Cats & Lions

Top of my list of to-do things when traveling to Japan always is a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Occupying four large floors in a modern building in Ebisu, it is the largest – and to my mind best – museum dedicated to photography that I know of. (It certainly beats anything in London hands down.)

Three of those four floors are dedicated to different exhibitions, and I have rarely come away disappointed. They tend to be so varied that there’s always at least one that manages to inspire or surprise. On my recent visit in September, I found all three exhibitions excellent – all in their own way. The first I saw was Tomoko Yoneda’s We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness – quite “arty,” with one series consisting of photos that at first sight seem rather nondescript, until you read what they depict: places of significant historical events such as the “Manchurian Incident” or the path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landing on Saipan during World War II. Suddenly, they take on a very different meaning.

The second exhibition – “The Aesthetics of Photography – consisted of photos in the permanent collection of the museum focusing on how photographers used angle, focus, light, and work in the darkroom to create aesthetically appealing photographs. Including works by Man Ray, Salgado, and leading Japanese photographers, the exhibition was inspiring in highlighting the many different ways in which photographers have used these very basic techniques to produce such a large variety of (sometimes immediately recognizable) idiosyncratic styles.

But the highlight that day for me without doubt was “Cats & Lions (ネコライオン) by the Japanese wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago. After the rather serious first two exhibitions, his photos first and foremost simply put a smile on my face. They were perfect juxtapositions of cats in Japan and lions in Africa, full of humor, showing the parallels between ordinary domestic cats and their cousins in the wild.

But the more I looked at them, the more I realized just how extraordinary the photos were. Even individually, the photos of the lions were absolutely stunning, beautifully taken, and showing behaviors that it must have taken ages to capture.

Side by side with domestic cats, the images, showing the parallels, were simply eye-opening, illustrating how much the two had in common. An exhibition that at first simply seemed “cute” suddenly revealed the skills of a true master of wildlife photography, showing the viewer a completely new aspect of an animal that seemed oh-so familiar. Amazing!

For a few more of his images, see: