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Damien Drew’s photography incites melancholia and loss. His images of suburban Japan are silent and slightly dystopian, with images of empty arcades, shuttered streets, abandoned houses and warehouses paired up together in diptychs - a contrast to the crowded city life of one of Japan's most overpopulated city, Tokyo. As youths flock to the city center, this in itself is a reflection of the community left behind by modernisation.

Drew is an Australian photographer and feature film Art Director. His feature film credits includes The Matrix movies, The Great Gatsby, Blackhat and Netflix’s cult series, Sense 8. He is currently working as an Art Director on Disney’s live action ‘MULAN’. With a background in Architecture, Drew is fascinated in capturing the human relationship with man-made environment. One of his earlier works, 'Everywhere was Wherever'- a project that was captured on a 6000 mile 18-day motorcycle trip from Miami to Los Angeles explored his fascination with what he views as a loss of a 'sense of place'. His photographs captured the facades that he attributes to standing between decay and development.

"My photography may be influenced by both my architectural education and my daily work in film. From a story telling perspective in any successful film, exhibition or creative body of work there are usually two narratives. The base narrative which may sometimes simply be an aesthetic presentation or story telling and then a deeper message, be it cautionary or spiritual. Maybe it is an invitation to engage beyond the more obvious story. I hope of course that people find my work aesthetically appealing but at the same time they are moved to engage with it, or question it on another level. " Damien Drew, December 2018

Asagaya, Tokyo 2015 / Shima River, Gunma, 2012
A tofu shop in central Tokyo has fallen into ruin. Wheel tracks melt the snow near the Shima River Dam.

Koenji, Tokyo, 2015 / Shima Onsen School, Gunma 2012
An optometrist is now closed for business in central Tokyo. Brightly coloured tyres in the playground of Shima Onsen school, now closed due to lack of students in the town.

Kurashiki, Okayama, 2016
A shuttered business is no longer trading near the busy tourist strip of Kurashiki. Two technicians work whilst two ladies pass by in Kurashiki old town.

Wabi-Sabi is a project that spanned 10 years and was photographed in over 11 different prefectures across Japan’s suburban neighbourhoods. The photographs present a Japan that does not look like Japan. Finding inspiration in the Japanese term of impertinence, Wabi-Sabi strives to capture what is often overlooked.

Damien first travelled to Japan in 2006 where he witnessed first hand the stark contrast between the fast paced modernism of the cities and the stillness of the quiet neighbourhoods lining Japan's suburban cities. He soon journeyed around Honshu, an island located south of Hokkaido and subsequently make his way back to explore other islands. There, he saw the decline of globalisation. He discovered deserted schools and empty factories - an image that would soon transpire and inspire his latest photography project. “In a world that is increasingly homogenised through global retail chains, the air of neglect, the history and the unique character of these streetscapes belies a rare beauty. These images seek to document that which is temporary and to celebrate its beauty in turn. The viewer is invited to consider details and qualities in these paired scenes that may be inconspicuous, congruent or contrasting, in the knowledge that all is passing”“ Damien Drew, May 29 - 2017.

Hikifune, Tokyo 2015 / Mito, Ibaraki, 2006
A second hand store in Hikifune, Tokyo. A view of Mito City unfolds from a porthole window in Arata Isozaki’s ‘Mito Art Tower’

Can you share with us a little about the inspiration behind Wabi-Sabi?

As a solo traveller I found this stillness deeply affecting. I felt I was witnessing the passing of greatness, vibrancy and beauty and it was very moving. I had a strong desire to capture the beauty of these towns in decline, in part to document them but also to celebrate them. I was driven by a strong desire to preserve their memory and to share this photographic narrative with others. I learnt that this decline was due in part to education and employment opportunities drawing young people to major urban centres and with an ageing population these rural townships had fallen into neglect. I also witnessed pockets of these buildings in Tokyo and Osaka as people were increasingly drawn to the modernised shopping districts.

The ‘Wabi-Sabi’ concept evolved out of a basic understanding of the aesthetic philosophy from my Architectural studies at University in the 1990s. It was not until I read Andrew Junipers ‘Wabi-Sabi : The Japanese Art of Impermanence” however that it became clear that the Japanese people might instead consider Wabi-Sabi as encapsulating an emotion that finds value in the imperfect and temporary beyond appearance. As I read the following quote I felt the author had captured the emotion, powerful stillness and quiet beauty I had experienced in these towns. I later came to title my series and book project by the same name.

Wabi-Sabi may be loosely translated as the contemplation of the transient and understated beauty of the modest, imperfect, ephemeral or decaying. Quoting Andrew Junipers ‘Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence” “Wabi-Sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things”. From Andrew Juniper’s ‘Wabi Sabi; The Japanese Art of Impermanence’ (2003)

These images were all shot in Japan, in over 11 prefectures, how long did it take you to finish this project?

