Art & Archives, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

An Intimate View of Tokyo

Getty Museum exhibition In Focus: Tokyo presents startlingly personal glimpses into the lives and cityscapes of the Japanese megalopolis

Picnic #2, 1998, Masato Seto. Silver-dye bleach print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.34.1. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Masato Seto

With over 36 million people, Tokyo is the most populous city in the world. The new exhibition In Focus: Tokyo features more than 30 photographs from the Getty Museum’s collection that portray Japan’s capital city as a dense and hyperreal megalopolis—but capture an intimacy from which it’s hard to look away.

The show features the work of four artists who “find ways to portray their city at human scale,” in the words of exhibition co-curator Amanda Maddox. Each artist’s work engages with different aspects of life in Tokyo, from the city’s anonymous residents and towering buildings, to its serene parks and frenzied nightlife.

Picnic #32, 2005, Masato Seto. 16 15/16 x 21 7/16 inches. J. Paul Getty Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Masato Seto

Picnic #32, 2005, Masato Seto. 16 15/16 x 21 7/16 inches. J. Paul Getty Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Masato Seto

Photographer Masato Seto’s series picnic, produced between 1996 and 2005, takes a particularly intimate approach. Seto’s photographs get inside Tokyo’s private pockets of outdoor space, a highly coveted respite from the busy thrum of the Japanese urban lifestyle. They give us a glimpse of the hard-won leisure of local couples escaping the cramped quarters of high-rise living for the scarce green space of public parks.

The couples’ reactions to the camera’s intrusion range from shielding their faces to outright defiance, to simple staring curiosity. We feel like we’ve caught them in the act of doing something that we shouldn’t see.

Representing one family, couple, or individual at a time, Seto situates his subjects in a detached reality of their own. He creates what critic Hiro Koike referred to as “invisible rooms”—plots of grass often defined by the customary plastic sheet—in which intimate moments have been openly displayed and captured.

Accompanying Seto’s picnic series is the work of three other talented photographers reflecting different sides of the same city—surrealistic moments by Daido Moriyama, deceptively casual street views by Shigeichi Nagano, and intimate, color-saturated portraits of strangers in public spaces by Mikiko Hara.

Picnic #2, 1998, Masato Seto. 16 15/16 x 21 7/16 inches. J. Paul Getty Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Masato Seto

Picnic #2, 1998, Masato Seto. 16 15/16 x 21 7/16 inches. J. Paul Getty Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Masato Seto

In Focus: Tokyo is on view in the Center for Photographs at the Getty Center through December 14, 2014.

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