In this day and age, the idea of a policeman with a camera brings to mind one thing: surveillance. In prewar Tokyo, one officer produced something closer to beauty. That’s the impression provided by “Koyo Ishikawa: Documentary Photographs of Showa by A Metropolitan Police Department Cameraman.” The show runs until March 21 at the Tokyo Station Gallery, which is temporarily located in the Shimbashi district while Tokyo Station undergoes renovations.
Ishikawa (that’s him above, in a photo taken during the war) joined the police force in 1927 is remembered for grisly photos of Tokyo fire-bombing victims taken near the end of World War II. However, the 80 photos in this exhibition instead show what life in the city was like before the destruction. Filled with cafes, elegant European style buildings, westernized “Modern Girls” and kimono-clad matrons, Tokyo seems a magical place.
Yet they are a form of surveillance. Ishikawa cajoled the police department into buying him a stealthy Leica compact camera, an expensive rarity at the time, which he carried around mostly when out of uniform. A Shinjuku street scene, for example, looks innocuous until we learn that Ishikawa may have just stepped out of a movie theater (just out of the frame) where police had a reserved seat for keeping an eye on the audience.
Another shows a quaint alley in the Koenji area, lined with cafes and leading to a thatch-roofed house. We learn that these cafes are likely places to meet desperate young women who had moved to the city from the impoverished countryside.
Throughout the shifting scenes, the hand of the artist never leaves the policeman’s glove. Yet that imbues these images with a certain objectivity, even naturalness. This doesn’t mean, though, that Ishikawa constantly hid himself. One photo shows his four daughters playing with a puppy on the balcony. Look closely, and you’ll see it is a German Shepherd. (This was a slightly reworded version of the one I wrote for Asahi).
“Koyo Ishikawa: Documentary Photographs of Showa by A Metropolitan Police Department Cameraman” continues until March 21 at the Tokyo Station Gallery, a 3-minute walk from Shiodome Station on the Toei Oedo line and a 5-minute walk from Shinbashi Station. Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays (except Jan. 10), from Dec. 27 to Jan. 3, and Jan. 11. Admission free. www.ejrcf.or.jp/gallery.