Small Planet, when photography shows the world in miniature!
written by Sophie Cavaliero and read by Charlène Veillon
Reading time ⏰ 9 min 10
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On the occasion of the exhibition “(Un)real utopia” by Naoki Honjo at Top Museum, the museum of photography in Tokyo, we are going to interest you in our article in a particular photographic process: the tilt shift. This process, used by Naoki Honjo, transforms photographs of a real landscape into an artificial miniature landscape photograph, the real world becoming a dummy world, where men are transformed into figurines, cars, toys and buildings, in model decorations.
Before talking about Naoki Honjo's photography in more detail, it seems necessary to explain this technique, without going into an expert debate either.
Introduced in the 1960s in the technology of photographic equipment, this process was very fashionable ten years ago. It is still used today because it is integrated into a good number of photographic editing software. The principle of tilt-shift is to have a very shallow depth of field in order to give a "model" effect. For this, there are two possible methods: the use of a tilting lens, or the use in post-production of photo editing software.
Let's focus instead on the "mechanical" technique: the tilt-shift effect with a tilting lens, used by Naoki Honjo. The tilting lens makes it possible to tilt the orientation of the lenses with respect to the sensitive surface of the sensor. This inclination allows adjustment of the focus which is not the same throughout the photograph. The image can then be sharp in the center of the photograph or in a chosen place, and blurred elsewhere. This type of lens is quite expensive and is now replaced by post-production image editing software.
You now have in mind the technical aspect. Let's move on to Naoki Honjo's "small world", in other words his work entitled "Small Planet", published by Little More Japan and for which he received the Kimura Ihei Award in 2006. His photographic work is instantly recognizable because of the use of this process tilt-shift previously explained. However, it is important to understand that Naoki Honjo is not just a technician. He has the will to represent our planet in a miniature vision to challenge us on what we do with it. The distancing of our world by the miniaturization of these images idealizes our vision, bringing us back to childhood when we were in awe of miniature train models or ready-made Lego pieces. Is it nostalgia? Deception? You can't help but love being duped. Quite naturally, we readjust our vision in our head to obtain an image closer to reality and yet imagined; then, we compare it to what we have just seen. Naoki Honjo therefore managed to challenge us and make us think about his photography.
Naoki Honjo's photographs are taken from skyscrapers or helicopters, using of that flip-flop lens that we talked about. Why does he do this? First of all for technical reasons! To successfully take a photograph with the tilt-shift process, you need to be high up and have a bird's eye view. Aren't we always looking at a model of our height?
This positioning in height can also be explained by a very Japanese pictorial tradition: the perspective "the bird's eye view". Indeed, this desire to show the world from an aerial perspective of the "the bird's eyeview" in an artistic work,is not new to Japan. Japanese artists very early produced painted works Yamato-e with an inventive aerial perspective. Born in the 12th century, this techniquecalled fukinuki yatai, meaning "roof removed". It allowed to see the scenes in their entirety (interior and exterior) according to a continuity adapted to a particular support, a low-height, wide-width roll of paper.
Representing our world seen from the sky is therefore not new, even before the invention drones! This prospect was imaginary, not real. Today with our means of air transport, be it helicopters, planes or drones, or even the height of our homes, the skyscrapers going higher and higher, the artist has the possibility of using this perspective in real mode.
Naoki Honjo isn't the only one toying with this perspective. Other photographers Japanese are also famous for this type of high angle shooting, but with a different artistic language than Naoki Honjo.
The photographer Taiji Matsue shoots from a helicopter. It has two shooting rules: it excludes the horizon line and the sky from the image plane. And he uses direct light to prevent shadows from being cast on his subject. This creates a flat version of what the photographer sees at the time of the shot, and the result then questions the true nature of the photography.
Sohei Nishino, another well-known Japanese photographer, also gives the impression to send us pictures seen from the sky. The image is again misleading. Inspired by the 17th century Japanese cartographer, Ino Tadataka, whose engravings reinvented the cities he had visited, Sohei Nishino travels a city over a long period, exploring and photographing its many points of view to "construct" his work. Then he carefully prints the photographs and compiles them into one work, which he uses as the basis for his final photograph. The effect then is not a traditional bird's eye view, but an enlightened way of seeing three dimensions in a single plane of the photo. Although geographical precision is important in this process, the scales can be modified and the places photographed sometimes repeated, like an erroneous memory of'a place. Viewed from a distance, Sohei's photographs appear abstract, but if you look at them up close, they are as detailed as a "diorama" of the city.
Naomi Honjo's particularity is therefore not really to take his photographs from a height to give a real vision of what he sees, but to transform reality into something else.. The tilt-shift process does not erase all the details of the photographed landscape, but it plays with our point of view, overlapping reality and the imaginary world resulting from the transformation. Remember that Naoki Honjo does not digitally manipulate his photos. He sometimes has to wait several days to take the perfect shot.
Last year Naoki Honjo continued his illustration of the constant evolution of the Japanese capital, with his Tokyo series initiated in 2016, which testifies to the development of the city with the 2021 Olympic Games. His photographs of Tokyo offer a new vision of this postmodern metropolis, accentuating the artifice ofthis man-made environment.
To end on photography that shows the world in miniature, we are going to talk about another Japanese artist who practices photography in a playful way to question us about our world. Tanaka Tatsuya, an instagram star, uses its staging to transform the image and not his photographic process. Tanaka Tatsuya has posted daily since April 2011 small scenes of life in miniature, diverting the nature or the use first of the objects of everyday life to tell what he sees. For example, in his March 2022 posts, sponges become ping-pong tables, or a harmonica turns into a post office. Let's hear the artist speak from his work :
"There is joy in discovering how objects can look like something else. Simply by changing perspective. Unfortunately, we tend to lose this playful perspective as we grow into adults. We only thinkin terms of common sense and only perceive things in a wayfixed again. I try to change that. "
Naoki Honjo therefore does the same by bringing us back to miniature to better imagine what tomorrow could be and make us appreciate what we have today.
- Naoki Honjo @ Top Museum, Tokyo: https://honjonaoki.exhibit.jp/en/index.html
- Taiji Matsue@ Top Museum, Tokyo: https://topmuseum.jp/e/contents/exhibition/index-4032.html
- Taiji Matsue : https://www.taronasugallery.com/en/artists/taiji-matsue/
- Website of the artist Sohei Nishino : https://soheinishino.net
- Website of the artist Tatsuya tanaka : https://miniature-calendar.com
Photo 1 – “[ small planet ] Tokyo, Japan” (2006) © Naoki Honjo
Photo 2 – “JP-02 15” 2012 ©TAIJI MATSUE / Courtesy of TARO NASU
Photo 3 – San Francisco – MAY. - SEP. 2016 – LIGHT JET PRINT/ 1700×2560 MM ©SOHEI NISHINO
Photo 4 – small planet / Tokyo, Japan / 2005 © Naoki Honjo
Picture 5 – https://miniature-calendar.com/200728 © Tanaka Tatsuya