Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

On Saturday June 8th 2019 I took a trip out to the Ebisu area of Tokyo, to visit the Tokyo Photographic Museum (TOP). From the east exit of Ebisu Station we walked about ten minutes along the Sky Walk, a string of long tunnels a little reminiscent of an airport terminal. Stepping out into the bright sunshine, the red-brick edifice of the Tokyo Photographic Museum stood before us, its long posters inviting us towards the shaded entrance.

The approach to the museum entrance

This was the first time I’d ever visited this art museum, and it was a pleasure to discover. Most of the large museums in Tokyo are clustered around Ueno Park. Only a short stop on the train from the popular Asakusa area, Ueno is always thronged with sightseers and Tokyoites alike. Compared with the incredible popularity of Ueno, where it’s often difficult to see the exhibits for the sheer number of people, the Tokyo Photographic Museum was an oasis of calm.

Posters for the current exhibitions

The building itself is well laid out, with a wide staircase, modern elevators and spacious galleries. A café on the ground floor and a shop full of interesting things also made for nice places to stop off. There is even a free library on the 4th floor, the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum Library, specializing in books on photography and the photographic arts. The library contains English books too, and is a lovely space to sit and read very quietly. There were however a few conditions for usage which made the library perhaps less appealing; only pencils can be used, studying for exams is forbidden and all unnecessary items are meant to be put in the outdoor lockers. Books may also not be removed from the library. However, for a very peaceful, free library filled with stunning coffee-table books full of photographs, it is very much worth the trip.

The pamphlet for the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum Library

We visited two exhibitions, each on their own floor. The first was Reading Images: The Stories of Four Places. The theme of this exhibition encouraged the viewer to understand the narrative frame work of the four photographic essays displayed. The photos formed series with underlying relationships. The topics were diverse, including the work of a small town doctor in Colorado, the aesthetic practices of Japanese mountain monks, and life on the coal mine island Hashima, also known as “Gunkanjima,” or, “battleship island.” According to the TOP Museum website, “In this exhibition, we examine four approaches that are closely connected to these places and focus on the expansive narrative world that arises from each of them.”  

While all the photos were interesting, I found the Country Doctor series particularly affecting. The series of photos was originally published in the pictorial weekly Life in 1948. Taken by William Eugene Smith (1918 – 1978), the photos looked at the daily life of Ernest Ceriani, the only doctor who served the population of approximately 2000 in Kremmling, Colorado. The photos show his exhaustion, his humanity and his desperation as he cares for his community. Smith deftly captures the emotions of Ceriani, the people he treats, and the people who watch their loved ones being treated. His sensitive portraits reveal the impact of love, loss and pain for the people of this little community.

Dr. Ceriani treats a little girl who had been kicked by a horse
©️1965, 2017 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith/Magnum Photos ©︎ W. Eugene Smith

The second exhibition we visited was a solo exhibition – Ryuji Miyamoto’s Invisible Land. The first section documented the photographer’s early work, featuring his travels around Asia. This section highlighted his focus on architectural spaces and the transformations they go through. The photos were black and white, giving them a timeless quality.

The final room of the exhibition was devoted to community life on a Japanese island, titled, Shima Means Community. The photos included intimate shots of the island residents resting or socializing, painting an idyllic picture of island life. There were also long, specially printed pictures of the sotetsu plant, the Japanese sago palm, which is native to Japan’s southern islands. Another highlight was a large image taken with a pinhole camera built by the photographer. The pinhole camera itself and a video about its construction were displayed outside the exhibition, giving a sense of the effort which went into the shot.

The Sotetsu or Japanese Sago Palm, Ryuji Miyamoto

Overall, I enjoyed my visit to the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum very much. The photos ranged from black and white to brightly cloured, each capturing a moment in time. Their subjects were varied, and shot with sensitivity, capturing a wide range of scenes and emotions. I still have a lot to learn about photography, and as such all of the photographers were new to me. However, even someone with no knowledge or understanding of photography can, I believe, enjoy this museum at face value.

The relaxed atmosphere, the space to see and appreciate the exhibits and the easy access from the station make this a museum that ticks all the boxes for me. The English was perfectly translated, and its presentation well considered – rather than having two separate pamphlets, both English and Japanese are displayed concurrently on the same booklet. I prefer this because it avoids waste when people want to read both languages, and also avoids visual stereotyping of visitors to the museum based on their physical appearance. Both languages were also printed unobtrusively under each image, making the viewing experience accessible for a wider audience.

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum Library
Library Opening Hours: 10:00 – 18:00
Closed: Mondays, unless that Monday is a holiday, in which case closed the Tuesday following.

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum
Reading Images: The Stories of Four Places
Dates: 14 May – 4 August 2019
Closed: Mondays (except 15 July)
Admission: Adults – \500, Students – \400, High School Students, Junior School Students and Over 65s – \250

MIYAMOTO Ryuji: Invisible Land
Dates: 14 May – 15 July 2019
Closed: Mondays (except 15 July)
Admission: Adults – \700, Students – \600, High School Students, Junior School Students and Over 65s – \500

Cover photograph: Me looking at 10 Points Heliography by Hiroshi Yamazaki, 1982 (TOP Collection/Tokyo Photographic Art Museum). Photo courtesy of Suguru Tanaka, 2019.