neighborhood, some of whom were American. That photograph was fantastic. And, that impression continues to stay with me.

Many years later, in 2011, I visited the Tate Modern in London and saw the impressive work of Diane Arbus. Inspired by what I saw, I returned to Okinawa and took up photography in earnest.

Cotonoha How did you choose the concept for your last exhibition?

Minoru Uehara The name of that show was Basanai, which is the Okinawan word for banana. When I decided to have that exhibition, I didn't have a concept in mind. Then while looking through my collection of photographs, I noticed that an overwhelming number of them portrayed bananas.

I'm naturally appreciative of bananas. The lines and shapes of the plants are beautiful, and their leaves look fabulous when swaying in the wind. There's one in my garden which I watch from my window. I even eat its fruit. The concept of the banana just seemed perfect for my show.

How did the public receive it?

Minoru Uehara People of all ages, from the young to the elderly, visited the show, and many of them said that they were impressed with the concept and overall presentation. Often, visitors were curious to know why I took photographs of something so ordinary as bananas, and even a few of them jokingly remarked that I was strange. Such appreciation by so many people made the show a huge success.

Cotonoha What are your feelings about the portrayal of Okinawa in commercial travel photography?

Minoru Uehara
I think travel photography is beautiful. But only beautiful. That's all. I once worked at a resort hotel. After seeing all those travel photographs, I was determined not to photograph scenes of beautiful seas and beautiful skies: the type of imagery tourists would expect to see when visiting Okinawa. I'm uncomfortable with such sweet and pleasant images.

Cotonoha You mentioned that travel photography is "only beautiful."  Could you share with us your concept of beauty?

Minoru Uehara
Maybe I should have said that it has only exhilarating beauty. There are two types of beauty: one is exhilarating, and the other is tranquil. Photographs in travel magazines are in color, so they have a beauty that makes the heart race. Black and white photographs are tranquil. The lack of color reveals the innately pristine beauty of my subjects. To me, black and white photographs are calming and have a lasting beauty.

Would you say that your work portrays the aesthetically imperfect yet profound beauty that exists in daily life?

Minoru Uehara
Yes, I would. In fact, I view all my subjects the same way I view people. When I photograph them, I’m not taking scenic landscape photography — I’m taking portraits.

Daryl Mitchell | Naoko Uchima
Daryl Mitchell
Satoru Yoshikawa