I came to Small Myths entirely unfamiliar with Mikiko Hara’s work, but I was immediately taken by the beauty of her images, which lingered in my head for months after encountering them. A functional book design (lustre paper, paperback cover, manageable size) guarantees that the focus remains on the work, not on the empty pyrotechnics that materiality can turn into. Consequently, Hara’s personal vision full of authenticity and intimacy is established throughout a lively sequence of pictures, regardless of whether they were taken in her living room or the streets of Japan.
Many of these are close-ups, allowing us to dwell on textures and colours through a controlled palette. Hara’s interest in the expressiveness of colour involves presenting the pictures with a yellow or cyan cast that gives them a vintage look from the nineties, but in reality, the book contains work made between 1996 and 2021. Selecting pictures from such an extensive archive could have resulted in a shapeless medley, but this selection by Chose Commune’s editor Cécile Sayuri Poimboeuf-Koizumi showcases Hara’s meticulous ability to capture a wide range of scenes from everyday life. Another common thread in the pictures – laid out large on the page to better appreciate their details – is a sense of tension, but the modest kind that either veers into moments of happiness (a boy about to break the yolk of an egg with a spoon) or mild distress (a kid lying face down on a tatami with white ointment on his body).
Another great picture depicts a pear atop a book on a bench, slightly overexposed by light beams filtering through an off-screen window. A piece of decorated roll paper coming from the back wall amplifies the composition’s depth. This description doesn’t do justice to the visual playfulness of the pear’s tones or the melancholy of that hanging bookmark and the rest of the elements that come together to stimulate an appreciation for domestic marvel. That the picture doesn’t have a clear message is precisely what makes this kind of image-making satisfying but also so challenging to vindicate in a culture that demands an identifiable agenda, position, or role for art. As with much ‘lyrical documentary,’ the images in Small Myths lack such programmatic aims, settling to record with great skill how Hara sees and experiences life.
Small Myths is a fascinating catalogue of tiny gestures that comprise the building blocks of human relations.
Some of these pictures may look easy to spot and simple to make, like that of a young woman facing away from the camera while walking towards it, but a longer engagement with them will reveal itself to be a good time investment. Her multicoloured outfit – an exercise in controlled pretentiousness – makes her stand out from the neutral colours of the environment. However, the real pleasure lies in deciphering the purpose of the image. Is it about fashion, youth, or colour? Or is it perhaps trying to capture the pulse of the present? A kind of measure of the quality of these photographs is that most of them are complex visual propositions irreducible to a single aim.
Yet, a ‘lyrical’ approach is a double-edged sword that often produces images that, while aesthetically accomplished, don’t breach the chasm of banality that allows for more complex interpretations. Deciding which side these pictures fall into will depend on individual taste, but what’s certain is that the process of making (or attempting to make) a complex image from real life cannot be reduced to a formula. The sway between form and content is critical here because Hara’s perceptive photographs fall on a similar register to Rinko Kawauchi’s early work, which tends to be divisive. I hope this similarity doesn’t detract people from engaging with Small Myths, and I should stress that even if Hara’s photographs fit within a recognizable style of Japanese photography, viewers don’t need to come to this book with any particular knowledge or fetish to enjoy it.
Time after time, Hara undertakes the challenge of framing what affects her so that others may respond affectively in return, tackling even those strange moods that feel impossible to capture photographically.
Small Myths is a fascinating catalogue of tiny gestures that comprise the building blocks of human relations: people holding hands, embracing, staring into someone’s eyes. Hara’s investment in communicating emotion is strengthened by the inclusion of three short texts (featured in Japanese, English, and French). The most significant of these recounts how Hara’s family used a small plot with a cherry tree as a playground and allotment. A dispute between neighbours left the place in a state of disarray, and the herbicides used to control the weeds eventually killed the cherry tree. Hara’s husband was able to visit the plot before dying of cancer, making it extra memorable for her. The anecdote, written in a factual manner, echoes the emotional honesty of the photographs, which capture the precarious balance of everyday life. Time after time, Hara undertakes the challenge of framing what affects her so that others may respond affectively in return, tackling even those strange moods that feel impossible to capture photographically.