Noh photography – perspectives on perfection

From January 16th to the 22nd at the Tokyo portrait gallery, close to Yotsuya station, members of the Noh Theatre Photographers Association 能楽写真協会 will exhibit pictures collected under the theme ‘Heike zanshō’ 平家残照, or ‘Afterglow of the Heike’. The title refers both to the Taira clan (aka Heike) and to the Heike monogatari, the warrior epic describing the rise and fall of the Heike, and the struggle with the rival Minamoto clan (aka Genji). The photographs portray scenes from the many plays featuring characters (mostly, but not only, warriors) from the Heike monogatari appearing in Noh plays such as MichimoriYashima, or Hashi Benkei.


What about Noh photography? Just yesterday I was having a twitter conversation with a young Noh professional and a young Noh amateur on the role of ‘creativity’ in traditional performing arts. Noh photography pretty much follows the ‘rules of tradition’. Since Noh photographers are, for better or for worse, part of the Noh establishment, hence they are subject to its rules. Naturally, in order to take photos of a Noh performance it is necessary to get a permission from the performer, who is in turn responsible for the photographer’s presence in the theatre. Usually there is an agreement between the two parts, with the photographer complying with the wish of the actors in order to be allowed to take pictures. This does not necessarily mean that the performer is forcing on the photographer, simply because in most cases the photographer shares the same aesthetic taste of the actor, that is, an aesthetic that is inscribed in tradition. Let me elaborate this.

Like all traditional arts, Noh dance is based on sequences of kata, or ‘choreography clusters’ prescribed by tradition, which are transmitted from teacher to pupil, and reproduced on stage. Kata are combinations of movements that have a beginning, a development, and a conclusion, and aesthetic value is attached to how beautifully the kata is executed. Since a kata is a movement, its beauty depends on various kinetic factors – how to capture this in a photo? Oftentimes Noh photographers (especially those belonging to the association I am referring to in this post) tend to shoot pictures of a static instant within the kata (often the conclusion) where the actor freezes, sometimes only for a brief instant, on a certain pose – something that kabuki has developed further in mie techniques. Traditionally, Noh photos are shots of ‘still’ kata, and may result in a rather static effect. (See an excellent exception). Since ‘professional’ Noh photographers know the plays very well, they wait for the ‘highlight’ of a scene and then shoot. Obviously actors are aware of this, and make sure to keep the pose long enough for photographers to catch it. I’m not suggesting that actors act for the photographers, but I am pretty sure there is awareness of that, too.

Imperfect gestures: an instant in the sequence of the ‘tobi-hanza’ jump kata. (Photo: Fabio Massimo Fioravanti)

I am reflecting on Fabio Massimo Fioravanti‘s pictures of Udaka-sensei he took during his trips to Japan in the past two years. Massimo is not a ‘Noh photographer’ per se, meaning that 1) he was not educated in Japan, 2) he is not a Noh specialist. This provides him with a very different perspective of the stage, which of course is very interesting. Many of his pictures lack the static composition of traditional Noh photography, resulting in a ‘rougher’ yet ‘true-to-life’ effect, something close to what you can see in my picture above. During the editing process of the photo book he is about to publish, we have skimmed through hundreds of pictures, confronting his preferences with those, more used to traditional Noh photography, of Udaka-sensei himself. The result is a compromise between Massimo’s point of view, generally disregarding the perfection of kata, but looking for dynamism and intensity of expression of the overall frame, and Udaka-sensei’s point of view, more concerned with the photo’s capacity to reproduce his idea of formal perfection of his acting.

I will make sure to post more about Massimo’s forthcoming book as well as about Noh photography in general (I did a bit already here). There’s a lot more to say!

Selfish photography

I got myself a new camera and today I happened to go to a traditional performing art recital. I realized that I spent more time playing with my camera than actually watching the performances. I was in good company: many people around me were doing the same thing. Reflecting on what I was doing I realized that my pleasure was self contained in the action of taking picture. As soon as a performer stroke a pose, I would take a picture of him or her, only to direct my gaze at the LCD screen after that, therefore not watching the rest of the performance. It felt a little bit like ‘stealing’, or ‘taking advantage’ of them. I’m sure this is a ethical issue professional photographers often encounter…

However, as occasional photographer I could not help thinking that the value of my photographs is essentially personal. Most of my pictures will stay in my hard drive and no one will ever see them. I won’t either sell them or show them. The value of my action ends with the action itself. As a spectator, I wasn’t a very good spectator. I was more interested in pictures than in performances, and it is now clear that my photographing was selfish.

