The starkest contrast on view at the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 can be found at the Méjan, one floor below the yellow-tinted exhibition of Tkachenko’s white photographs. It’s not a clash between two photographic styles, but a radical opposition between two ethos, two ways of relating to the photographed subject and therefore to the world –two philosophical standpoints, in fact. The subject at hand is Butoh, the Japanese danse –a rebel, introspective, radical and subversive art form– created by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno at the end of the 1950s.
I won’t argue that William Klein is clueless about Butoh: he became aware of it in 1961, when he met Butoh dancers in Tokyo, then photographed them in the streets –hence the series currently in Arles. The whole shoot is textbook Klein, with all his tricks and quirks: he deals with the dancers the same way he would with any street performer in any city, that is to say with the same eye for composition and the same distance. Klein is doing his job, with the necessary amount of curiosity, but not much more than that. The urban setting makes the grey cobblestone stand out, and it heightens the contrast between the half-naked performers and the salarymen in the background wearing suits and ties, wondering what’s going on. All these photographs function in the photograph+model paradigm, each protagonist being aware of his/her own position, acting within an inescapable power play where one dances for the other’s lens while the other decides everything –place, frame, angle…–, and therefore one is the “subject” of the other, in the full ambiguity of the word.
Eikoh Hosoe’s photographs are very different altogether, and firstly because they proceed from a long-term interest in Butoh (they range from 1960 to 2005) and not a fortuitous encounter. The first series, Man and Woman, was created in 1961 with Hijikata: it features dark, blackened photographs full of empathy, in which the dancers’ bodies are only barely sketched out. The connection –the symbiosis!– between the photographer and the dancers is so strong that looking at those images makes us feel like intruders.
A second aspect distinguishes Hosoe from Klein: the Japanese never assumes the external position of a documentary photographer reporting on an event or a performance. For The Butterfly Dream, Hosoe worked with Ohno for 45 years, and became the choreographer’s double, shadow or even soul. The final product stands as a poem written in collaboration, in sync, as a communion in which photographer and model almost merge together in a joint work of art.
In those images, Ohno is alone, tragic, ambiguous, his image sometimes doubled, standing next to the water like a cornered animal, or being almost carried away by his umbrella on a bridge, or simply meditating at home. Everything becomes dance, there are no boundaries between life and dance, nor between dancer and photographer.
In short, Klein creates Klein-y images no matter what, when Hosoe fuses with Butoh.
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: July 13, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère