UrbanWeird Photography
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Photo Sketchbook

Thoughts on general photography and personal photographic process.


Below is the main essay in my latest issue of UrbanWeird Photo (Spring 2016, #005 "Tokyo Meditative) on the word familiar to us photographers – juxtaposition.

One term that is used quite a bit in photography is ‘juxtaposition’; to the point that it has become a bit cliché to use it. Dictionary.com defines “juxtaposition” as “an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.” However, if you take a quick look in the thesaurus section of the site, you do not get another word that really expresses this definition in full, particularly regarding the latter part – ‘especially for comparison or contrast’. I thought that rather strange. The main synonyms are words like ‘nearness’, ‘proximity’, and ‘contact’; words that are more synonyms to the first part of the definition. Or have to use “contrast” or its synonyms, which does not give an immediate (though perhaps implied) sense of placed together. So, I guess there is a reason that we use ‘juxtaposition’ so much. There is really no other single word to use.

The reason I am talking about ‘juxtaposition’ is because it is related to the theme of this issue (Spring 2016). The temples and shrines (and anything else old and traditional) of Tokyo are often ‘juxtaposed’ with the über-modern architecture and technology permeating the megalopolis. I have a ready example of this I recently experienced.

I took an inner-city train to Shinagawa station to meet up with a photographer client to take her around certain parts of the city for my UrbanWeird Photo Explorations. Her hotel was just across the street from the station. I arrived a few minutes early just to wonder around and take some photos on my own beforehand. I decided to walk along the street directly across from the busy station. The ‘thinka thunka’ of the trains pulling in and out of the station, the swishing and honking of the busy morning traffic on the street, and mumbling and footstep on hard pavement of commuters being sucked in or expelled from the station surrounded me in a bubble of city sound.

I noticed a torii (the traditional gateway signifying the entrance to a Shinto shrine) peeking out from the busy street. I walked past it and saw a small shrine tucked between two rather dull dilapidated low-rise office buildings and another behind. The complex consisted of one wooden building housing whatever deity the shrine was dedicated to and supporting structures such as the little pavilion containing a fountain and ladles to cleanse your hands and mouth before going up the steps to pray to the shrine’s deity and a small residence for the shrines caretaker/priest. The width and length of the entire complex could not have been more than maybe 10-15 meters.

I did not walk into the ‘grounds’ right away because someone was praying and I did not want to disturb her (as I said, the space was not very big). There was also, which is common at shrines and temples, a fat content shrine cat grooming itself on the steps of the main building next to the praying woman. I had it in my mind to get an image of the shrine and its four-legged inhabitant.

However, I wanted to give the woman time to pray in peace and decided to keep on walking down the busy street and to return a few minutes later. When I returned, the woman was gone, probably on her way to her job, and the cat was also finishing up his/her grooming and lazily descending the steps to start his/her morning adventures in the tiny oasis of tranquility. Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of the photogenic feline, but I did get this shot of the tiny empty shrine in the midst of the hustle and bustle of The City.

Because of this mingling of modern and traditional and other contrasting entities, Tokyo is the city of juxtaposition.

Juxta Shrine

Brian Wood-KoiwaComment