Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo
A new book by photographer Feng Li uses images of strange encounters to explore the historical centre of street photography.

Last summer, Feng Li was visiting Tokyo for the first time, having been invited by PLACE M Gallery to present an exhibition of his photographs themed around animals. It was an exciting opportunity for the Chinese photographer, who had been a long-time admirer of photography from the city.

“The street I could see from my hotel window appears in [legendary Japanese photographer] Daido Moriyama’s photos,” he recalls. “And walking around Tokyo, everywhere seems to be familiar in some photography – which is very pleasant, but also a little frustrating, as if you have found a treasure but it has been dug up countless times.”

Staying in the city for three weeks, he wanted to make the most of his time there, and spent most his days walking around the city armed with his camera, taking hundreds of pictures a day. He even had the chance to meet the iconic photographer. “I had the pleasure of visiting Daido Moriyama’s studio and never thought I would one day be so close to him,” Feng says. “Many years ago I saw a documentary of Moriyama taking pictures on the streets of Tokyo, and I was moved by his spirit, and then it was like meeting my idol. I couldn’t stop thinking about him walking around Tokyo with a camera.”

A triptych of portraits of the Japanese master, which Feng took in his studio that day, are now included in his newly published photo book, simply titled Tokyo. Featuring wild photographs of street encounters and staged moments with his friends, the book documents his time exploring the expansive city, while also celebrating of the art of street photography, backdropped by one of the practice’s historical centres.

“Although I photograph all the time, the street is real and intense, which is a huge stage for the drama that never ends,” Feng says. “The street is also a window through which I can see the diversity of human nature. During my three weeks in Tokyo, I was in a state of excitement almost every day. Everything in front of me was full of tension. Every moment was unforgettable.”

His surreal, vivid pictures are an expression of Feng Li’s distinctive, arresting style of photography. Eye-opening shots are laced with humour, while Tokyo’s distinctive iconography and visual design provide context. There’s a looseness to the photographs as well, which comes from Feng Li’s frantic, deliberately fast-paced method of shooting the project.

“The photos in the book were all printed at a street printing shop in Tokyo on the day I took them,” he explains. “In fact, by the time I returned to China from Tokyo three weeks later, the book [was] published at the same time. I like this rhythm. Unlike other Japanese photographers’ shots of Tokyo, these photos are my perspective cut into the city. They all have Feng Li’s personality.”

Bright, characterful outfits are on display throughout the book, while a tension lies underneath the surface, whether it’s a picture of a rat climbing into a drain, or a snake climbing up an umbrella. “My favourite is the Shinjuku area, where there is always so many people,” Feng says. “I love standing at the intersection and watching crowds pour in like a tidal wave, especially on weekends when everyone seems to stay out all night. I think the city is fascinating because it is a complex [web] of contradictions, cultural [amalgamation], conflict, relationships between people, and so on.”

Feng Li / Tokyo is out now. 

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