by Mischa Rose
Many of us long term Japan fans are now old enough that our adolescences are fast leaving ‘out of date news’ status and heading rapidly towards ‘history.’ For me at least, this makes looking at Steve’s 80s images a pretty complex experience. It isn’t a matter of nostalgia, either, it is more that certain images capture a certain way of seeing the world that is as clear as day to those of us who felt it too, but perhaps wouldn’t occur to those poor souls who were born a few decades later.
Have you ever noticed how many of Steve’s pictures show a barrier between the subject and the world, or the even the subject and the camera? There are quite a few. Take a look at 1144, for example, where Richard is staring into space, smoking, in an apparently deserted Ginza cafe—and a heartbeat away, a busy Tokyo street buzzes with activity. But it is sealed away, on the other side of plate glass.
Or 3001—Sylvian, in an arid, shabby storeroom, the solitary window revealing a cityscape outside. 1097, shows Mick, partially obscured by lovely chestnut pale fencing, and in 1161 the band are huddled against a backdrop of Cornish seascape, with a spiky iron gate shutting them away from the camera. There are more, but you get the idea: the photographer, separated from the subject; the isolated individual, in an environment, but prevented from participating in it, is a recurrent image. There are worlds, but we are in a small room.
I’d like to see it as a tormented adolescent thing, obviously, but I suspect Steve was well past that stage when he took the pictures and I am also well past it now I’m looking at them. And of course, there is a practical element to it too: windows, fences, mirrors, doors, they are all useful framing devices when you’re composing an image, particularly if you happen to be in a London flat or a Leeds hotel room or a taxi or a tour bus. That, of course, plunges us immediately into whether a chance candid photograph can have meaning beyond being a record of an event, a souvenir of a moment, if you like, which is a whole boiling kettle of frogs. Photography is an uneasy art form, when a chance moment and juxtaposition of elements can create associations and meaning for the viewer—and though the photographer chooses those elements, the fact is the reactions we make may be perhaps ones totally unintended by the chap who happened to take the picture.
Still, the implications of all that would fill a whole book, which someone else can write. From where I am right now—which is actually in front of a log fire in a 400 year old farmhouse in the middle of a wintry Welsh forest—these static, slightly uncomfortable images of separation summon up a memory of a whole 80s sensibility.
Let me explain.
Some of us, who were council estate kids in the 70s and early 80s, came from fiercely socialist backgrounds and still took our Working Class Hero status pretty seriously: we bitterly loathed—and on occasion threw tomatoes at—the PM (God rest her soul, assuming she had one), supported the Miners’ Strike and probably knew every local lock-in on every small corner pub in a 10 mile radius. But even while we were doing it, I think we knew that we were fighting for a lost world that we no longer fitted into anyway. I can’t blame Margaret Thatcher for the demise of the British Working Class, dammit: there were other subtle things going on that had moved the goalposts too. Even by the time we were old enough to fit into adult sized Solidarity T-shirts (or Japan ones, and I still have mine), we had already been educated out of the working class and into a sort of limbo, a halfway house where we simply didn’t fit in anywhere anymore. And we knew it. Our cultural expectations were totally different to those of our fathers and mothers.
Music was part of that education. In music we found all those tensions: Billy Bragg, Costello, The Smiths, British punk, all reinforced our solidarity with our roots. Yet we also had Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Japan; folk who like us who had had relatively ordinary beginnings but were a bit older than us, and had already escaped. At the age when our dads had been learning how to be plumbers and plasterers and our moms had been working in little shops, we had rather more dashing mentors. We were smoking Gitanes, wearing white shoes and too much makeup, quite regardless of gender which was suddenly not such a clear thing any more, we were studying drama, French, photography—and we had also had discovered Andy Warhol, Mishima, and Jean Cocteau and were probably spending as much time hanging round art galleries and writing terrible poetry as we were in smoky lock-ins down the Swan. I am sure we looked like confident and cocky little gits, but the fact is we were propelled into worlds we had never been trained for and however much we managed to pretend that accidentally gatecrashing an exhibition opening (they let us in, offered us wine and peculiar nibbles on trays) or suchlike was totally normal, the fact is we had no idea what to say, do, or really think about this strange new adult and unfamiliar world. We improvised, we somehow got away with it, but in truth, we were deeply uncomfortable, ashamed even.
So, this is what these images of Steve’s recall to me: being in this astonishing new world, but being fundamentally isolated from it: in it, but not really of it, experiencing everything from the other side of a window. (1018) Sylvian in Paris (II), of course, (which is incidentally my second favourite image) pretty much sums it up: a small, elegant little figure, half Cocteau, half Le Petit Prince, all poise and play, trips along before a grand, imposing period house he looks like he ought to live in—but as ever, there is a solid barrier between him and it. Does he care? He doesn’t look as if he does, as he heads out of the frame, walking, like us, into the future.
You can purchase these limited edition, signed prints from Steve’s imageshop here: http://www.stevejansen.com/imageshop/
All photography by Steve Jansen