New York

Shizuka Yokomizo

Cohan Leslie and Browne

“Dear Stranger”: On its own, the phrase that titles Shizuka Yokomizo’s 1998–2000 series of photographic portraits is heavy with paradox. How can someone be at once dear—precious, beloved—and yet a stranger? The sociologically minded viewer could find reams of data about the subjects in the details of their dwellings, furniture, and dress, but as familiar as the figures can seem, they remain distant, unreachable. Who are these people peering out from the kitchens, living rooms, and home offices that at once shelter and expose them? And why were they chosen?

As it turns out, what they share is nothing more than the fact that they occupy ground-floor apartments (in Berlin, New York, Tokyo, or London, where the Japanese-born photographer now lives) and acceded to the anonymous request they received in the mail: “Dear Stranger, I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know. . . . I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening.” The letter specified a certain ten-minute period during which the artist would approach, take the picture, and slip back into the darkness, her identity to be revealed only when her subjects received a print and contact information (so that they could let her know if they objected to their portrait being exhibited).

Maybe this background is irrelevant to the images. Wouldn’t they be just as haunting if the subjects were Yokomizo’s best friends? Or would they? Had the photographer and her subjects been acquainted, the particularly naked gaze in these pictures would have been far more elusive. There is an almost unreasonable intensity to this anonymous exchange. “It has to be only you,” the photographer instructed her would-be subjects, “one person in the room alone.” “It has to be only you” is a phrase one would expect to hear come from the mouth of a (possibly unrequited) lover—or maybe from a blackmailer or kidnapper describing delivery of the ransom. The photographer’s demand seems at once seductive and overwrought; no wonder these people give in and yet maintain their reserve.

One writer summarized Edward Hopper’s formula for depicting urban loneliness as follows: “City-dwellers at night, alone in an overlit room, seen from the outside, through the frame of a window—even if the window framing the object is not there . . . the viewer is compelled to imagine an invisible immaterial frame separating him or her.” The same words describe “Dear Stranger.” The difference is that, unlike Hopper’s figures, the people in Yokomizo’s photographs have not been glimpsed unawares, are not wrapped in their own reverie. Their isolation is not observed but offered, and then mirrored by that of the artist. These men and women face the camera directly, intently, with expressions that might be seen as suspicious, proud, amused, desolate, resigned, cheerful, or simply blank, yet that seem fundamentally unknowable—as Yokomizo must have known they would. What is going on in these pictures is an encounter, certainly, but of a peculiarly fragile and abstract sort: a self-disclosure void of intimacy.

Barry Schwabsky