Do It Yourself Photography

How Seven Amateur Japanese Photographers Made Something Out of Nothing And Developed a Community at Home and Abroad


Published: December 09, 2010

There’s an unassuming quality to the photography currently on display in Fordham University’s Center Gallery. The 37 photos are not bound by any particular theme or subject matter, the artists’ names only appear on the glass doors that enclose the gallery space, and the walls are covered in paper fliers, the same ones recently hung around Tokyo neighborhoods.

If you were to call the exhibition “amateur,” you would be paying the highest compliment to the show’s curators, as well as the Tokyo photography collective whose work is exhibited there. “35minutesmen” is unusual. But equally unusual is the story of seven amateur but dedicated photographers, who formed a community within a defunct film processing lab, captured the affection of a small neighborhood and beyond, and ended up with work featured in the Center Gallery, recently replacing professional New York artists like Kara Walker and Anne Pundyke.

The inspiration for the “35minutesmen” project was born out of a collective passion for photography, coupled with a combined fear that middle age sought to temper that passion. “They do it purely out of love for the medium,” said Anibal Pella-Woo, Fordham photography professor and exhibition co-curator. “They were all getting to an age where they didn’t know if they had time for photography.”

“To say it was a high-minded art endeavor would be completely incorrect,” said Stephen Apicella

Hitchcock, Fordham photography professor and exhibition co-curator. “They didn’t try to go about it in an elegant fashion.” Apicella-Hitchcock discovered the Araiyakushi Photographers’ Society (APS) while living in Tokyo last fall. He was introduced to the collective by Taro Nettleton, an old photography student who grew up with Sake Kota, an APS member and cable installation specialist whose family owns “35,” the former photo lab turned gallery space.

According to Nettleton, who wrote an essay on “35minutesmen” for the Center Gallery exhibition, APS met for only one year, between April 2009 and March 2010. It consisted of four men and three women and drew its name from a small Tokyo neighborhood where no one would have thought it possible to host a recurring art show. However, that’s precisely what APS (an acronym that also pays homage to an obsolete film system) accomplished. Once a month, without fail, within the rundown photo lab, whose sign only read “35”—a reference to the amount of minutes it took the lab to process a roll of film—is that show. According to Pella-Woo, the rest of the exhibit’s title is a tribute to the classic California punk band The Minutemen, whose do-it-yourself style was an inspiration to APS and their vision.

Apicella-Hitchcock made his first trip to Araiyakushi with Nettleton in September. He remembers the suburb as being “sleepy,” a stark contrast to the “raucous energy” of an APS event. “The openings reminded me of a snap-shot of a New York subway car,” Apicella-Hitchcock said. “They brought all kinds of people together in a very small space that might not ever meet otherwise.” Over the course of four months, with multiple trips to “35minutesmen” openings, Hitchcock got to know the members of APS.

He learned that the group was founded on a single goal: that on the last weekend of each month, over the course of one year, all seven photographers would display a series of photos in a casual exhibition open to anyone interested. The only stipulation was that each photographer was bound to show something, regardless of how they felt about the quality of the work.

In time a scene began to develop surrounding the monthly gallery shows. For one opening weekend a local noodle shop began serving food within the space, and returning guests found themselves a part of a community that transcended the traditional boundary between artist and spectator. Eventually every opening filled “35,” and patrons poured into the streets drinking and socializing.

This was precisely the point of “35minutesmen,” according to Nettleton. Their exhibitions modeled that of a 1960s “Fluxus” event, an international movement that sought to disintegrate the difference between art and everyday life. For APS, the event itself was just as much a part of the art as the photography. The diverse assembly of people that “35minutesmen” drew became the reason to return month after month.

Apicella-Hitchcock saw APS as a “template” that might inspire student artists at Fordham. “People are desperate to go see something new,” he said. “Nobody is going to take responsibility for you.”

“We want to tell students to make their own thing happen” Pella-Woo said. “Take the initiative and do something yourself, turn your apartment into a gallery space, build a community.”

With this sentiment in mind, Apicella-Hitchcock and Pella-Woo sorted through thousands of photographs taken by A.P.S. over the year. Nettleton began work on an essay that sought to capture the experience of “35minutesmen” for a gallery audience, and the original paper advertisements used to promote the events were sent from Tokyo to New York.

On Nov. 12, Kota, Emiko Nagahiro and Junpey Fukumura were present to represent APS for the gallery opening of “35minutesmen” at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. It would be the first and inevitably last time many of the seven would be represented professionally as artists. However, both Apicella-Hitchcock and Pella-Woo hope that the impression “35minutesmen” leaves on the community will ruminate past the exhibit’s closing.

“After leaving school you find yourself in a vacuum of artists,” Pella-Woo said. “Few people are able to do it alone… If you build a community your possibilities are much greater.”

“35minutesmen” is on display in the Center Gallery until Dec. 19, when a greater selection of APSwork will become available in a hardcover book, which can be purchased through Apicella-Hitcock.