The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the ﬂâneur ﬁnds the world ‘picturesque.’—Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977
For ﬁve years, James Luckett lived in Tokyo: trying alternately to adjust to the city, to adjust his own expectations of himself, and, ultimately, to create for himself something of the experience of living so outside and somewhat alienated from that self. In the beginning, he thought he’d become a chef, and taught himself how to create elaborate Japanese meals. Then he came to the realization that he’d hit a wall unless he made a major investment in mastering the language, and that at his core, while being a more than competent cook, that he was no prodigy. So in his last year in Tokyo, he returned to what he knew, teaching himself something again this time, but something he had already known but discarded: the act of seeing photographically.
Everyday then, for an hour or a few hours a day, he’d take long walks with his camera and his dog throughout Tokyo’s wards, or, ku, which is just another way to say that he wandered through the vast interconnected maze of backyards, alleys and sidewalks that make up the city’s neighborhoods. From his artist’s statement:
Houses and apartments there are sited tightly together; narrow streets and even narrower paths wind in around themselves in a maze of walls, fences, gates and plants that carefully delimit private space from public. In, around and through the margins of this place I walked hours every day. Suginami is an exploration of the ways this landscape layers into the edges of a frame, the transformation of light inside the dark box of the camera, and the space of discovery between the viewﬁnder and the eye.
I think of two things about these photos when I look at and consider the images that make up Suginami: the ﬁrst is of Luckett as the quintessential ﬂâneur, someone who, in Charles Baudelaire’s words, is, “a gentleman stroller of city streets,” someone who, though a detached observer, plays a key role in understanding and portraying the city, a kind of “botanist of the sidewalk.” The second is rather related to the ﬁrst, but maybe a bit more spiritually leaning: still the sidewalk walker or stroller, but more in line with one that participates in walking meditations (which in Buddhist literature, one is instructed to, “Notice the beauty of your surroundings, both externally and internally. Smile with every cell in your body“), which is what I believe these walks eventually became.
The images on view in Suginami are at odds with my imagined vision of a bustling, crowded and intense city. It’s as if on these walks the city has become a ghost, a place of emptying-out. The light seems bright, midday in character, and the neighborhood homes and apartments are silent, except for the occasional cat. The intimate yet detached view speaks of someone that is familiar with where they are and what they are looking at, but true to both concepts of ﬂâneur and walking meditations, they are somewhat lonely as well—liminal and solitary. I bet when Luckett happened upon that feline shown above, both were equally startled. Deluze and Guattari describe the act of the ﬂâneur’s walks (and specifically in reference to the walks that Virigina Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway took) as a “haecceity,” deﬁned simply as a “thisness”, the essence or particularity of a thing itself. They finish off with an observation I ﬁnd entirely appropriate to Suginami, saying, “…A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines. It is a rhizome.”
The images in Luckett’s Suginami portfolio are part of a larger and carefully edited sequence that James created for Suginami to exist in book form. You can view the entire series here. When taken as a whole, there’s a sense of not only a quiet walking through, but a working through, going on as well. I’m uncertain whether he knew it or not at the time, but this would be the last year of James’ life in Tokyo. So lastly, the photographs serve in a personal function: they are a farewell to the dissimilar familiar that had made up that epoch of Luckett’s experiences there, and they are simultaneously a prodigal return to self, as these images mark his return and commitment to the practice of photography, which has since been ongoing.
Luckett in recent years settled his studio in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where, in his words: …”he fashions, with a wide range of photographic means, manners, methods and mistakes, images of the abject, troubled, melancholy and grotesque.” Currently James is teaching photography at several institutions throughout Southwestern Ohio: Antioch College, University of Dayton and Wright State University. Recently he was a Visiting Assistant Professor and Head of Photography at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. More images and an accumulation of Luckett’s writings and interests can be found on his website. The book Suginami can be viewed and purchased here, through Blurb’s bookstore. James also can be found stretching the limits of form on twitter and on instagram.