I’m often put off by the cliquey culture around Japanese photobooks, but there was something hypnotizing about the cover picture in Toshio Shibata’s Day for Night of hundreds of stacked Pepsi Cola crates illuminated by the fervent light of dusk. Simply put, it made me want to see more, which is as good a job as a cover can do. I liked the picture so much that I didn’t realize I already knew Shibata’s work. That’s because the Pepsi image is very different from his trademark subjects: the bridges, roads, dams, and sewage systems that make life in cities possible. Though it’s not divided into chapters, Day for Night is essentially two books in one. The first section features urban landscapes at night, while the second focuses on the large-scale infrastructures mentioned above. As it turns out, this is the second book by an American publisher that gathers Shibata’s night pictures, but its prohibitive cost (£150) had kept it off my radar. This other book may seem irrelevant here, but it relates to the politics and economics of publishing and the fetishization of certain authors, both of which highlight the efforts of publishers that produce more affordable photobooks.
Some viewers may respond equally to both sets of pictures in Day for Night, but I felt a closer affinity towards the nightscapes. Whilst their only common denominator lies in Shibata’s use of artificial lighting as a compositional element, succumbing to their charm is easy. The absence of people leaves us ample room to project almost anything onto them. However, their indeterminacy also derives from the indiscriminate variety of architectural structures and non-spaces documented. This set of pictures comes across as atmospheric rather than critical, which, for me, translated into a sense of nostalgia for a pre-Internet world and its related temptation to think of life in the past as simpler.
Since change happens incrementally and slowly, it is sometimes only through photographs that we can take stock of the different stages of our lives.
Specific elements on view, like the handful of boxy cars or the even boxier public phones, speak of our tendency to disregard the look of the present. Since change happens incrementally and slowly, it is sometimes only through photographs that we can take stock of the different stages of our lives. The book’s title, a nod to Truffaut’s classic, encourages us to imagine these night scenes as potential locations for a genre film (which stresses photography’s ability to bestow cinematic vibes onto ordinary places). It’s simple to imagine our protagonist finishing their shift in the office with the pendant ceiling lamps, rambling through the streets before taking a bus to the only cafeteria still open in the neighbourhood.
The second section takes us from the city to the countryside via images of tunnels and highways. These scenes show fewer identifiable cultural markers or at least in less apparent ways. Shibata began to document these engineering developments when he returned to a reconstructed Japan in the late 70s after studying in Ghent. This section’s subtext does not depend on your ability to read Japanese, lending itself more readily to broader interpretations of that nation’s obsession with progress. My concern is that the beauty of these large-scale projects can make them come across as unquestionable or, worse, neutral. To counteract this possible effect, it might be worth imagining what similar interventions to natural environments might have looked like around that time in other countries (the pictures in the book were made between 1980-88). Such a thought experiment might put into perspective how the appealing visual patterns of these infrastructures evidence Japan’s hyperrational worldview. From there, we can infer the relationship between politics and economic growth that made such advancements possible.
Unlike Araki, Moriyama, and the other usual suspects who rely on flamboyancy to capture the viewer’s attention, Shibata’s images skip the brashness on their path to descriptive enlightenment.
Edited, sequenced, and designed by Clint Woodside, the mind behind Deadbeat Club, Day for Night primarily comprises unpublished photographs from the artist’s vast archive. While Shibata has a well-established career, this book will serve as an excellent introduction to a younger generation to a range of his contemplative work. Unlike Araki, Moriyama, and the other usual suspects who rely on flamboyancy to capture the viewer’s attention, Shibata’s images skip the brashness on their path to descriptive enlightenment. In a short Aperture article entitled ‘Landscapes of Form’ issued in the now-distant fall of 1991, Shibata succinctly described his approach to the medium: “What makes photography appealing is its directness and its feeling of exploration; what you might call an openness to the outside world and a sense of the mystery of discovery.” Shibata frames the world in ways that facilitate deliberations about time and the values embedded in everyday spaces, which makes studying his visual determination immensely rewarding. “What a single photograph is ultimately capable of presenting is the stance and reaction of the photographer confronted with his subject—an emotion, an intention, a judgment,” Shibata notes. In an age when artists defer voicing their judgment for fear of being publicly shamed, it’s comforting to know that photographers like Shibata understand that making an assertive visual statement entails combining emotion and rationality in the right proportion.