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Publication Date : 28-02-2013
Japanese photographer's handmade equipment captures nature as it really is
Japanese photographer Manabu Miyazaki, whose work centres around themes of "nature and human society", often captures the raw reality of wild animals, juxtaposing beauty and cuteness with severity and death.
He looks wild, like a hunter, and has no pretensions of an artist's air. But his work is driven by a sensitivity to living creatures and the natural environment.
The 63-year-old photographer's first solo photo exhibition at a museum is being held at the Izu Photo Museum in Nagaizumi, Shizuoka Prefecture. Miyazaki spoke about his camerawork at his studio in Komagane, Nagano Prefecture.
The mess inside would probably surprise a first-time visitor. The room was replete with anonymous electric parts, metal strips, pieces of wood, cables and the guts of other apparatus.
"If I used the same equipment as other photographers, the result would be almost the same as theirs. So I fashion my own original cameras from scratch," he said.
Almost all the components were obtained at a nearby 100-yen shop. Thanks to his experience working for a firm assembling interchangeable camera lenses and precision components when he was young, he is able to assemble cameras with ease.
"They are all based on the wisdom I got from being poor. What looked like discarded junk was really all recyclable resources," he added.
Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1949, Miyazaki began his career as an independent professional photographer in 1972 while studying technique by himself after working for the precision component firm.
Currently based in the Central Japanese Alps, he has won several famous prizes for photography, including the Domon Ken Award.
The full spectrum of Miyazaki's ability to engineer technology is manifest in the unmanned "robot cameras" he has used since the 1970s, the key feature of which is a shutter triggered when passing animals cross an infrared beam.
Miyazaki found a way to showcase the behaviour of elusive wild animals that are highly sensitive to humans and avoid them at all costs. He captured splendid images of an Asiatic black bear in a playful mood, fascinated by the camera. In essence, he has created a way for animals to take self-portraits.
Some have spoken out against using cameras with automated shutters, contending that it relegates the artist to the role of a mere technician. Miyazaki rebuts such criticism, arguing only people who are well versed in the behaviour of wild animals know where and when to set the camera.
Miyazaki was born and raised in an area between the Southern and Central Japanese Alps. As he grew up, he came to be able to read the slightest signs in nature, such as claw marks on tree trunks, broken branches and the footprints animals leave behind.
In other words, his work results from a rare mix of cutting-edge technical camera knowledge, a do-it-yourself spirit and the woodsman skills of a hunter or tracker. All of these in concert allow Miyazaki to produce his inimitable photos.
Life and death and life anew
Miyazaki's journeys through the Japanese wilds often bring him in contact with dead animals. He has said they remind him of the Kusozu scrolls that can be seen at temples nationwide, which depict how the human body rots and decomposes; for him, it is a reminder of our mortality.
"People today speak about pleasant things such as nature conservation and ecology. I wonder if they really know what death means. I felt I should photograph dead animals and explore the meaning of death," he said.
With this conviction, he compiled a photo collection called Shi (Death), published by Heibonsha Limited, in 1994. The strip of paper that binds the book bears the phrase, "Death is the starting point of living."
The book includes photos taken months apart at fixed points to show the decomposition of Japanese serow and tanuki from their death in the mountains to the return of their bodies to the soil. There are also photos of other animals feeding on the dead to extend their own lives.
In his photo book, death does not signify only a physical ending, but a stage in the cycle of the creation of new life. Of course humans, who depend on cows, pigs, chickens, fish and vegetables, are no exception.
"We can continue to live thanks to nature. But people nowadays forget that fact. Through my work, I hope visitors to my exhibition will revisit the relationship between humans and nature," he said.
Daily lives reflected
Miyazaki has taken up the theme of death, from which people tend to avert their eyes. As a result, "A lot of friends and acquaintances have kept their distance from me," he said, laughing.
Miyazaki's animal photos are not always pleasant. His work forces us to face the stern realities of life and death in nature, to which we are all subject. His photos have been called "a deadly poison" by some.
In his latest photo collection, "Shashin Rupo: Imadoki no Yasei Dobutsu (Photo Reporting: Current Wild Animals)", published by Nobunkyo (the Rural Culture Association Japan), he depicts wild animals and birds trying to survive by adapting their tactics to changing natural environments impacted by human life.
The images in the latest photo book are neither beautiful nor cute. When asked why they looked so grotesque, he replied coolly, "Simply because they reflect the daily lives of people nowadays."
"Manabu Miyazaki: The Pencil of Nature" runs until April 14 at the Izu Photo Museum in Nagaizumi, Shizuoka Prefecture. About 170 of Miyazaki's photos taken over about 40 years are on display.
Open from 10am to 5pm in February and March, 10am to 6pm in April. Closed on Wednesdays (except March 20) and March 21. The entrance fee is 800 yen for adults, 400 yen for university and high school students, free for middle school students and younger. For more details, call the museum at (055) 989-8780 or visit www.izuphoto-museum.jp
Visit Miyazaki's official website at www.owlet.net/