Andrew Phelps – Not Niigata

Copyright Andrew Phelps, 2009 courtesy Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg

For my liking, Andrew Phelps’s introduction, printed on the inside book cover, places this entire photobook into an insightful context, “ But what does it mean to photograph with the pretense of documentation? I find it is easy to get caught up in chasing an illusion of what I think a place should look like: preconceptions are powerful and the quest to understand a place often leads to a greater misunderstanding. The best I can do is tell the story of my three weeks of traveling and responding visually to a place I don’t necessarily understand. It is the story of not understanding Niigata.”

As I have the opportunity to travel extensively to international locales, this photobook, and Phelps understanding of the limitations of someone who just drops in, resonances with me. Actually, I have similar feelings when I am traveling within Southern California through the Mexican, Vietnamese and other diverse micro cultural neighborhoods that populate our region. Cultural heritage, language and customs become more pronounced when traveling through Europe and for me, even more so to Asia, where I am unable to read their graphic language. I can recall being very disoriented on my first trip into China, where I was truly a stranger in a strange land.

Although the subject of Phelps’s photobook, Not Niigata, is about the Japanese city of Niigata, it is more about Phelps, the stranger who is in a strange land. Phelps is not Japanese, was not raised in Japan (born in the US) and currently resides with his family in Austria. Thus Phelps experiences and views Niigata unlike a person who was raised in Niigata, and who would call this home. The resulting color documentary style photographs are not Japanese in nature or spirit, but about a city seen by someone who is non-Japanese and is reacting to situations that are interesting unique to him.

To see what Phelps has framed and extracted from Niigata is interesting, odd, strange, different, mysterious, and also with familiar nuances. Stay in a similar philosophical introspection suggested by Phelps, mine are also observations by a non-resident of Niigata who is reading this photobook in Southern California. From this body of work, his narrative introduces us to a place that is in proximity to a sea-coast and mountain range, with an urban infrastructure and adjacent rural places.

One Phelps portrait is of a young boy, wearing sneakers, longish blue coat and what appears as a ball cap, holding a blue baseball mitt. A photograph that could be have been made in almost any city within the United States, but the background of buildings and urban setting, places this somewhere in Asia. The portrait has a slight presence of fill-in flash that creates further separation of the boy from the darker and slightly out-of-focus location background. The photograph investigates some unspoken connection and understanding between photographer and subject in a mutual interest of baseball, a popular sport in both Japan and the United States. It also alludes to an attempt at trying to understand Niigata by finding common ground.

A group photograph, below, is very mysterious and strange. It begs the questions, who are these three individuals, why are they wearing the masks and these particular colors and what are they doing in this place? It seems apparent that they know that they are being watched and photographed and appear passive about the situation, not threatening or aggressive for being masked persons. The background environmental which frames this group portrait is also mysterious, with the appearance of the sea in the far back, and the group is surrounded with an odd assortment of wires, poles, buildings and small boats.

Phelps portrait of an older man who is sitting in water, appears beautiful and yet familiar with yet a hint of mystery. It immediately brings to mind the portraits of Mona Kuhn; the tonal range of the colors, the mysterious abstract reflective colors and shapes. The foreground and background are soft and out of focus, with a contemplative and passive person sandwiched between. The eyes of the older man are averted and the photograph appears serene and peaceful.

Another aspect of Phelps narrative is the homogenization of global societies. The differences between a city in Austria, US and Japan have become less and less pronounced. The uniqueness of a city like Niigata is dwindling. The clothing and dress of the individuals in Phelps portraits seems familiar. Global brand logos, such as Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds and Burger King, have become ubiquitousness and are found everywhere.

Phelps also indirectly raises a question, which photographs can capture the essence of a place, that can render a social and cultural group on a two-dimensional page? We see the organization infrastructure, interior spaces, the topological constructs of faces, objects that are collected and utilized. Does the photograph explain why, how and for what purpose these objects and places exist and are utilized? The photograph can only testify that for a brief moment in time that these objects were in a place, and then the story is now ours to frame and ponder and if Phelps is correct, still not understand.

The artist statement is in English on the front cover liner, and Japanese on the back cover liner, the color photographs are unvarnished on a nice luster paper.

by Douglas Stockdale

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