ArtWeekend

Hauntingly Beautiful Photos for an Anxious Moment

On Instagram, Kana Hashimoto’s images of nocturnal Tokyo unwittingly capture the odd feeling of time itself as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

Kana Hashimoto, “Setagaya-ku neighborhood, railway crossing, May 25, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

Now that the global coronavirus pandemic has reached the half-year mark, I’ve been as curious as the next culture maven about how art-makers of all kinds might respond to the current moment — to its moods and unstoppable currents of anxiety; its air of gnawing, ungraspable, no-solution-in-sight uncertainty; and its dramatic transformations of everyday life.

The novelty of the feel-good, often charmingly amateurish (or professionally modest) performances that surfaced across the internet during the pandemic’s early, stay-at-home weeks has faded, and many of the “interactive” online art-fair and gallery presentations that have appeared have turned out to be rather bland, for nothing really can compare with the experience, in person, of the aura of a good work of art.

Kana Hashimoto, “Liquor shop near Daitabashi Station, May 25, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

During this period, like many other self-isolators, I have meditated, read a lot, eaten too much, gone for long walks (always wearing a face mask), and dawdled with Instagram, the only social-media platform I occasionally use.

And it was there, most unexpectedly, that I stumbled upon, under her Instagram name, “himu1017,” the work of Kana Hashimoto, a 29-year-old resident of Tokyo whose richly atmospheric photographs of the Japanese capital at night have captured, with focus, intensity, and a sophisticated touch, the peculiar ambience of suspended time that has come to characterize the emotionally charged, endless waiting of this coronavirus era.

Kana Hashimoto, “Ditch at Meidaimae Station, May 25, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

To be clear, Hashimoto’s interest lies in the look and feel of the vast, dynamic metropolis when it’s asleep — she never set out to record the mood of a particular pandemic-stricken place per se. Still, for me, her portfolio of nocturnal scenes conjures up the spirit of time itself, teasing the viewer into the reposing city’s neon-lit crannies and film noir shadows.

Via Instagram and then by e-mail, I reached out to the photographer and learned her real name. Her answers to my interview questions were forthright and brief. Writing in Japanese, she told me that she is an amateur photographer who uses a Fujifilm XT-3 digital camera, not a mobile-phone camera, as some Instagram users might assume, and that picture-taking during her nightly forays has become her hobby.

Kana Hashimoto, “Kawaramachi Housing Complex, Kawasaki, May 6, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

“Five years ago, I became aware of and began doing nighttime photography,” Hashimoto told me. She added, “I like the night’s silent atmosphere and the light that floats up from the depths of the darkness. I also like the sense of longing one can feel throughout these streetscapes.”

Hashimoto, who admires the work of the contemporary Japanese photographers Miyako Ishiuchi and Seiichi Motohashi, did not begin shooting her nocturnal Tokyo scenes with the goal of producing a series. “During the state of emergency [imposed by the Japanese government, which was lifted on May 25], I tried to refrain from going out,” Hashimoto said. But even during that period, she did slip out into the darkness. “Not having contact with other people, when it came to going out at night to shoot photos, I used my best judgment.”

Kana Hashimoto, “Kawaramachi Housing Complex street light, May 6, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

Hashimoto’s photos capture the muted or sometimes acidic colors of bicycles, overhead telephone cables, and closed shop fronts, along with the icy glow of street lamps in narrow lanes, which are often located along the tracks of commuter-train lines. In one, a shopkeeper sits at a little table at the front of her liquor store, a lone, illuminated oasis in a quiet, long-after-hours street. There, overhead lamps hang in pairs like boxy lanterns or giant, dangling Christmas-tree lights.

Kana Hashimoto, “Alley near Minowabashi Station, May 28, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

In some of her most beautifully haunting images, Hashimoto catches the otherworldly look and vibe of the Kawaramachi Housing Complex in Kawasaki, an industrial city to the south of central Tokyo. Designed by the Japanese Metabolist architect Sachio Ōtani (1924–2013) and built in the early 1970s, this enormous, concrete danchi (large-scale apartment building), with its chunky, towering, inverted-Y form, resembles some kind of futuristic Mesoamerican pyramid. In Hashimoto’s photos, ordinary street lamps and the massive structure’s security lighting accentuate its stacked and protruding building-block shapes, creating what look like abandoned sets from a sci-fi movie.

Kana Hashimoto, “Alley near Minowabashi Station, May 28, 2020” (photo © 2020 Kana Hashimoto, used by permission)

These photos strike a resonant chord — a long, sustained, muffled one — of eeriness, free-floating anxiety, and keep-your-distance fear. Their evocation of suspended time is simultaneously unsettling and strangely soothing. To have landed upon them by chance on Instagram — how fortuitous.

For Hashimoto, they are the product of what she describes as an enjoyable hobby. For me, they are something different and something more — an unexpected, fulsome gift.

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