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Toshio Shibata in Tokyo

26 October, 2010

When I was a curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the first photograph I bought for the museum was a landscape by Toshio Shibata. So when I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago it was a special treat to visit Shibata in his studio. He’s a warm and gentle man with an easy sense of humor, and it was great to catch up with him. We looked at pictures in the afternoon and swung by the Tokyo Met for an opening afterwards. The Tokyo Met is in a former brewery so we were inspired to go to a  German/Australian-themed (not a typo) Japanese pub called ‘Beer Station.’

Shibata made a name for himself as a black and white photographer, but in the last 5 years or so he’s been working mostly in color. It’s always interesting when a photographer moves into color for the first time and the recent works have a different feel. The subject matter hasn’t changed – he still features dams, erosion control barriers, retaining walls, and artificial lakes and waterfalls. In black and white these became abstract – through Shibata’s lens, shot from above, the patterns of engineering works in Japan look like origami. In color the same sort of subject matter has a more emotional feeling. There is more of a sense of atmosphere, the weather, of actually being in a place. I still love the black and white work, but the color material is exciting.

At the same time he has been exploring these new directions, Shibata has also been revisiting his early work. His book “Still in the Night” is stunning – it’s a collection of night views he made in the eighties. In contrast to the large-scale prints he has been making lately, most of the “Still” pictures are relatively small. A different feeling again, but beautiful like the rest.

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