The project came together between 2006 and 2016 on multiple trips to Japan. I had not originally intended to share these images but I grew to amass a series of over 500 shop fronts and daily vignettes and started to consider telling this story. On those later trips I more deliberately travelled to locations to source images for the series. It was very important to travel beyond Japan’s urban environments to see the effects of Japan’s increasing urbanisation and ageing population on regional towns and villages. These ‘shutter towns’ are dotted all over Japan and in many the empty homes and shops outnumber the remaining ageing residents. Our world has become more homogenised by ubiquitous global retail chains. Many of the world’s high streets now look the same. The air of neglect, the history and the unique character of these Japanese streetscapes belie a rare beauty.

An overgrown structure in old town Tsukishima. Commuters heads lolling on a Tokyo train.

One of Shima Onsen’s hotels sits quietly, no longer receiving guests. Its drapes are the same colour as the snow melt of the river opposite.

Shima Onsen, Gunma, 2013 / Awaza, Osaka, 2016
A home in the once bustling alpine resort town of Shima Onsen. The intertwined flyovers of Awaza, Osaka.

What do you hope to achieve with the images from Wabi-Sabi?

I hope of course that my Wabi-Sabi series is engaging and pleasing on an aesthetic level. I also look to present a side of Japan and an aspect of a social issue that not many people may be aware of. I also invite the viewer to consider details and qualities in these paired scenes that may be inconspicuous, congruent or contrasting, with the knowledge that all is passing. These images seek to document that which is temporary and to celebrate its beauty in turn. It is also important to me to share this story with Japanese people as a guest in their country. The book is printed with both Japanese and English text for this reason.

Best memory from walking the streets of Japan?

There are so many so I will share just one that springs to mind. I was walking through an area of Tokyo called Shinkoiwa where I was approached by a local artist called Tadao Saito. He found it quizzical that I was taking photos of facades in his characterful Tokyo neighbourhood so through broken Japanese and English we spoke and he invited me back to his home. He had an older style Japanese home that was packed to the ceiling with precariously leaning stacks of his own surrealistic paintings. They were reminiscent of the work of Marc Chagall yet with a uniquely Japanese flavour. We drank tea and shared our art through our respective images.

In 2017, Wabi-Sabi was published into a limited edition book of 100 units. The book contained 96 images paired up and presented in diptychs. Reading at 107 pages and linen bound, the book was self published, with Drew scanning, retouching, sequencing, designing the book by himself. Drew is currently looking for a publisher to formally publish the book.

What was your intention on portraying the photographs as diptychs?

The images in the book are paired on opposing pages so that they may be viewed in conjunction. The left page is a formally framed architectural elevation and the facing page a less formal vignette of daily life. As I began the edit for my show and book I considered a number of these non-architectural images, some of which illustrated the social issues I touched on earlier. Others clearly established a conversation with the architectural images that spoke to the central concept of ‘Wabi-Sabi’ but within a broader context. The use of images with a more modern context alongside those more centrally aligned with the concept of WABI-SABI, or beauty in decay, was to invite a conversation between those two sets of images around the passage of time, transition and change. Some of the images with a more modern context also helped highlight the social aspects of decline in rural japan ie: a deserted playground, empty toy store or elderly person at a roads edge. I wished for the show to present a narrative beyond the quiet beauty of a decaying shop front.

The process started with laying out over 300 6” x 4” prints on a large table and looking for the strongest images and the parings that best spoke to the WABI-SABI concept. Once I had a selection of around 100 images I then packed them up and didn’t look at them for a couple of weeks. This distance helped me discern the better images. I then set to scanning the 35mm negatives which comprised approximately half of the book and show content. Over the years I had shot with a Canon F1N, Contax T2 and Leica M6TTL. The rest of the images were taken with the digital Fuji X-Pro 1. After consolidating the final pairs, there were many hours of retouching and color balancing, sequencing, typography, paper selection, print proofing and sampling of materials and custom de-bossing for the Kanji stamped cover.

The colourful patina and diagonal motifs of a building facade in Kurashiki reflect the elderly mother of Mrs Hiroko Hoshimi-Sama on a family day trip to the Watarase Reservoir.

Can you share with us your favourite photograph from this image and why? (pictured above)

One of my favourite pairings is of a building facade in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture alongside an image of the mother of my dear friends Hiroko and Haruo Hoshimi in Ibaraki Prefecture. Kurashiki is an ageing town but still somewhat buoyed by tourism in it’s historical centre. Very unfortunately it was recently the victim of tragic flooding. I observed how the patina and colours of the facade echo the figure’s colour and the graphic relationship of the road lines and the building bracing. Both images speak of our inevitable decline yet I am moved by their quiet beauty and stillness.

Lastly, best place for ramen in Japan?

That’s like asking for the best curry in India! There is such great and varied food everywhere in Japan, I would struggle to answer that. I have particularly fond memories of an great Yakkitori restaurant in Roppongi, Tokyo though.

JOMON Yakitori, 六本木5-9-17

藤森ビル 1F

Minato, 東京都 〒106-0032


Photography by Damien Drew

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