Home » Greg Girard’s vintage photos show underbelly of boom-era Japan

Greg Girard’s vintage photos show underbelly of boom-era Japan

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written by Oscar Holland, CNN

When famous photographer Greg Girard landed Tokyo In April 1976, he thought he would spend only a few days in the Japanese capital. At the time, a “pocket traveler” in his early twenties, he was heading to affordable destinations in Southeast Asia.

With nowhere to sleep, he left his luggage at Haneda Airport and spent his first night in Tokyo wandering the streets of the bustling Shinjuku district, camera in hand.

In a video interview, Girard said, “I was overwhelmed by the look of it all, because it hadn’t been seen in this modern city, the West. It exposed mainstream Western audiences to the Asian metropolis.”

“On that first night, I decided to stay,” he said.

A 1979 image shows a pedestrian crossing in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. credit: Greg Girard

What began as a whim turned into a four-year assignment in which Girard taught English by day and photographed in Tokyo by night. He rented an apartment and a small darkroom nearby to develop his photographs.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, these images captured the boom years before Japan’s infamous economic bubble burst in the 1990s. A strong yen will lead to a surge in market speculation, ultimately leading to a financial crisis. But even before that, Girard said there was a palpable sense of richness woven into his images of home appliances, office buildings and busy intersections.

“This was a time when Japan was on the rise before the world was really aware of what was going on,” said the Canadian photographer, who published a selection of his vintage photographs in his new book, “JAL 76 88.” and added: It was a time of true optimism and a period of dynamic growth in Japan as a place where it began to be treated as an equal (with the West). “

light in shadow

During his nocturnal wanderings, Girard was fascinated not only by Japan’s rapidly rising economy, but also by what unfolded in the next few hours. Many of the images in the book allude to the country’s dark underworld. Posters of naked women, entrances to seedy nightclubs, empty hotel rooms, etc. leave viewers wondering what happened there.

“There was this division between the practicality of running ‘Japan Inc’ (helping people go to bed early) and the release mechanism of going out all night if necessary.” The photographer said, “Both were going on at the same time.

“Trains stop at midnight, so there was a whole subculture about what to do between when the last train stopped and when the first one started[the next morning],” he continued. “There were arcades and all-night coffee shops, and people parked in front of expensive coffee, but nobody cared if they slept in booths all night. That’s how it was.”

Interior of a hotel room in Nara, Japan.

Interior of a hotel room in Nara, Japan. credit: Greg Girard

Girard’s once futuristic image oozes vibrant greens, pinks and blues, and the use of long exposure settings saturates the colors. The photographer flooded the lens with light to illuminate what was in the shadows. Often using a tripod to stabilize his shots, he focuses on where the light fell rather than where it came from, depicting Japanese cities bathed in light rather than glowing with neon lights. I drew.

“It felt right to move away from the cliché of neon signs and see where the light hits: people, buildings, cars, puddles,” he said.

photography career

The title of Girard’s new book,JAL 76 88” combines the year the photo was taken with the call sign of Japan Airlines (he also included an image of a mission that took him to Japan in the late 1980s after relocating to Hong Kong). . Girard often carried two cameras at once – one with black-and-white film, the other with color.

But despite all the vibrancy captured in his photographs, some of his most compelling images, whether of a deserted construction site or an empty passageway lit by street lamps, Lacking human activity. Accustomed to Tokyo, Girard used photography as an excuse to explore quiet areas he might otherwise not have visited.

“The alleys and streets just off downtown, or just regular neighborhoods – they too had lives of their own,” he said. I was wandering around. No matter where you live, taking pictures is a way to make it your own.”

Nightlife in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan.

Nightlife in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan. credit: Greg Girard

Girard’s experience also helped him hone his camera skills, laying the foundation for a successful career as a photographer. Experimenting with long exposures and different types of film was something that “began to consciously explore and become technically proficient” around that time, he adds, “so was the learning process.” rice field.

Decades after leaving Japan, he has photographed for magazines such as National Geographic and Time, and has published books on many Asian cities, including Hanoi, Okinawa, and Shanghai.he probably his image It’s part of the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City, an almost completely lawless, mob-controlled enclave of Hong Kong that once housed about 50,000 residents on just 6.4 acres.

Looking back, Girard says that Japanese photography has served as a kind of diary of his youth. However, even though he spent nights in the city, he always kept a certain distance from the nightlife he documented. His focus has always been photography itself.

“I didn’t go to bars to drink or party. Anyway, back then,” he said. ”

JAL 76 88]Is on sale from Cominec Books.

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