Takashi Homma: Letting in the Light
Photography, in the end, is about darkness.
Centuries ago, there was an invention that eventually led to the creation of the camera as we know it today, and which also lent the camera its name. This device, the camera obscura (Latin for "dark chamber") is based on a scientific concept: light travels in a straight line. Allowing light into a dark enclosed space through a tiny opening creates a reflected image of the world outside within the chamber. This image is both upside down and inverted – left becomes right and vice versa.
Though this might be difficult to remember in a digital age, the evolution of photography has involved negation, using light to create an image by the darkening of chemicals, and later from a negative in a dark room. For Japanese photographer Takashi Homma, darkness is special in a world that "overflows with light." In his most recent book titled The Narcissistic City, he goes back to the past, to the origins of photography, to explore and question the role of the photographer in image-making.
Using hotel rooms in America and Japan as his camera obscuras, Homma has created a series of shadowy renditions reminiscent of ghost towns rather than the happening, colourful places of our imagination. The artist's photographs have always been characterised by a certain quality of detachedness from their subjects, with a sense of trying to freeze the present before it gets away. In The Narcissistic City, however, his photographs give the impression that he had all the time in the world.
The method is basic. Windows are covered and blackened to create a very dark room, leaving only a tiny opening to let in light. Photographic paper is placed at a suitable distance from the opening, on which the image will materialise. The views thus captured are from the vantage points of various windows in various cities, pieced together like puzzles that literally spill out of the pages. The book, co-designed by Takashi Homma and Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine, contains a number of gatefolds – folded pages that open out to reveal large images.
What do windows see? The answer to this question, upon perusing the book, seems to be: water tanks, skylines, and other windows. Sometimes windows see upside down; sometimes they see with aqua- or rose-tinted glasses, but mostly windows see in black-and-white. They see a reflection rather than seeing directly, but of a real world, an accurate world.
In principle, a camera obscura creates an inverted image on a screen, which can be corrected using an intervening object such as a lens. Using this as a photographic method means that the photographer has far less control over the outcome – though he sets up the elements to create an image, he does not know how this image is going to turn out.
As suggested by the book's title and the closing quote by Hubert Damisch – which is the only text in the book – the city reflects on itself, both metaphorically and literally. Mere reflexiveness is not in itself a negative trait, but rather than a process of meaning-making or exploration of identity; the city in these images seems almost egotistical. The cues given to us by the artist indicate that these are places obsessed with themselves and their machinery.
The book contains no captions that provide hints about place or time, though identifiable elements create a sense of familiarity, and Homma does tamper with some of the photos by superimposing letters and numbers. On the right side of an assembly of images of skyrises are the inverted letters "H PE". Filling in the space creates two contradictory aspects of city life that often coexist – "hope", the promise of the fulfilment of a dream that causes people to migrate to cities; and "hype", the realisation that life in the city is not all that you imagined it would be. Other images contain other messages: "revolution", "sick of goodbys" [sic], and almost teasingly, "words" written across an image of what seem to be street lights.
It's difficult to imagine the places in these pages as containing living, breathing people that give the city vitality. But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the artist intends for us to see contemporary cities as they really are, or can be for many – isolating, detached, monochrome, replaceable – as he ponders what it means to be a city.
Several photographs feature windows as rows and grids of impersonal eyes viewing the "city-machine". But Homma, who has written on "Windowology" – research into the role of windows in daily life – and on windows in photography, knows that there's more to windows. Windows are about connection, and they link us by what we have in common; we all let in the same light, air, and sky.
In The Narcissistic City, windows are covered. But as with many things, sometimes a little pinprick of light is enough to pierce the darkness and show us what is outside. This book is Homma's quiet ode to the diversity yet monotony of cityscapes, and also to slow photography – waiting for the light to create details in an age where slowness is as passé as sitting by a window to watch the world drift by.
The Narcissistic City by Takashi Homma is published by MACK.
Words Kriti Bajaj