‘More than any other city, Tokyo demonstrates that ‘city’ is a verb and not a noun.’ – Toshiko Mori
Few cities on earth intrigue and enthrall quite like Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, where ultra-modernity and tradition synthesize. A place that has inspired a wealth of extraordinary art, not least, some of the most iconic and influential ‘street photography’ in existence, and continues to incite the throngs of creative practitioners who walk its hallowed streets today.
1. Pia Riverola – Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, 2019
“My creative process is very intuitive, especially if I’m shooting on the street or on a trip, the usual rule is to bring the camera almost always, and things happen”
The Eiffel Tower and Paris; Big Ben and London: Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya crossing has become an unmistakable emblem of the city in a manner usually reserved for more palatial constructions. Beautifully captured by Pia Riverola, whose pastel-hued images induce wanderlust in a manner matched by few of her contemporaries, the world’s busiest crossing is often seen to embody Tokyo’s very essence, the modernity, and intense energy that makes it unique.
2. Tatsuo Suzuki – Untitled
“I don’t often compose a shot and wait for the right moment to take it. The beauty of street photography is capturing an image that I can’t even imagine. I tend to release the shutter when my senses synchronize with the scene in the city. It’s mostly a matter of sensory perception.”
Judge of The Independent Photographer’s 2022 Black and White Photography Award, Tatsuo Suzuki is a Japanese street photographer whose deeply atmospheric images display the unique power of monochrome. His absorbing oeuvre pays tribute to the giants of Japanese street photography (most notably, Daido Moriyama and his fellow members of the Provoke movement) whilst retaining his own unique sensibilities, exemplified perfectly in this profoundly captivating portrait, which resonates with the same brooding intensity that characterizes all of his work.
3. Simon Urwin – “Sento Bather” Tokyo, Japan
Simon Urwin’s striking portrait depicts a bather in one of Tokyo’s traditional ‘Sentos’. Popular within Japan’s major cities, these communal bathhouses date back over four centuries, though rose to prominence during the communal housing boom of the post-war era (owing to the lack of running water in such buildings), whilst today they offer visitors, a capacious and relaxing alternative to their own, often, cramped dwellings.
Intimate and absorbing, the subject appears at ease despite his nudity, whilst the frescoed backdrop, dominated by the icon that is Mount Fuji, testifies to the profound importance of nature within Japanese culture.
4. Kineo Kuwabara – A girl with an umbrella passing a newspaper vendor, Yarakucho, Tokyo, 1936
Though it is those now-iconic figures who emerged in the decades following the second world war who are credited with shaping Japan’s photographic landscape, there are a select few earlier practitioners who likewise, deserve recognition.
One such example is Kineo Kuwabara. Completely self-taught, he was born in Tokyo in 1913 and spent the formative photographic years capturing quotidian life on the streets of his home city, purely for his own pleasure. His images reveal an artistic and insightful gaze to rival that of some of his better-known contemporaries and represent somewhat of a rarity when compared with post-war iterations.
5. Daidō Moriyama – Tokyo, 1978
“For me, photographs are taken in the eye before you’ve even thought what they mean. That’s the reality I’m interested in capturing.”
Undoubtedly one of the medium’s most important living figures, Daido Moriyama is best known for the subversive, granular portrayals of his homeland he captured during the 1960s and 70s which palpably convey the often stygian essence of the subject matter and set the foundation for a generation of Japanese photographers who followed.
A member of the influential Provoke movement whose subversive approach helped shape the landscape of contemporary street photography, Moriyama is most identified with his depictions of Tokyo 1960s and 70s, exemplified archetypically in this iconic photograph which typifies the subversive style for which he is renowned.
6. Ron Cooper – Sumo training facility in Tokyo, Japan
Sumo is a sport with a long and proud history, one dating back more than 4 centuries to Japan’s Edo period. Rich in ritual, spectacle, and tradition, Rikishis (wrestlers) must undergo a rigorous training program in order to reach competition level, with junior practitioners expected to carry out a myriad of chores.
Ron Cooper’s image captures a junior Rikishi at a Sumo training facility in central Tokyo as he meticulously sweeps the ring. Beautifully framed, and characterized by a masterful appreciation of light and form, it is a stunning piece of visual storytelling that articulately conveys the deep reverence the subject has for his craft: his unwavering dedication and respect.
7. Stephanie Jung – ‘Tokyo Night’
Stephanie Jung’s image beautifully captures the unique freneticism of the Japanese capital. Her clever framing and creative use of multiple exposures transcribe the kaleidoscopic mosaic of cars, people, and neon lights, into a powerful and captivating rendering that permeates with a dream-like intensity that will resonate with anyone who has visited the city.
8. Ken Domon – Traffic policeman in Ginza, Tokyo 1946
One of the most important photographers of his time, Ken Domon was a pioneer of realism, best known for his candid depictions of everyday life in post-war Japan.
Through Domon’s insightful gaze we see a nation in the midst of dramatic social and economic change, exemplified in this portrayal of a US Military Policeman on the streets of Tokyo. Sensitive, and unwaveringly forthright, his photographs would have a significant influence on the generation of Japanese photographers who succeeded him, whilst today they stand as fascinating vernacular touchstones of the time.
9. Oleg Tolstoy – Untitled, from the series ‘Who’s Driving Tokyo?’
“I was intrigued by these professionals who spend most of their days in silence, despite often being sat less than a meter from another human being.”
‘Who’s Driving Tokyo?’, the portraiture series by London-based photographer Oleg Tolstoy, explores the unique formality of taxi journeys in the Japanese capital. In contrast to his home city and many others (such as NYC), where casual conversation between driver and passenger is the norm, in Tokyo, the experience is considerably more reserved, with interactions normally kept solely to the essential.
This candid image captures the driver beautifully; his lucid face emerging from a kaleidoscopic pool of neon, a striking picture of introspection. Like many great portraits, it galvanizes our curiosity and provokes questions: What is he thinking? How is he feeling? Melancholic, lonely, wistful perhaps?
A thoughtful and insightful image, it encapsulates the paradox that is the isolation of urban life, where one can be surrounded by thousands of others, yet still feel isolated and alone.
10. Keigo Nakamura – Untitled, Tokyo
Japanese photographer Keigo Nakamura creates deeply atmospheric monochrome renderings that are invariably characterized by an intriguing, cinematic quality, and display considerable artistry and skill.
Brooding and profoundly captivating, this candid image evokes the work of cinematographer John Alton (a giant of film noir), whilst also bearing the influence of the greats of Japanese street photography, it stands as an excellent example of monochrome’s incredible potential.
All images © their respective owners