I don’t want to moralise here, but reflect: attending a performance is one thing, taking pictures of it is an entirely different thing! Or maybe the reason why I don’t feel happy about this is because maybe 50 other people around me were doing the same. And I know how this looks like when you are on stage.

Digital cameras are everywhere nowadays (as I write I could take pictures with at least 3 objects within 50cm from where I sit). They should be handled with care. Care is the right word. We should think twice before taking useless pictures, they pollute the digital and also the analog ecosystems.


Emotional recorder: on photographing Noh performance

[This is] what you see when you close your eyes

… says this poster I noticed in the lobby of the Dentogeino Kaikan in Otsu (Shiga pref.) next to Miidera. A woman closes her eyes and remembers an instant from the Noh Izutsu (The Stone-Well). The poster very delicately warns the audience that it is prohibited to take pictures or film in the Noh theatre. I think this this a very well thought campaign, not only because of its gentleness but also because of the depth of its message.


“Emotion” lives on in the memories written on your heart

Leaving aside those who might have an economic or other interest in recording a performance (be it Noh or something else) I am always impressed by the number of people who feel the urge of taking out a camera and filming or taking pictures of whatever work of art they are watching. I was at the British Museum last year and I remember a group of Italian tourists who took pictures of every single piece in the Japanese section – I can assure you, they were not art researchers. Here in Japan, where taking pictures is a stereotypical feature of the Japanese prototype, photographing anything at hand is the norm. And now we have smartphones. Going to an open air-performance is difficult even for me (I’m 180cm tall) because you have to watch the stage through a thick forest of raised arms holding coloured mobiles with Kitty straps and such. The habit of taking pictures of the stage does not only apply to open-air performances, where it is often allowed, but also to indoor performances, where it is clearly prohibited. You hear digital shutters shut, see flashes flash. It is terribly disturbing for the audience, let alone for the performers on stage.

But there’s more beyond the merely physical nuisance. Whenever I see some ojisan (old geezer) with a checkered shirt, a fishing vest and a baseball hat taking a picture of the Noh stage I wonder what they will do with it. Will they watch it before sleeping? Will they print it out at the convenience store? Will they send it to their pals? I don’t know. Or maybe I know: they won’t do anything with it. They just take the picture for the sake of taking it. They satisfy an idiotic compulsiveness. Because no one can convince me that after watching a Noh, and filming it, you go home and watch it again.

There is simply no point in filming what you are actually experiencing live and I won’t spend words explaining the obvious (that performance is an act perceived through a number of senses, and that retains a quality of ‘liveness’ that cannot be reproduced). I think it is enough to think of what you actually do with what you have recorded. Think about it.

Shimai pictures – Yashima

I rarely publish pictures of myself on stage. Today I will make an exception as I received some great shots from Massimo Fioravanti, a very talented Italian photographer who has been following Udaka-sensei the past few months, taking pictures of performances and training sessions. Massimo has been working on various projects in Japan. Most notably, he published a photography book on Zuigan-ji in Matsushima, which has been severely damaged by the tsunami, and photographed the costumes collection of the Kongo family on the occasion of the 1989 exhibition at the Sforza Castle in Milan, published in a luscious volume.

In November 2012 Massimo came to Matsuyama where Sensei performed Sesshoseki (nyotai ‘female’ version). Before the performance there was a recital to which various members of the International Noh Institute took part with su-utai chant and shimai dances I did Yashima, which I have already blogged about here and here. Here are a couple of pictures that Massimo has kindly sent me.

Yashima 1
… 海山一同に震動して…

For those new to Noh, a shimai is a short excerpt of a play, something like an aria in opera. Shimai dances are studied independently from the full Noh, and are often performed as complement of a programme featuring full plays. Masks and costumes are not used, but formal montsuki (a plain black or white silk kimono) and hakama – the equivalent of a formal Western suit. There is no hayashi orchestra playing, only a small chorus of four sitting in the back of the stage. A shimai is the adaptation of the dance that would be performed in the full Noh, so movements are slightly different, and props are rarely used. In the case of Yashima the shite holds a sword, here substituted by the fan – the open fan in my left hand is a shield (this is the way it is portrayed in the Noh, too).

Yashima 2
… 打ち合い刺し違ふる…

Publishing pictures of Noh performances is not easy because of copyright issues. I will try and post more pictures of me – if I have decent ones – in the future. Massimo Fioravanti has been taking some amazing pictures of Udaka-sensei’s performances during the past few months and he is planning to hold an exhibition (in Venice and in Rome) and hopefully to publish a catalogue afterwards, which I hope will be available internationally.