Greg Girard: Tokyo-Yokosuka 1976-1983
At the Monte Clark Gallery until May 4
Greg Girard’s photographs of Asian cityscapes, notably shot in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Hanoi, have firmly established his reputation, both locally and internationally. During the 30-year period the Vancouver photographer spent in Asia, he mostly supported himself as a freelance magazine photographer. His true creative vision, however, has been realized through his self-driven book projects, some of them containing striking images of populous cities undergoing rapid redevelopment.
Lesser known are the photos Girard took as a young man while living for extended periods in Tokyo. These works, which demonstrate his developing technical and compositional skills, are featured in the newly launched book Tokyo-Yokosuka 1976-1983, published by the Magenta Foundation. Some of the images, both colour and black-and-white, are also on view at the Monte Clark Gallery, and reveal Girard’s fascination with what Christopher Phillips describes in the book’s foreword as Tokyo’s “seamy nightlife districts”. Subjects include bars, clubs, and love hotels, many of them shot from the street. As seen in Night, Kabukicho, they show an interest not only in the social margins of the city, but also in the ways in which artificial lighting casts nighttime scenes in lurid hues of green, blue, or yellow.
It appears that Girard was also interested in the huge presence of United States military bases in Japan, one of them being in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo. In Club Apollo, Yokosuka, English-language signage gives ample evidence of a “notorious” nightlife district catering to the Yanks: “Welcome—Big Tits”, “Girls Can Get So Excited and Lustful”. Such images are conspicuously contrasted with those of Japanese modesty, orderliness, and decorum: an elevator operator in a big Tokyo department store and a platform conductor in a train station, both wearing white gloves and tidy uniforms.
Shots of unhappy-looking Japanese men smoking and drinking in bars, and a naked young Japanese woman kneeling on a bed and gazing into a small viewfinder, epitomize an uncomfortable element of voyeurism in some of the photographs here. (There is a self-reflective but still somewhat creepy irony at work in the image of the naked woman: a viewer who is also being viewed.) It’s an aspect of the work that is difficult to reconcile with contemporary thinking about otherness, objectification, and the male gaze. Perhaps the voyeurism relates to Girard’s relative naiveté at the time, to a youthful, beat-culture fascination with raw, seedy, and sexualized scenes. The good news is that he outgrew these preoccupations to focus, instead, on the impacts of economic globalization and unfettered urban development, subjects that concern us all.